The Pont Valley is my home. It is the place where I first discovered my love for the outdoors.
The rough, shallow Pont Valley in North West County Durham makes for a wild walk even on a benign spring day. The damp, tussocked grass may bend an ankle, but its texture lends biodiversity to a mosaic of habitats. Stout trees stoop to the westerly wind as miners’ backs once bent to work rich seams underground here.
But this was never a site for heavy industry. The mining here was basic, with coal tubs pushed by miner or pony. Seams too narrow or awkward to be dug by hand were left alone. Until now.
Opencast mining was first proposed for this site in the year of my birth, 1978. Every single planning application was refused at local level. During three intense public enquiries, triggered by appeal after appeal from mining companies, it has fallen to local people to stand up and protect this land; to convince planning inspectors that the value of this place, its habitats and wildlife outweigh the need for coal.
In 2014, we failed to do so. Local rulings were quashed, permission to mine was granted.
With the site’s developer, UK Coal, in financial difficulty, it was doubtful that the mine would go ahead. But when Banks Group bought the rights from the dying company, they pressed ahead to meet a deadline of 3 June 2018 to start work before the planning permission runs out. All other methods had failed. It was time to act.
The Pont Valley is my home. It is the place where I first discovered my love for the outdoors. As a child I would explore the ponds, woods and fields. I learned to spot the dip of a curlew’s beak and recognise the trill of the skylark.
I’d marvel at the pockmarked fields - imagining bomb craters where in fact old bell pits and collapses attest to a shallow coalfield with a deep history.
My love for this place led to a career in outdoor education, latterly fixing bikes and leading rides on the famous C2C cycle route which passes within metres of the site.
Protecting Pont Valley
Most recently, my love for this place led to me spending all of my free time at a roadside, during blizzards, in a tent.
In February, the Coal Action Network set up a skill share to equip campaigners to enter the final stage of the effort to protect Pont Valley.
Community buildings were opened, local people were engaged. We trudged through snow to walk on the site - literally finding common ground. We shared food and stories. We sang together.
But those who came brought more than skills. They brought integrity. They showed the importance of consensus. They gave their creativity, vibrancy and care. It was less that they had arrived in my home, but more my home came to me.
The stakes increased when we found, at the end of that hopeful week, that trees had been felled and hedgerows hacked in the path of the proposed access road. The decision was swift, simple, inspiring and strong. We would stay through the snow and protect our land. So stay we have.
Banks Group think they have got this under control. They got their permissions, bought from a bankrupt UK Coal.
They bought their lawyers, to scare us off with claims for costs. And they think they’ve bought off this community for 10p a ton. But we’re the people of the Pont Valley, residents all, not villagers and visitors. We have something priceless here. And we are not about to let it go.
It still seems strange that a group of global activists would choose our village as the next to protect. But there is good reason. Coal is a diminishing fraction of our energy mix, down to nine percent and due to hit zero in 2025.
Demand is at an all-time low. This mine could be the last we fight in the UK. The prize is no less than this: to end coal in this country now.
Patrick Carr is a resident of Dipton, County Durham, and of Pont Valley Protection Camp. He has actively campaigned against opencast coal mining in the area for ten years.