Stuart Forster outlines the heritage and what to expect when visiting the Durham Miners’ Gala, the annual event known as ‘the Big Meeting’ in Durham City, England.
A lot of people in north-east England hope for fine weather on the second Saturday of July. That’s the day of the Durham Miners’ Gala. Trade unions parade their banners past the County Hotel, politicians and union leaders speak at the Racecourse and many beers are sunk.
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If the sun shines, as many as 200,000 people can gather in Durham City to attend the event.
Nicknamed the Big Meeting, the first of the annual events was held back in 1871. It soon evolved into one of the United Kingdom’s biggest annual trade union and Labour movement meetings.
Durham miners’ gala
All of the region’s deep coal mines have been closed but the union banners from collieries are still paraded through the city to the Racecourse cricket ground, by the River Wear. Marching brass bands play along the route. It’s the colour and festival atmosphere, as much as the politics, that attract many attendees.
The County Hotel (Old Elvet; tel. 0191 386 6821) is one of the key stops along the way. Bands play for the dignitaries who gather the hotel’s balcony.
Union leaders and politicians address the gathered crowd during speeches from a podium on the Racecourse cricket ground. In 2016 Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, veteran Member of Parliament for Bolsover Dennis Skinner and Napoleon Gomez, leader of Mexico’s Los Mineros, counted among the speakers.
Information about various aspects of trade unionism and mining history is displayed within marquees erected on the cricket ground.
I first attended the Durham Miners’ Gala as a bairn of six or seven with my parents and grandparents. It was the fairground rides, by the riverside, that I remember most clearly. And being given one the square-headed nails that were used in the horseshoes then worn by pit ponies.
One of the first thing anybody growing up in County Durham and the surrounding area learns is that Gala is pronounced ‘gay-lah’ not ‘gar-lah’.
As an adult, I return to photograph the banners and speakers, and to create reportage of people enjoying the day. As a history graduate I’m well aware that the Durham Miners’ Gala as a part of my region’s heritage.
Coal mining in north-east England
The pit wheels and slag heaps of collieries were once a common sight in County Durham and neighbouring Northumberland, which collectively formed the Great Northern Coalfield. Nearly 250,000 men worked mining coal in the north-east of England in 1913, when roughly a quarter of Britain’s coal, around 56 million tons, was hewn from mines in the region.
Coal mines were then a major source of employment in the United Kingdom. In 1920 they accounted for 1,191,000 jobs.
When the coal mining industry was nationalised, in 1947, the Durham Coalfield had 234 deep mines. None remain. The last to close was Wearmouth Colliery, in 1994, whose pithead is now the site of Sunderland AFC’s Stadium of Light.
Many of the communities in which mines were located were close-knit. Some of the villages and small towns where coal mines provided the chief source of employment have never fully recovered from the closure of their pit. Parading their banners is, for some, a reminder of better times.
Attending the Durham Miners’ Gala
“I think it’s a celebration of working class life in the North East. The pits have gone but it hasn’t broken the spirit of people or the communities. It’s now become a great festival, a carnival. Some people come for the fun fair, some people come for the speeches, some people come for the bands, some people come for the banners, some people come for the laughs. It brings people together,” said Kevin Maguire, associate editor of the Daily Mirror, while talking to me after the 2016 Durham Miners’ Gala.
“There’s nothing else like this in Britain. There’s no other festival, gathering, gala — call it what you want — like what happens in Durham, so it has to continue. In fact, it’s thriving and, ironically, seems to be doing better since the pits went than when they were here. I think it’s because people want to focus, they want to come and be with other people to have a good time, as well as to have the politics,” he added.
A Member of Parliament’s viewpoint
“The Durham Miners’ Gala is, in my view, the most important Labour and trade union event of the year. It’s an event that people come together, from across the country, from various trade unions, in their thousands, to celebrate the struggles of time gone by, to learn from the struggles of the past year and to discuss the struggles of the year ahead. It’s a day to remember our heritage. It’s a day to fight for a better future. It’s a wonderful day, where you catch up with friends old and new. There’s a real positive community spirit here; a socialist spirit here; a working class spirit here; and I’m always proud to attend,” said Richard Burgon, the MP for Leeds East, who was one of the speakers at the 2016 Big Meeting.
“I’ve been coming to the Durham Miners’ Gala since I was a young lad and never imagined I’d be invited to speak…so it was a really emotional day and I was please to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with international guests, with people like Dennis Skinner, with trade union leaders, with our elected leader Jeremy Corbyn and, fundamentally, with all of the people out here today demonstrating that they want a better a society,” he added.
Participating in the Durham Miners’ Gala
“It means a hell of lot. It’s one day in the calendar year that we always look forward to. We see a load of old comrades, friends, marras as we call them. It means a great day for us. That’s the big thing for me, to see everybody. They’re all here, it’s great. I’ve been involved 10 years now, carrying the banner from New Herrington,” said Paul Young, who was a coal miner for 12 years.
“Today’s really about bands coming together, playing some good music and having a good time. I play B-flat bass and have played a lot of tunes today. I’ve been many times. I love it. It’s the best weekend of the year,” said Alex, a member of the Strata Brass, visiting the north-east from Barnsley in South Yorkshire.
And, for some, attending the Durham Miners’ Gala is simply a reason to get out and enjoy a few pints. The pubs of Durham City are, no doubt, preparing for a busy day.
Staying in Durham City
The Durham Miners’ Gala is usually the busiest day of the year in Durham City. If you want to stay in or around the city it makes sense to book a room well in advance.
The Townhouse is ideal if you like boutique hotels. The Hotel Indigo Durham occupies the Old Shire Hall, formerly used by Durham County Council.
Search for hotel rooms in Durham City via Booking.com (£):
Getting to Durham City
The throng of pedestrians means that car parking in Durham City is trickier than usual on the day of the miners’ gala. Normally the Walkergate Car Park and Prince Bishops Car Park are ideal for visiting the city centre. The park and ride car parks at Belmont, Howlands and Sniperly offer an alternative way of reaching the city centre on the day of the big meeting.
Durham is under three hours train ride from London and one hour 40 minutes from Edinburgh. Newcastle upon Tyne is 12 minutes by train from Durham City.
The map below shows Durham city centre:
For about the attractions and things to do in the city of Durham and surrounding county, see the This is Durham website. Thinking of visiting the city? Here’s a look at things to do during a weekend break in Durham City.
Visit North East England is a portal to tourism related websites across the region.
Stuart Forster is an award-winning travel writer who is based in the north-east of England. Stuart was named Travel Writer of the Year at the Netherlands Press Awards of 2020. He lives 15 minutes drive from Durham City.
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Photographs illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
A version of this post was originally published on 2 July 2016.