From pit heap to country park - how a Wearside attraction took shape

Penshaw Monument provides the backdrop for this view of the Herrington Country Park development in August, 2000.
Penshaw Monument provides the backdrop for this view of the Herrington Country Park development in August, 2000.
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These days, you can enjoy everything from Nordic walking to sailing your model boats at Herrington Country Park.

And yet – a mere three decades ago – the very same site had a completely different use. It was the home of Herrington Colliery where more than 1,700 men once worked and where five seams were mined.

The Herrington Country Park development pictured in August 2000.

The Herrington Country Park development pictured in August 2000.

All that changed when the colliery closed in 1985, leaving behind a pit heap which was said to be the biggest in the region.

But then came the transformation and soon Herrington had a new park on a massive 200-hectare site with its concentration on leisure.

It was back in 2000 – when the new-look country park was first taking shape – that the Echo took a close-up look at the exciting changes.

At that time, lots of hard work was under way.

The Echo report at the time said: “Anyone travelling past Penshaw Monument during the last few years will have noticed the work being carried out on the opposite side of the road.

“Only four years ago there was a hole 70 metres deep where coal was being extracted but now a new shape is forming on the site, that of Herrington Country Park.”

Its vision? A place where families and schoolchildren could enjoy the beauty of the countryside.

Where art such as stone sculptures would be admired. Where a boating lake would be a popular attraction. And where the new-look environment would be a world away from what had gone before.

Workmen on the site made three limestone hills to mimic the surrounding Hastings Hill, Penshaw Hill and Herrington Hill.

A series of ponds were created, one of which would be used for model boats. Reed beds were added to filter the water.

And a wildlife corridor ran through the centre of the park, using a section of Herrington Burn. It flowed into a fishing lake which was designed with local angling clubs. The plan was that it would be stocked at first and then become self-sufficient.

The Echo report in 2000 said: “Work has yet to start on the amphitheatre below the pseudo-Greek monument on Penshaw Hill.

“The stone terrace should provide some spectacular views of the surrounding countryside but by far the best view comes from the site’s own little ‘Stonehenge’.

“A small hill has been built and stone plinths set out in a circle on top.

“The result, called Site Lines, is fabulous but if you look harder there is an additional surprise. If you align yourself with each stone, you will see Durham Cathedral, Newbottle spire, West Rainton spire, and Penshaw Monument.”

Another part of the park was set aside for an events area – roughly the size of half a dozen football pitches – with its own water supply.

Officials at the time hoped the venue would eventually become the home of the Durham County Show.

And for art lovers, there was lots to look forward to. Forty seven sites had been identified for artwork and 15 of those had already been made by the year 2000.

“It is possible the park will eventually have 120 pieces of art” said the Echo in 2000.

There was talk of a possible puzzle trail for schoolchildren to follow, and chances for youngsters to learn about the history of the area.

The site had already thrown up some fascinating finds of its own during the excavation stage.

Workmen found rocks from Cumberland and Aberdeen which had been shifted during the Ice Age.

And with the official unveiling of the park just months away, those who had worked on it told of their amazement of just how impressive it all looked.

Since then, Herrington Country Park has hosted everything from the Sunderland Festival to Race for Life.

The National Cross Country Championships has been there. So has the Radio 1 Big Weekend, The BIG Bike Ride and the 2012 Olympic Torch Celebration.

They all pulled in the crowds.

Watch out for more news from 2000 in this Saturday’s Echo Retro section.