Northumbrian refreshment

Jen and I have had a very refreshing week’s holiday in Northumberland after Easter, doing some good walks and meeting up with friends.

We did two walks in the Cheviots, a range of hills that spans the Scottish border. Compared to the more familiar Lake District fells, the Cheviot hills are much more remote with fewer crowds; the higher levels are windswept and treeless, with rounded tops that somehow look bleaker. Our first walk was an enjoyable trek up Windy Gyl – which lived up to its name – from Upper Coquetdale. The second was to The Cheviot – at 810m one of the highest mountains outside of the Lakes. This has a large plateau at the top, so that there are no views of surrounding hills from the summit trig point.

Jen modelling a signpost on the Pennine Way, with the upper sign pointing us to Windy Gyl.

View of Windy Gyl as we descended towards Upper Coquetdale.

Upper Coquetdale

We were also able to meet up with a number of friends. On the Wednesday we visited Jaybee and his wife Jane in South Hetton; Jaybee’s mobility now limits his wildlife photography, but he’s still managed to become a specialist on hoverflies. The next evening we went to dinner with Satomi Miwa at an excellent Turkish restaurant in Longbenton, who told us about her ministry amongst international students at Jesmond Parish Church.

On Saturday evening we arrived, late and smelly after a long walk up the Cheviot, at Ann and Arthur Pratt’s house. They understood our plight immediately and gave us towels and showed us to the showers! They gave us an excellent meal, and told us about their lives as medics and also about their church in Prudhoe.

With Satomi at the Lezzet Turkish restaurant in Longbenton

I managed to survive without going on a birdwatching trip, but there were still some great photographic opportunities! We spent a day at the National Trust’s Wallington estate, which had a lovely river walk winding round one side of the site. There was a very showy dipper on the river, which performed lots of characteristic antics, like dipping at the knees and running underwater.

Dipper on the river at Wallington, with a beakful of insects and other prey.

There were lots of red grouse when we walked to The Cheviot, with one in particular showing great patience in allowing me to bend down to get a better angle on a photograph before flying off.

Red Grouse

One of the major highlights of the week was on the Sunday morning, when we dropped into Stockton Parish Church, where I’d done my placement from college in 2010-11. The church has grown dramatically in the years after I left, with the congregation roughly double the size, with many from refugee communities. We had a very good chat with Alan Farish, who was the vicar when I was there, and has since handed over the reins to his curate, Mark Miller (who had been at Cranmer in the year below me). I was also delighted to be able to catch up with those who’d been part of the ministry at the Community Church, such as Jon and Sarah Searle, Adam Walsh, Rob and Kath Bailey. Being part of this team was hugely formative for me – and, with hindsight, appears to have been for everyone else involved as well!


One hundred yards of old railway track

One of the highlights of the summer was dropping in to see Jaybee (aka John Bridges) on my way up to Scotland. His inspiration, shortly after my arrival in Durham in 2009, was a key factor in my choosing to develop bird-watching and wildlife photography.

While there, we visited on a short section of disused railway track, on the eastern side of South Hetton. I was keen to see it because it had a key part to play in Jaybee’s life. As he puts it on his website,

I was advised, because of health issues regarding a blocked artery in my left leg, to walk everyday or risk losing the leg which, to be honest, I quite like attached to the rest of my body. Having to walk on a daily basis meant I needed motivation, so in 2004, at the age of 55 I took up photography again after many, many years away from the hobby.

Over the first year, his daily walk was up and down the 100yds of this track – photographing all the wildlife. The result is a marvellously-produced book, which can be downloaded as a zipped PDF file from here.

The old railway track on the east side of South Hetton

The old railway track on the east side of South Hetton

It’s eye-opening to see just how much wildlife there is in a short stretch of old railway: many species of dragonfiles, beetles and butterflies; grasshoppers, wasps and spiders; plenty of flowers, grasses and fungi, a wide variety of birds such as whitethroats, linnets and kestrels, not to mention snails, water crickets and frogs! The book really ought to be published for both conservational and educational purposes.

As if to prove the point about the abundant wildlife along the old railway track, this reed warbler was very showy.

As if to prove the point about the abundant wildlife along the old railway track, this reed warbler was very showy.

Jaybee, with Jimmy Wagner whom we bumped into while there.

Jaybee (left), with Jimmy Wagner whom we bumped into while there.

