Ray Lonsdale County Durham Round

If you’re a fan of Ray Lonsdale’s sculptures this should be right up your street: it’s a 67-mile multi-terrain cycle ride visiting all of the artist’s current installations in County Durham, UK. Touring many of the colliery towns and villages in what was previously the ‘Durham Coalfield’, it includes his best known work ‘Tommy’ on the North Sea coast at Seaham Harbour. THERE IS A GPS ROUTE FILE AVAILABLE FOR THIS SECTION AS A FREE DOWNLOAD FROM THE SHOP.

Stats at a Glance

Distance 67 miles (108 km); Height Gain 3776 ft (1151 m); Profile Undulating with some challenging hills; Surface Road/Cycle Path; Bike Off-Road/Hybrid; Refreshments Opportunities are frequent

Description

If you’ve never heard of County Durham steel fabricator, artist and sculptor Ray Lonsdale, you might be familiar with Tommy, the sombre, oversized sculpture of an exhausted First World War soldier on the seafront at Seaham Harbour, County Durham UK. Since its installation in 2014, Ray’s work has gone on to appear throughout the North in locations as diverse as Gretna Green, Silloth, Filey and Swadlincote in Derbyshire.

Recently, when editing the second edition of my book ‘The Weardale Way – A Guided Tour along the River Wear through County Durham & Sunderland’ I stumbled across a more recent project titled ‘The Ball & The Bradford Boy’ at Witton Park in County Durham. It’s another emotive reference to the communities of North-East England, who gave so much – on the battlefield and in the coalfield – in the first half of the twentieth century and it sparked an urge to learn more.

It didn’t take long to realise how prolific Ray’s art is – particularly near me here in County Durham. I immediately decided to acquaint myself with as many pieces as possible, as quickly as I could. For me the ideal way to do it would be by bike and so I devised a multi-terrain cycle tour of the eleven sculptures in place at that time.

While his ‘patchwork’ fabrication technique is distinctive and the sculptures easily accessible they’re often inconspicuous – particularly the life-size figures – which turns the ride into something of a treasure-hunt. The organic, rust-like patina that develops on the surface of his sculptures is characteristic of the special Corten ‘weathering steel’ he uses and really helps his work blend with the environment. It’s an effect favoured by many artists and architects around the globe, notably by Antony Gormley for his ‘Angel of the North’.

Featured Artworks

The Coxswain (2016)

East Quay, Seaham Harbour Marina, Co. Durham SR7 7EE. On the harbour wall, opposite the Lifeboat Centre.

The Coxswain was commissioned by East Durham Heritage Group and Lifeboat Centre at a cost of £24,000. He was unveiled in November 2016 on the harbour wall overlooking the neat rows of small boats which typically use the marina. The sculpture, which has been referred to as ‘Tommy’s little brother’, is a tribute to the RNLI crews that operated out of Seaham Harbour between 1870 and 1979. It is a dynamic figure of a lifeboat coxswain – in 1950s-style life-jacket and oilskins – grasping an open wheel on the tilting deck of an imagined lifeboat.

Not Much To Ask (2018)

Aged Mineworkers’ War Memorial Homes, Tursdale, Co. Durham DH6 5PA. Easily visible from the road, uphill from the Old Mill restaurant.

Commissioned by Cornforth Parish Council, this statue was installed in 2018 to mark the centenary of the end of World War One. It replaced another statue – carved from Sicilian marble – that stood on the same stone plinth which bears a dedication to 41 local men who died in the First World War. Unveiled in 1922, the original statue disappeared in the 1970s after it was removed to have its missing head replaced (believed to have been knocked off by drunken workmen). Typically, Ray describes the 6 ft sculpture simply, as “…a man thinking about being back in County Durham”.

The Last Shift (2018)

Wheatley Hill Cemetery, Wheatley Hill, Co. Durham DH6 3RA. Straight through the gates and past the heritage centre.

This sculpture, which was blessed personally by the Bishop of Jarrow, was unveiled 3rd May 2018, exactly fifty years after the last shift at Wheatley Hill Colliery returned to the surface. Originally commissioned by a committee which began at Wheatley Hill Mothers Club, it cost just over £25,000.

