No fun on this beach!

A scene from Get Carter
A scene from Get Carter

The other week I was talking about “bucket lists” – the things you want to tick off while you are still around.

There should also be a “no way” list – things which you have done but wouldn’t really want to do again.

In the top ten of that list for me would be collecting sea coal, which has been very much in the news in the last week or so.

It must be one of the most backbreaking jobs in the world and I can vividly remember helping my dad to do it when I was quite young.

The coal washed up onto our beaches by the sea has been a free source of fuel for people in the North-East for centuries and, despite the hard work, it made good sense to collect a free gift from the forces of nature.

National TV crews over the years always delighted in using pictures of Hartlepool seacoalers to show how primitive and poor we were.

Their presentation never did make much sense – you would be a lot more primitive if you paid for something which was literally there waiting for you.

In more modern times, collecting it and taking it away with motorised transport is hard enough, but you had to stand back in awe as you watched earlier generations pushing their heavy sacks along on a push bike.

They really were heavy too. Wet seacoal was horrifically weighty and you’d sometimes see someone with a sack wedged in the bike frame and another over the cross bar.

It was hard enough on Hartlepool beaches, but the real punishment was for seacoal gatherers at Blackhall Rocks who, incredibly, would push their overloaded bikes up the steep hill known as Deadman’s Bank – a pretty good description of how you’d feel when you made it to the top.

Once you got your wet and heavy sacks home, there was certainly a feeling of satisfaction as you tipped your harvest into the coalhouse.

There were two main types of seacoal as I remember – the fine stuff which had grains like rice, and the bigger chunks known locally as “roundy”.

The only snag with roundy was that stones could be mixed among the coal – and they didn’t burn.

Instead, they were roasted and then flew across the room like a pistol shot, which is why a good quality fireguard was always in place when burning seacoal.

Now that the Durham coal mines are long gone, an argument has been more or less settled.

It was always presumed that most of the coal was washed up as a result of the mountains of waste that were tipped on the Durham coastline near the mines.

You might remember the classic film Get Carter where Michael Caine disposes of one of the villains via the huge buckets which used to tip the waste into the sea from a non-stop conveyor belt.

It seems incredible now that such vandalism of our coast took place – and even more remarkable when you walk those beaches of East Durham now and see the results of a mammoth clean-up.

Some people believe that seacoal is actually washed from an open seam off our coast, and the continuing supplies would suggest that there may be truth in that theory.

Wherever it comes from, it can stay where it is as far as I’m concerned.