There’s one strange thing you should know about the 150th celebration of the Ashington Miners’ Picnic in Northumberland.
Despite its title, there aren’t actually any miners at the event any more. Not any working ones, at least. Just a smattering of retired ex-miners and their families.
The picnic started 150 years ago when coal was king in South East Northumberland. In its heyday the picnic was a major event in the annual calendar with guests including national political and union leaders.
Today it has changed from being a day out for miners’ families and a political rally into a celebration of Northumbrian culture.
The reason is obvious – the dramatic rundown of coal mining in the North East of England led to the closure of mines in the region.
The modern miners’ picnic
This year’s Miners’ Picnic at Woodhorn Museum encompassed everything from a colliery brass band, morris dancers and Northumbrian folk music to a marquee with Geordie actors reading from The Pitmen Painters play.
On the big outdoor stage it was slightly surreal to watch the Ashington Colliery Band when there’s no colliery any more.
Today they’re part of a new generation of musicians celebrating an old tradition with a few old members left to recall the days when coal was king in this community.
But it’s great to hear them in fine form, blasting out old favourites and new tunes. I think it’s important to preserve this tradition and keep it fresh.
Later in the day modern folkies The Unthanks and a local community choir played folk songs old and new as part of a project called The Big Sing.
Singer songwriter Glenn Tilbrook became an honorary northerner for the day performing songs from his Squeeze back catalogue as well as new solo material.
When coal was king
As I watched the entertainment, I couldn’t help thinking about the ghosts of the past and reflect on what Ashington was like when coal was king.
South East Northumberland was once one of Britain’s biggest and richest coalfields.
Back in 1913, the Great North Coalfield employed almost ¼ million men, producing over 56 million tons of coal every year from about 400 pits.
Ashington developed from a small hamlet in the 1840s to a rapidly expanding colliery town with five pits employing around 5,500 men in the 1920s.
The boom in coal lead to the formation of the Ashington Coal Company who built the first miners’ houses from 1857 onwards. By the 1930s there were over 3,000 back-to-back miners’ terraces in Ashington.
Workers came from as far afield as Ireland and Cornwall to work down the pits in the South East Northumberland coalfield.
Ashington became a centre for the coal mining industry – it was considered to be “the world’s largest mining village”.
Miners at Woodhorn Colliery would descend from the pit head in a cage which plunged 888 feet into the deep mine every shift.
I don’t envy this scary daily journey to work!
At the pit face there’s no doubt that conditions were hard, dangerous and physically demanding.
Hundreds of men injured or killed by stone falls or industrial accidents.
The youngest victim I spotted in the records was just 13-years-old whilst the oldest was 77-years-old.
Coal mining was dehumanising work in many ways but some would say that at least it was a job. And there was a very strong sense of community.
But the mining industry experienced a rapid decline and job losses in the 1970s and 1980s. Ellington Pit was the last deep mine in Northumberland but its closure was announced in early 2005.
Today the coal mining industry is virtually extinct in the North East of England with no deep pits left in production.
Many inhabitants spoke a distinctive dialect called ‘Pitmatic’ which was used by miners to communicate with each other when they were down the pit.
The language was part of the camaraderie of underground working in hot, noisy and cramped conditions. Many Pitmatic words were mining terms such as the term ‘corf-batters’, the boys who scraped the coal out of filthy baskets.
‘Hoggers’ were shorts worn by miners underground. Other Pitmatic words also crept into everyday life including clag (to stick), clarts (mud), hacky (dirty) and progley (prickly).
Many of the words are still used today in Northumberland, some of the few remnants of the mining past. The mines have long gone and most pits have been reclaimed as country parks, industrial estates or wildlife reserves.
The big day out
A trip to today’s Miners’ picnic is a throwback to an earlier age. This is perhaps why I felt privileged to enjoy this week’s event because it continues in spite of the loss of the mining industry from Northumberland.
Traditionally the Miners’ Picnic was held on Bedlington High Street, up the road from Ashington. The highlight was a huge procession of banners and brass bands.
There were also food stalls, fairground rides and beauty queens from each local colliery in competition.
There’s a wonderful early Ken Russell film of the Bedlington Miners’ Picnic from 1960 which captures the event beautifully. I’m still trying to locate a copy of this fabulous black and white film.