The sculpture is based on a photograph of pitman Tom Davies, cigarette in hand and powder-box on his shoulder. The verse on the plinth titled ‘That’s all Marra’ reads “He looks to the place where his living was earned, lights a tab then turns away, faces a future where the edges are blurred, his tomorrow a different day”.

The first shaft at Wheatley Hill was sunk in 1869. At its peak in 1914, the pit employed over 2000 people which had reduced to 500 by the time it closed in 1968. During its years of production 123 men and boys between the ages of 13 and 73 lost their lives, the first within a year of opening, the last in 1966.

Bonny Pit Lad (2016)

Miners Meadow, Wheatley Hill, Co. Durham DH6 3QT. On the B1279 from Wheatley Hill to Shotton. Easily visible from the road at the entrance to a private residence, just before the sharp left-hand bend.

The Bonny Pit Lad was a private commission based on a sketch the owner did at art school. The sculpture – painted black by the owner – is of a bonnetted young lad waiting, lamp in hand, at the side of the road opposite the site of Wheatley Hill Colliery, just as it might have been at the time. There is an eponymous verse composed by Ray associated with this sculpture: “He searched the face of his pitman dad, and realised he too was once a bonnie pit lad. And there it was, his life laid out, childhood gone, a tad too old to play, a strong desire to run”. The adjacent plaque describes the sculpture as being “a tribute to the young men who worked in [Wheatley Hill] colliery” where “a pit village was born”. The sculpture weighs approximately 150 kg.

The Durham Angel (2004)

Horns Garden Centre, Shotton Colliery, Co. Durham DH6 2PX. Turn left off the main road (Salter’s Lane), then left into the garden centre car park – at the far end of the pond.

This is the earliest of Ray’s public sculptures, produced when his business in South Hetton was still known as Anvil Engineering. It is 12 ft high and has a 20 ft wingspan. Ray was commissioned by Horns Garden Centre to create a replica of the Angel of the North but he thought that he could do something different. He described it in a news article in 2004 as a “…three-dimensional work built up with a mosaic of metal sheeting forming the outer skin” that would have “…a serene posture, something that would exude calmness”.

Eleven-0-One/Tommy (2014)

Terrace Green, Seaham Harbour, Co. Durham SR7 7EU. On the main green of the town seafront – you can’t miss it.

The correct title of the sculpture ‘Eleven-0-One’ references the armistice – 11 am on 11th November 1918 – that marked the end of World War One. The figure of a soldier (popularly referred to as a ‘Tommy’) sits slumped on an ammunition box, supporting himself on his rifle, in a pose evoking the collective weariness of a nation one minute after four years of terrible bloodshed has ended.

Almost three metres tall and weighing 1.2 tonnes, ‘Tommy’ was an ambitiously speculative piece installed, temporarily, in May 2014. It quickly became a big hit with the public and a ‘Save Tommy’ campaign was started. Ray’s gamble paid off when £120,000 was raised in August of the same year so that it could be purchased and permanently installed in its current position.

Da Said “Men Don’t Cry” (2019)

Town Centre, Hetton-le-Hole, Co. Durham DH5 9PF by the traffic lights on the junction of Park View/Logan Terrace (A181).

Unveiled in April 2019, the sculpture cost approximately £51,000 funded in part by over 500 x £25 inscriptions in marble around the base. It was commissioned by Culture For Hetton, a consortium of Hetton residents and the local business community. The figures are those of a miner and his son on the day the son begins work at the mine. Both carry bait boxes and the son also has a miner’s lamp. It evokes a period around 1860 when boys as young as ten were being employed to work in mines like nearby Eppleton, Elemore, Hetton Lyons, Hazard and Moorsley collieries, sites which have now all been reclaimed. The verse on the plinth reads: “This is it bonnie lad, first shift down the pit. Go with your head held high, take care where you stand, take more where you sit. And don’t let the lads see you cry. Forget the classroom with it’s polished floors, some roads are not for us; there are many schools and this one’s yours”.

The Village Remains…The Last Tub (2016)

Robin Todd Community Centre, South Hetton, Co. Durham DH6 2TT. Visible from the road (A181), directly in front of the community centre’s mural.

This sculpture was commissioned by South Hetton Heritage Group for £26,000. The verse associated with it reads “Long gone the shaft, the tub, the face. Long gone the black coal stains. Wiped our hands, turned off the lamps, but the village still remains”. The mural on the wall behind it was created on panels by artist John Foker of Bearpark Artists Co-operative. It was installed in August 2016.

