Wembley Stadium; London – originally known as Empire Stadium, opened to the public on 28th April 1923 as part of the ‘British Empire Exhibition’; a grand undertaking aimed to strengthen Britain’s image on the world stage amid the realities of an increasingly unstable empire.
It was originally planned to be demolished after the Exhibition but ended up becoming the Home of British football.
Several hundred miles away on the very same day that the stadium welcomed its first visitors, a small housing development consisting of just four streets opened to the public.
It was situated on the edge of a pit village in County Durham and was called East Moor Estate.
East Moor Estate was my first home. And my home for sixteen years. Because of the date it was opened, nobody ever really called it East Moor Estate. They called it Wembley.
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Wembley was a paradise for a growing boy in the eighties/nineties – or as close to a paradise as one can get in the North East coalfields. It was built a mile or so south of the rest of the village, with fields – used for grazing – forming its northern border. Its southern border was an old pit train line with the actual train lines removed – known as ‘The Lines’, that led to fields used to grow crops. To the west was a small dene – known as ‘The Lodden’ which had a pond and a beck, which flowed through the fields to the north. A little beyond that was a wasteland where South Hetton pit once stood. To its east, past the playing field – were ‘The Heaps’ – the old slag heaps from when Murton had a working coal mine.
Having only four streets of around 150 houses, it was a fairly close-knit community. The kids knew all the other kids, and the kid’s parents knew the other kid’s parents and so on. Wembley was linked to the main village by a single road to the north – known locally as ‘Sally’s Bank’, due to the singular shop situated halfway up it, run by a lady called Sally.
For a lot of years, the surrounding fields and wastelands formed the borders of my world – crossed only on the daily car ride to school or weekend visits to see relatives or a shopping trip to Sunderland on the bus. The boundaries were also very real – until a certain age, I was only allowed to venture so far. But for little old me with his BMX and his dreams, it was more than enough.
My favourite place was The Heaps. Bleak, vast and imposing, they were like a different world. A brief explainer for the uninitiated – coal mining meant digging massive holes underground to get at the coal. All the stuff they dug out had to go somewhere, so it was usually piled on land near the pit. In Murton’s case, it was transported in ‘buckets’ via an aerial winch line a mile or so to the south of the pit. The aerial line was gone by the time I was old enough to have memories of it, but the ‘buckets’ were not literally the kind you stick a mop in – they were roughly the size of a skip I think. The pit was open for a few decades, and over the course of that time, The Heaps grew, changed and distorted.
The Heaps were about two square miles, maybe three. Every few years they seemed to change – excavators would turn up and shift earth here and there, changing the landscape – long after the pit has closed its doors and flooded its shafts. For the local kids, this was a blessing and a curse; it brought new possibilities of adventure, but erased others. One landmark seemed to persevere, certainly in my memory anyway; the valley.
The valley cut a scar diagonally across The Heaps, which upon reflection (but I didn’t realise back then) was to accommodate the beck which ran through it, via a short tunnel at either side. The slag from the pit must have been gradually piled up on either side of the beck and grew from there. The valley was wide in some parts, lined with trees and a path wide enough to drive an excavator up and narrow in others. Near the eastern side of The Heaps, the valley thinned out and rose a little, before dropping back into a smaller valley with taller sides. By some trick of ecology or nature, this smaller valley was lush; its sides were covered in long grasses and the valley floor was overran by ferns and bushes and trees. It was magical, in its way. We called it Giants Valley.
The rest of the heaps was a unique and varied landscape; grey, black, orange, yellow – all the layers of the earth spilt out and piled haphazardly. It was alien; brutal and strange and scary and inspiring. Wood and metal and rubber protruded here and there, along with ruined shells of brick and concrete structures. Tracks zigzagged across the heaps, hewn into the earth according to the needs of the generations getting from A to B; young and old. In a single day, you could be blown off your feet at the highest point by strong winds and pelted with rain, and a short walk down into giants valley left you basking in a warm hazy stillness.
My youth was spent there. Days that seemed to last for weeks on end; building dens, treehouses, beck jumping, traversing the heaps on my BMX. Halcyon days.
In some ways it was like growing up in a time and place on the edge; the end of the pits and everything they represented. And though we didn’t know it at the time, the start of the computer age – when everything and everyone began to move online. The last generation to climb trees, build bonfires and run from imaginary enemies.
It was a sort of limbo where we played amongst the crumbling monuments of what came before, and scratched curiously at the frosted window of the future – too preoccupied with the past to really understand the things just on the horizon.
I would definitely liken it to growing up on an island. It was solitary in its ways but still connected in others. Wembley wasn’t considered part of the village, and so neither were we. Unintentional outsiders. But all that dirt, all that concrete, all those ferns – they have fundamentally shaped me; made me who I am today – still obsessed with brutal landscapes, concrete ruins and exploring forgotten places. In some ways, I wish my kids could have grown up on the island of Wembley. But no doubt their own islands will shape them.