ITS polluted beaches once provided the bleak backdrops for classic gangster film Get Carter and sci-fi blockbuster Alien 3.
The 12-mile stretch of coast from Sunderland to Hartlepool served as a carbonic dumping ground for East Durham collieries for more than a century.
Spoil from pits rendered the sands and cliffs an ecological disaster zone.
Despite being loved by filmmakers for its “eeriness”, its infamous “black beaches” were scarred by waste tipping on a grand scale, with more than 1.5million tonnes being dumped over the cliffs each year.
Now one of the UK’s most successful environmental regeneration projects has won a prestigious Council of Europe Landscape Award for restoring the site to its former glory.
The Durham Heritage Coast was deemed “excellent” by organisers, as it was named runner-up in the competition which featured 14 of the most improved landscapes across the continent.
The project made it through to the final of the challenge, which placed it in the top four of the shortlist, as a result of winning the UK Landscape Award almost a year ago.
Niall Benson, Durham Heritage Coast Officer, said: “We are thrilled that this fascinating stretch of coastline has been recognised internationally for its value and beauty.
“It’s a strong endorsement of all the hard work undertaken by the Durham Heritage Coast Partnership and the local communities along the coastal strip, and it’s an achievement for which everyone involved should feel justly proud.”
The £10million clean-up, finished in 2002, saw 1.3million tonnes of spoil removed from the blackened shoreline.
Among the areas most improved is the former site of Blackhall Colliery, where Michael Caine used overhead conveyor buckets, set up for dumping toxic spoil into the sea, to dispose of his rival in the 1971 film.
Blast Beach, at Dawdon, where thousands of workers produced a million tonnes of coal a year at the height of production, has also undergone a dramatic makeover.
It stood in as the penal colony and foundry in the third instalment of the Alien franchise, starring Sigourney Weaver, in the early 1990s.
“This is a very special landscape full of great interest, but on its most basic level it’s simply a pleasure to spend time here,” said Mr Benson. “To walk along any of our coastal footpaths and enjoy the dramatic views out over the sea is a privilege and hopefully through this competition even more visitors will now be aware of the beauty on their doorstep.”
All six pits along the coast were closed during the 1980s and 1990s.
The scale of dumping was so extreme that damage to the ecosystem, which includes a unique example of magnesium limestone outcropping and rare species such as the Durham Argus butterfly, extended four miles out to sea.
Now the once despoiled area has been replaced by 12 miles of footpaths and 29 miles of cycling tracks.
Jo Watkins, president of the Landscape Institute, said: “It is right that we recognise the importance of landscapes and their value to society.
“Just look at what has been achieved in Durham – an extraordinary transformation that is contributing on so many different levels.”
The overall winner was the Carbonia Project, in Italy, which also had damage caused by mining and industry.