Relative Treats (2013)

Welfare Park, South Hetton Cricket Club, South Hetton, Co. Durham DH6 2TG. Inside the grounds of the cricket club.
East end, next to the pitch.

This was another speculative piece that speaks about the relationships between generations. It was originally at the Artsbank, Saltburn before being toured during 2015 when it was displayed in Staithes, North Yorkshire and at nearby Dalton Park. It appeared at the Doddington Hall Sculpture Exhibition in 2016 before being bought by South Hetton Parish Council. The verse associated with this sculpture reads “Rake through that bag dear, and pull out if you see, a sweet for you and a painkiller for me”.

The Ball & The Bradford Boy (2017)

Main Street, Witton Park, Co. Durham DL14 ODY. Easily visible from the road, towards the bottom of Main Street (on the right if you’re following the published route).

This sculpture is of a helmeted soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder, having a football pressed into his hands by a moustached civilian in a flat cap typical of the early part of the c20th. It was unveiled in March 2017 to commemorate the centenary of the Victoria Crosses awarded during the First World War. The Victoria Cross, or VC, is Britain’s highest award for gallantry, often granted posthumously and Witton Park can claim two recipients. The tiny village is the birthplace of four brothers – sons of a colliery manager – who came to be known as ‘The Fighting Bradfords’. All served in WWI and all were awarded military honours. Two of the brothers – Roland and George – received the VC: Roland’s came in 1917 for actions at the Battle of the Somme the previous year (he was killed at Cambrai in 1917); George was awarded his posthumously for outstanding gallantry during the Zeebrugge naval raid in 1918. A brigadier-general at 25, Roland remains the youngest ever general officer in the British Army. Only one of the four brothers, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Andrews Bradford DSO, survived the war.

Marra (2015)

Welfare Park, Horden, Co. Durham SR8 4DE. On the left, not far down the parade, just after the main entrance.

Unveiled 21st November 2015 by a group of Horden’s oldest living miners. It was a speculative piece that was eventually purchased by Horden Parish Council for £19,000. The name given to the 9 ft tall sculpture means ‘mate’, ‘friend’ or ‘buddy’, in the dialect of North East England. The jagged hole in his chest represents the ripped out heart of a community; it was the artist’s response to the erection of a statue to Margaret Thatcher whose program of pit closures undoubtedly pulled the economic and social rug from under the feet of communities like Horden.

Horden’s pit was one of the last in the region and closed in 1987, leaving 4000 workers without a job. The verse on the plinth, titled ‘I Ain’t Gonna Work On Maggie’s Farm No More’ reads “There were politics aplenty, there were rights and wrongs, speeches, marches and defiant songs. Where the heart of the pit village stood. The mine is long gone but the spirit stays. We just lace up our boots for different work days and the coal dust remains in our blood” .

The following also appears: “Dedicated to the coal miners of Horden. Toiled dark pit and seam, whose fortitude and indomitable spirit fueled the industry of Great Britain”.

About the Artist

Ray Lonsdale was born in South Hetton where he still works from his studio which, since 2007, has rejoiced in the intriguing title of ‘Two Red Rubber Things’. His sculptures – particularly those in County Durham – tend to depict the human form, referencing periods and social circumstances which reflect the historic character of North-East of England. Ray is a creative whose skills as a craftsman are obvious but what often goes unmentioned is his talent as a poet. Several of his sculptures have verses associated with them: the empathy they communicate makes for a much more reflective experience (spoiler alert: I’ve included all of them in the notes).

Route

Numbers in brackets refer to the Route Notes below.

Starting from a quiet spot over the River Wear at Sunderland Bridge, the journey to Witton Park is a relatively long but rewarding one on quiet roads and cycle paths (as a general observation, most of the cycle paths have a loose surface with some, mainly in the east, being rough on bikes with high-pressure tyres hence the recommendation for off-road/hybrid bikes).

