Tripping over diatoms …

This post takes me about 12 kilometres further north from the Durham coastal location that I wrote about in County Durham’s Tropical Seashore.   I am in Seaham, on the top of cliffs made of the same Permian limestone that I found at Blackhall.   Just beyond the Saxon church visible in some of the pictures is Seaham Hall Hotel, which has a very tenuous link with Lord Byron (he married the owner’s daughter; the marriage only lasted about a year before he ran off with his half-sister) and, more importantly, is now home to County Durham’s only Michelin-starred restaurant.

But nineteenth century literary scandal and gastronomy are not the reasons for my visit today.   I have come to see an art installation called “Jewels of the Sea”, by local artist Andrew McKeown, which consists of over thirty cast-iron sculptures of diatoms set in a park between a housing estate and the clifftops.   The work was commissioned as part of the Turning the Tide project, which ran through the late 1990s to restore the Durham coastline after the closure of the coastal coal mines.   The housing estate is built on the site of the former Vane Tempest mine and the sculptures represent new life emerging as the local environment recovered from the mining.


“Jewels of the Sea”: Andrew McKeown’s sculptures at East Shore Village, Seaham.   Left: Lyrella (foreground) and Helisira (background); right: Diploneis.

Andrew McKeown told me that he had found inspiration for these sculptures in Frank Round, Dick Crawford and David Mann’s book Diatoms: Biology and Morphology of the Genera, which contains scanning electron micrographs of most of the genera that were recognised at the time.   I could not track down either Helisira or Huckovia either in this book or via internet searches; however, the inspiration for the other genera is clear from the book.   The original symbolism of “new life” is very appropriate to anyone who remembers the Durham coast in the years when the pits were still active. However, to me, the idea of portraying microscopic algae on a scale that you can trip over is a powerful metaphor for the hidden influence that these organisms have over all of our lives.


More “Jewels of the Sea”, Andrew McKeown’s sculptures at East Shore Village, Seaham.   Left: Asteromphallus (foreground); right: Huckovia.


Round, F.E., Crawford, R.M. & Mann, D.G. (1990). The Diatoms: Biology and Morphology of the Genera.   Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


Seaham is not the only County Durham town to celebrate a tenuous association with a 19th century poet.   Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born in the next village to mine in 1806 although she only lived there for the first two or three years of her life.   Her most famous poem, Sonnet 43 (“How do I love thee, let me count the ways …”), is celebrated in the name of a microbrewery in Coxhoe that I can thoroughly recommend.

Though it only lasted about a year, Byron’s marriage produced one child, better known by her married name, Ada Lovelace, who was a mathematician who worked with Charles Babbage and has been described as the world’s first computer programmer.


One thought on “Tripping over diatoms …

  1. Pingback: The Algal World: More Diatoms | Herbarium World

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