This colour amateur archive film provides a glimpse of the event back in 1964.
Today many of the mining banners are in the museum at Woodhorn.
Their colourful proclamations of unity and brotherhood echo down the corridors of the museum.
Today the Picnic is a more commemorative event with a Miners’ Memorial Service and performances by the last remaining brass bands and male voice choirs.
On the big stage this year’s Master of Ceremonies asked the crowd who’d been to the earliest miners’ picnic.
A woman raised her hand at the back of the park. She had been at the Ashington Miners’ Picnic 65 years ago in 1949.
What dramatic changes she must have witnessed in the fortunes of the mining industry over the course of her life time.
But it’s good to see so many young people at the event too, a sign that the area’s mining heritage will never be completely forgotten.
Today’s event seems to have come full circle with a big focus on the community’s roots, past and present. It still feels like this community is alive and kicking.
Today the pit heads, spoil heaps and mining buildings have long gone. In their place are monuments, memorials and museums to the North East’s industrial heritage.
Woodhorn Museum provides excellent displays of the mining industry, the people who worked in it and the life of a mining community.
There are loads of old mining buildings to look at from the mine shaft and winding mill to the old pit baths, now converted into an exhibition space.
The museum is excellent and raises a few laughs as well as looking at the harsh lives of the miners. Here’s one display which made me laugh – a bathing cubicle for the miners to clean themselves after their grimy shift down at the coal face.
Meet the Pitman Painters
One of the highlights of a trip to Woodhorn Mining Museum is the gallery featuring works by the Ashington Group of painters.
Dubbed the “Pitmen Painters”, this amateur art group was founded in 1934 by local Ashington miners.
After exhausting shifts at the Woodhorn or Ellington pits, the group started art appreciation classes at Ashington YMCA in their spare time.
The results of their labours provides a striking record of life in a mining town.
The Ashington Painters captured life above and below the pit – the pit ponies, the miners working at the coal face and the men coming up exhausted after their shifts.
For the painters like Harry Wilson there was a great sense of self-expression:
“When I paint as we do in our group, I have a feeling of freedom; here, I find an outlet for other things than earning my living; there is a feeling of being my own boss for a change, and with it comes a sense of freedom.”
I love looking at the pitmen’s paintings in Woodhorn’s Gallery. A favourite is George Blessed’s Whippets which captures two miners with their beloved dogs.
Many of the paintings have a naive style but later works are more sophisticated and challenging. It’s a thrill to walk through this gallery of working class art.
One of my favourite moments at this year’s picnic was at the Pit Yard Marquee when actor Chris Connel recreated scenes from Lee Hall’s acclaimed Pitmen Painters play and read sections of this powerful true-life drama with actress Phillippa Wilson.
Both starred in the Broadway production of the play and Chris explained how they’d made the sometimes impenetrable Geordie language work for an American audience. A tricky feat!
I stayed on for the Northumbrian Dialect Society talk. I’d expected a dull lecture but it was a fascinating performance of writings and poems read by two charismatic locals.
I hadn’t expected to be so well-entertained. I was fascinated by Raymond Reed’s reading of poems, largely in the Pitmatic style.
It brought home to me how important it is to remember your roots. A bit like the Ashington Miners’ Picnic.
The past is a foreign country but it’s still good to visit it from time to time.
Tammy’s travel tips
Woodhorn Museum is 15 miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne near Ashington in South East Northumberland. Admission is free (car parking charge is extra).
It is located at Queen Elizabeth II Country Park, Ashington, Northumberland. The museum is open 10-5 Wednesday – Sunday (plus Monday & Tuesday in school holidays and Bank Holiday Mondays).
A visit to the museum can be combined with a trip to Queen Elizabeth Country Park and a trip on the Woodhorn narrow gauge railway (entrance fee).
The small train travels from Woodhorn through the QEII Country Park to the north end of the lake. The train operates on Saturdays and Sundays 10am – 2.30pm plus Bank Holidays.
The Ashington Miners’ Picnic takes place annually in mid June at Woodhorn Museum. During the picnic a free shuttle bus service is provided from Ashington Bus Station to Woodhorn Museum.
Look out for the forthcoming Ashington Colliery Heritage Trail, due to open later in 2014, which will celebrate mining history including the site of an underground access tunnel to the old mine workings.