Ideally, the route to the first sculpture would be shorter if Witton Park Bridge (1) was usable but the diversion is a pleasant, multi-surfaced alternative to get you to Sculpture 1 in Witton Park (2). After that there’s a busy urban section through Bishop Auckland (3) followed by a choice of route at South Church (4). Here you climb onto the East Durham Limestone Plateau which runs down the east coast, hooking around to the SW, to separate the two westernmost sculptures from the rest. It has to be climbed three times in all but the going on top is fairly easy.

The first descent off it brings you to Tursdale, south of Durham, which is the location for the Sculpture 2, then it’s steadily back onto the plateau through Coxhoe and Kelloe (pronounced Cox-uh and Kell-uh if you’re not from round those parts) to Wheatley Hill where you’ll find Sculptures 3 & 4. After that it’s a quick dash along the road to the garden centre at Shotton and Sculpture 5. Peterlee is next, a ‘new’ town built in 1948, named after the union official, politician and methodist preacher who is buried in Wheatley Hill cemetery not far from Sculpture 3.

A busy industrial estate and a major roundabout (5) have to be navigated before the long descent off the plateau, through Peterlee, to the coast, the sea and Sculpture 6 at Horden. It’s fairly flat after leaving Horden but this changes abruptly when you reach Easington Colliery – yet another ex-mining village – where it’s back onto the plateau. After a long pull up through the town the route turns north again, undulating steeply in places, past the lane to Hawthorn Dene (6) and on to Cold Hesledon where there are two options to take you directly to Seaham’s harbour area (7) and Sculptures 7 & 8.

Leaving the coast through the centre of Seaham, the route heads up onto the plateau for the final time, pleasantly through Dalton Dene and past the ruins of medieval Dalden Tower, to the village of Dalton-le-Dale with it’s c12th church of St. Andrew. Next is a steep pull out of the village onto the B1285, followed by a gradual climb over the A19 towards Dalton Retail Park (8) and left, up to the ‘road to nowhere’, the last significant effort of the ride.

Here you join the unsurfaced path of NCN 1, heading west this time. This takes you to the A182 through South Hetton. Nearby on the left is South Hetton Cricket Club (9) and Sculpture 9. Next it’s onto the A182, heading in the opposite direction, to visit the Robin Todd Centre and Sculpture 10 not too far away, before continuing into the middle of Hetton-le-Hole’s busy town centre, to bag Sculpture 11, the final prize.

A quiet railway path (10) takes you away from Hetton-le-Hole towards Durham. This is part of the NCN 70 Walney-to-Wear route that passes the open-cast mine at Pittington. When you get to the end of the path it’s back onto the road, through Sherburn then onto the fast-moving A688 link road (11). The route bypasses Bowburn using the quaintly named but very ordinary ‘Tail Upon End Lane’, then it’s briefly onto the busy A177 before turning left off it for a pleasant ride down a quiet, multi-surfaced country lane, through Croxdale Park, to the finish at Sunderland Bridge.

