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PETER FROST has some advice for those planning a first time visit to the Big Durham Meeting this weekend

GALA day often starts very early in the old colliery villages all around Durham.

If a village still has a band it will march though their own village behind the precious banner that has been taken down from its place of honour in the village miners’ welfare or club for today’s gala.

Visitors from further afield need to plan to arrive early. Parking is possible in the town but as the centre of Durham is closed to traffic from 7am a far better option is one of the three large park-and-ride car parks.

Many groups, including some more distant bands and miners’ lodges will arrive by coach.

As early as 8.30am, the march will be forming up in the city centre marketplace and filling the streets with bands and banners on its slow, noisy but colourful procession towards the city racecourse.

Other bands will start from the Miners’ Hall at Red Hill near the railway station and even more from the New Inn in the west of the city. You can expect over 85 bands and at least 100 banners on the march.

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The first focal point of the gala is the County Hotel at Old Elvet (above) where the various legs of the procession come together.

Here, union leaders, invited guests and local dignitaries greet the march from the hotel balcony and the bands pause to play their own special piece they have been rehearsing for months.

Tony Benn was usually on the hotel balcony greeting the marchers..

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From the hotel the march is soon off again the short distance to the racecourse where there is a platform for the speakers.

The procession can take three or four hours to pass the County Hotel due to the huge numbers attending and the frequent pauses and band performances at the hotel.

The atmosphere is wonderful. It is a rare celebration of working-class solidarity in general and the rich traditions of the north-east miners and their unions in particular.

All along the route of the march you will find Morning Star distributors, official gala programme sellers and just about every other left-wing journal published in Britain today.

Volunteers to distribute the Morning Star are always welcome. Pick up some copies from the Royal County Hotel or drop in and say hello at the Morning Star stall on the riverside at the racecourse.

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As the banners arrive all round the racecourse, they are carefully fixed to the fences creating a colourful tapestry, part art gallery and part museum of working-class history.

Look out for my favourite banner. It comes from the village of Chopwell, once known as “Little Moscow.”

It’s a relatively new banner painted only a few years ago to replace a well-worn and battle-scarred older banner.

Red and glistening gold, this wonderful silk icon of working-class culture features Marx, Lenin and Keir Hardie.

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Once you have studied all the banners and picked you own favourites, then down by the river are rows of stalls selling everything from political books, badges, stickers, postcards and magazines to a vast selection of fast, and not so fast, food and all kinds of drinks.

Rest assured both body and brain are well catered for at the Big Meeting.

There are fairground rides for children and for adults who haven’t grown up yet as well as exhibition marquees.

Traditionally the best tea and cakes and place for political argument is in the Durham Labour Party tea tent.

This year I expect to hear the phrase “Jeremy Corbyn is my vote for the leader” echoing among the local stotty cakes (below) and the tea cups.

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By 1pm all the banners are in position and the platform party arrives for the chair to open the meeting. Speakers are often a surprise but usually worth listening to.

After the speeches, four or five selected bands and banners march to the cathedral for the miners’ service.

God-fearing socialists, as well as atheists who enjoy a rousing hymn played by a brass band, report the service is an inspiration.

You might have already noticed by now many of the banners have biblical but still progressive themes. Daniel in the lion’s den was always popular.

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Back on the racecourse, the banners are raised again as the various miners’ lodges decide it is time to head homewards.

The afternoon’s liquid refreshment is sometimes said to make the bands’ performance more exuberant, although sometimes slightly less professional.

Durham’s pubs will echo with political argument and old miners’ tales till late into the night.

You might like to make a weekend of your visit to Durham, spending Saturday at the Big Meeting and Sunday at the Beamish Open Air Museum.

Beamish has close connections with the miners’ gala and its living displays add another dimension to the rich working-class history of north-east England.

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For more information visit http://www.beamish.org.uk

First published in the Morning Star 11 July 2015

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