More than two decades after the last pit closed in the Durham Coalfield the Durham Miners Gala or the ‘Big Meeting’ as the event is also known remains as popular as ever. The Gala forms part of the culture and heritage of the area and represents the communal values of the North East of England. The 131st gala held today saw the traditional colliery bands marching through the city ahead of their banners before passing the County Hotel and heading down to the Racecourse. In the early years of the meet those attending left their villages early in the morning and then made their way on foot to Durham from all directions but these days people either drive or arrive on buses.
Beginning in 1871 the Gala is now the biggest trade union event in Europe and many thousands of people still meet up in the market place of the city to follow their banner and pass the County Hotel on Old Elvet as they walk past union leaders, invited guests and local dignitaries who greet the march from the hotel balcony.
Once all the bands have passed through speeches are held on the racecourse. Amongst those speaking this year or joining to march with the procession (and shown in some of the pictures below) were Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall. Tosh McDonald, the president of ASLEF – The Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen – and Owen Jones, a columnist with the Guardian newspaper and political activist and many more.
The contemporary artist Grayson Perry also attended. Visiting the gala as part of a documentary he is making and the actor Alun Armstrong, the son of a miner and originally from Anfield Plain in County Durham stood on the County Hotel balcony.
More importantly though than all of these guests and trade union speakers and their rhetoric are the men, women and children who attend the miners gala each year without fail and who make the event the occasion that it is. These people and the pride in the mining heritage of the region is where the real northern powerhouse is to be found: The group of ladies who arrive very, very early each year to secure the same place on the steps near the market place who start the day with strawberries and pink champagne.
To Nora Newby, a wonderful 81 year old from Chilton who has attended 60 out of the last 61 gala’s who arrives at around 6am on the morning of gala day to stand in the same spot each year. The missed year was so that she could attend her granddaughters wedding! An unfortunate tongue-in-cheek fact that she reminds (scolds) her granddaughter of often.
Former miner Billy Raine, 89, from Easington is a regular who entertains the crowds outside the County Hotel wearing his orange coveralls and miners hat as he dances and salutes as the bands perform and of course the thousands more who attend but especially the colliery bands and the former miners and miners wives who make this occasion what it is and who help create an event that continues to bring well over 100,000 people back year after year. Long may it continue.
CLICK to listen and recorded today: Gresford – The Miners Hymn
To keep the Durham Big Meet going any contributions and support are welcome through the Friends of Durham Miners Gala website.
Some of the pictures that I shot from the day are below. Enjoy Marra.
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Images copyright Ian Forsyth / Getty Images
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