Route Notes
  1. Witton Park Bridge Diversion If the bridge at Witton Park was accessible this ride could be more compact by omitting Witton-le-Wear and Witton Castle Park. Although the bridge has been unusable since 2018, funding has been earmarked for its repair which means that a shorter, better integrated route should be available sometime in the future.
  2. Witton Park For better flow, the published route circumnavigates Witton Park. However, it can be shortened slightly by continuing along the road from Witton Castle Park (Sloshes Lane) then turning left downhill – direct to the sculpture on the left near the bottom – and returning the same way.
  3. Bishop Auckland (St Andrews Rd/A688) The A688 is a busy, fast-moving road that can be avoided by using a cycle-friendly flyover (on your left as you approach the junction).
  4. South Church (bottom of Bone Mill Bank/B6282) The published route leaves the B6282 to take a well-surfaced path at the end of a short terrace of houses. The path is an excellent all-weather shortcut which ends frustratingly at a stile just short of the road. Although there is an option to follow the rough trail around the edge of the field then turn right through a narrow wood, and right again on the road, it’s generally quicker and more convenient to lift your bike over the stile and cross to the road via another stile opposite. If you don’t want to be lifting bikes over stiles, or using the trail around the edge of the field, there’s a slightly longer road alternative through Coronation, Eldon Lane and Close House.
  5. Peterlee (A19 roundabout) This is a big, busy roundabout which can be crossed via a light-controlled cycle lane.
  6. Hawthorn Dene (B1432 Easington to Cold Hesledon) There is an alternative coastal route to Seaham that is suitable for off-road bicycles. It’s much more picturesque but rougher and slower.
  7. Cold Hesledon (NCN 1/Eurovelo 12) The NCN 1/Eurovelo 12 starts as a rough track from the B1432 at Cold Hesledon. It is often busy with casual pedestrians, dog walkers and cyclists, particularly as you get closer to Seaham where there are the usual array of barriers, broken glass and streets to be negotiated. The published route starts on the NCN 1 but quickly turns right to join a wide, well surfaced cycle path alongside the A182 for a long, fast, and often chilly descent to the harbour.
  8. Dalton Retail Park (B1285/A182 Link Road) The unnamed road off the roundabout at the top of this link road has long been known to me as ‘the road to nowhere’. Development is taking place steadily however, and it’s likely that it will get busier in years to come. The NCN 1/Eurovelo 12 runs close by, to the north (just before you reach the roundabout), running parallel with the road before linking to the published route. NCN 1 at this point is an unsurfaced cycle path that traverses what were former pit heaps. It can be sketchy in both dry and wet conditions but it’s well used.
  9. South Hetton Cricket Club The route is shown as a loop into and out of South Hetton Cricket Club but it’s quicker and easier to go back the way you came (editing the route was more trouble than it was worth).
  10. Hetton-le-Hole (NCN 70 Moorsley Road underpass) Watch out for broken glass!
  11. Sherburn (Mill Lane/A181/A688 roundabout) The busy and fast-moving A688 link road has a good cycle path between both roundabouts.

6 thoughts on “Ray Lonsdale County Durham Round”

  1. hi, great job putting the cycle route together. Can I trace it on a bus, using my bus pass? My cycling capacity these days is about 4miles to the shops per day, and that is in flat terrain. I’d love to see them all, in fact said as much in an email to Ray Lonsdale today, having encountered Fred Gilroy on the promenade in Scarborough on Wednesday. as well:Very touching.
    Made it into my tiny corner of a blog here: https://solitary4tomorrow.wordpress.com/2022/09/14/those-left-behind/

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment Barbara. I read your post which I found touching and well written. I’m afraid I’m no expert with regard to public transport but I’d be surprised if all of the sculptures with the exception of ‘Not Much To Ask’ at Tursdale (walking distance from Coxhoe) and ‘The Ball & The Bradford Boy’ in Witton Park (30 minutes to an hour’s walk from Bishop Auckland) aren’t on bus routes. The other two may be as well. Those in Seaham and South Hetton are quite close together. Let me know how you get on or if I can be of further help.

      All the best

      Scott

  2. Rosalind Parker

    This is a fabulous write up , so informative thank you. I have posted it on facebook, as I feel there should be attention given to Ray Lonsdale work, they really are a joy to find and as a tourist attraction are meaningful and thought provoking.

    Do you have any books on general history/knowledge/interest within the area? I am relatively new in DH6.

    Thanks again
    Rosalind

    1. Hi Rosalind, Lovely to hear that you appreciate Ray Lonsdale’s work too. For me, they really help pull together the fabric of an important part of the North East’s social history as well as being great works of art that don’t have to be overly interpreted (if you don’t wish to). Being a cyclist I continue to pass them all from time to time and they always invoke a strong sense of place. Regarding books, I publish guides to the Weardale Way and Teesdale Way, two long distance walking trails that pass through County Durham detailing some interesting places and artifacts which might offer a means of beginning your own explorations and bring a few threads/themes together. As always, feel free to ask any questions or offer suggestions. Very best regards. Scott

  3. Hi there. I’m not that familiar with this sculptor’s works but I was cycling in your region in 2012. On NCR1 at South Hetton I saw an iron sculpture which you do not mention on this website. (I have since been sent a photo of a second, almost identical one in the same area) Maybe not by Ray Lonsdale? It’s difficult to describe, being like two vertical posts ending in what look like glass insulators found on electricity pylons, and stretched between them what appears to be ten horizontal bands like scrolls with words on them, like a motto you see beneath a heraldic device. On the photo that was sent to me, the words seem to form a puzzle (“What am I?”) Can you tell me more about these two sculptures, please? What is their significance, do you know? I can send you a picture that I took, if I know your email address. Thanks. Clyde

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