I’M on the train to Durham for the 130th Miners’ Gala – the Big Meeting. Across the aisle are four Yorkshiremen. One wears a T-shirt with a slogan which won’t be topped during the day — “Druids against fracking”. Their conversation is about the iniquity of employers (and why not, on today of all days?) not allowing time off for religious festivals, such as Beltane, Samhain and Imholc. It’s more Peter Tinniswood than Monty Python. Then one alights upon the signs on the door to the rear of the carriage. “There’s first class,” he observes. “But why in’t there space for working class.” They’re going to be getting off at Durham.

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The new St Hilda pit banner, paraded at the Big Meeting on July 12, 2014

It would be a cliché in a film but you really can hear the sounds of brass bands tuning up as you emerge from the station.

And by the time you reach the city centre you can sense the occasion. People started arriving before 8am. By 11am bands and banners are queuing many hundreds of yards back from the County Hotel – where the day’s fraternal guests gather – in three directions.

There’s a press of people, some waiting with the bands, some squeezing by, inching their way towards the County and onwards to the Racecourse, some with something else to do and caught up in this unique day. The streets of Durham weren’t built for festival and impatience.

And it’s not all about mining any more. It is, after all, 20 years since the last coal was wrenched from underground in the once great Durham coalfield. So the first band I see isn’t brass or silver at all. It’s a pipe band, from Morpeth, in Northumberland. But brass is all around.

The steps at the bottom of Saddler Street, as you go down to Elvet Bridge, have become an impromptu grandstand. A group of men have decided the best protection against the rapidly warming sun are little paper cooks’ hats, courtesy of Krispy Kreme, the doughnut people. Two dancing women dressed for a summer night in Tenerife are demanding a tune from the nearest, patiently waiting, brass band. Eventually the conductor gives in and rewards them, not with an anthem but with Rock Around The Clock.

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The rear of the St Hilda banner, depicting the causes of the 1839 disaster and the subsequent adoption of the safety lamp in the mines

The party is in full swing. Arms full of tins (here rarely called cans) are carried and handed round. It is, apparently, even acceptable today to drink wine from the bottle. Why not, it’s a celebration. Of something.

Halfway down Elvet Bridge I find a banner representing St Hilda pit in South Shields. It’s the pit I think my great-grandfather George worked in, before he went off to the war that began 100 years ago this year. He worked underground, then spent three years in the Hell that was France. And he didn’t come home. He survived it until July 1918 and lies in an unvisited grave in a place called Crouy. What a life.

St Hilda closed in 1940 but, wonderfully, this new banner has been created in commemoration of the men who worked in it and those who perished in the disaster of 1839. The front bears a picture of the South Shields pier, which helped create safe harbour for the ships taking coal to the South. The rear tells the story of the disaster, which killed 51 men and boys, the youngest aged nine. Out of tragedy, it is a thing of beauty.

In among the miners’ lodges are other trades unions. The Rail, Maritime and Transport workers are here to mark the passing of their leader, at the age of 52. They wear T-shirts proclaiming “Bob Crow. RMT. Legend.” Unison are here, fighting to protect public services from austerity cuts. The teaching unions are here, postal workers, firefighters. And sword dancers. And a primary school from a one-time pit village, keeping their heritage alive. And a group of men from the Rhineland, I think, in smart blazers and the most marvellous pillbox hats with tall white plumes.

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The Boldon banner passes the balcony at the Royal County Hotel

On the balcony of the Royal County Hotel the leaders of what is left of the Durham Miners’ Association and their guests look down from above a sign for Starbucks Coffee – one of the current great Satans of the left for its history of avoiding UK tax – as the bands each play their party piece.

And down on the Racecourse, normally home to Durham University’s cricketers, what a scene. Imagine if you will, a fairground, thrown to the edges of a field, with all the light and colour and noise that entails. In the centre, a political rally, with rabble-rousing orators. A crowd of thousands of the committed and the curious.

And in amongst it the casualties of the beating sun, and the early start to drinking. Never have so many slumbered through so many speeches for so long. And all the time, turning pinker.

It’s here that I spot my second favourite T-shirt slogan of the day. “Labour,” it says. “I preferred their early work.”

If you’d like to know more about the Gala, or Big Meeting, try http://www.durhamminers.org