At the end of the book there’s some useful advice for budding photographers, including this gem:

Make sure all your pockets are zipped up to prevent anything falling from them and into the pond – could that be the voice of experience?

From there we went down to the RSPB’s reserve at Saltholme. Although August is usually not a great month for bird-watching, we had some luck as there was a white-winged black tern flying around – much the most eye-catching tern that I’ve seen!

Me with Christine & Elizabeth Shearer

Me with Christine & Elizabeth Shearer

As might be imagined Jaybee and I also had a good natter during the day – he always has an interesting perspective which provokes a good discussion!

After visiting Jaybee, I caught up with Elizabeth & Christine Shearer in Stockton. Getting to know the Shearer family was another highlight from my time in Durham, and I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with them over a Chinese meal.

Greatham Creek revisited

Visiting Lloyd and Margaret Williams in Dewsbury with Tom Hiney

Visiting Lloyd and Margaret Williams in Dewsbury with Tom Hiney

I’ve just come back from a trip up north, starting with visiting Tom Hiney in Dewsbury, going via the seals on Tees-side and ending up watching red squirrels in Strathyre (the next blog post).

While in Dewsbury, Tom and I visited Lloyd and Margaret Williams: Lloyd has been a major figure in the healing ministry, if somewhat less well known than his contemporaries David Watson and John Wimber. It was a great opportunity for us to quiz someone with a proven track record in this area, with tricky issues such as “Are there times when it is better to pray for someone to pass away into the Lord’s care rather than to pray for their healing?” (Short answer: yes.)

Common scoter in Greatham Creek

Common scoter in Greatham Creek

I then travelled up to the north east, dropping into Stockton before meeting Jaybee for a day of bird-watching on Tees-side. We spent most of the time in the Greatham Creek area: I enjoyed being able to see birds that hardly ever occur in the West Midlands! Two notable examples were the common scoter, a sea duck, and the red-breasted merganser, a notably colourful bird with a punk hairstyle.

Red breasted merganser pair in Greatham Creek.

Red breasted merganser pair in Greatham Creek.

It was great to be able to catch up with Jaybee. It was meeting him in the first week of my time in Durham, and his showing me around the main birdwatching sites on Tees-side a few weeks later, that led to my taking up birdwatching in a big way. He’s a courageous character, absolutely determined to overcome the ill health that he battles with, and of which he is eager to be completely free.

I’ve always been fascinated by Greatham Creek with its combination of wildlife and heavy industry. This scene, with avocets skimming the water in the foreground, epitomises it.

Heavy industry on Tees-side, with avocets skimming the water in the foreground.

Heavy industry on Tees-side, with avocets skimming the water in the foreground.

Just over the road – which is the main route from Middlesbrough to Hartlepool – is the haul-out point for the seals (just visible in the image below).

The A178 road bridge at Greatham Creek, with the seals languishing on the mudflats beyond.

The A178 road bridge at Greatham Creek, with the seals languishing on the mudflats beyond.

The seals at Greatham Creek

The seals at Greatham Creek

Spot the male redshank unsure what to do when a female flies in... "if in doubt, keep yapping"

Spot the male redshank unsure what to do when a female flies in… “if in doubt, keep yapping”

I was also amused by the antics of a male redshank, who made quite a racket in an attempt to attract a female. One flew in – which seemed to astonish him, as he was silent for a while, not sure what to do. Then he continued his racket, so that she eventually flew off. Some blokes just seem to lack a bit of panache! 🙂

Farewell to Stockton and Durham

The biggest highlight of my time in Durham has been my placement at Stockton Parish Church. It has been a huge privilege to be able to serve in a place where God is so evidently at work. Unlike large churches down south which are often well resourced (technologically and otherwise), and where the emphasis may often be on slick production for congregations that have high expectations, at Stockton everything is much more relaxed and informal, and the most overt need is for fellowship and community. This is particularly evident on Thursday evenings, where there is also a dependance on the Holy Spirit, and a recognition that God can and does intervene supernaturally. Below are a few photos from a couple of Sundays ago.

Alan & Frank; Rob & Kath with friend

Alan (the vicar) & Nicky Farish; Roger taking good care of Linda

There are a number of asylum seekers here, including these two families from Sri Lanka

There was a Cranmer Hall day out to Lindisfarne on Wednesday. When we arrived, about half a dozen of us assembled and headed off towards the north coast. We found a lovely unspoilt bay fringed by sand dunes and steep cliffs, so for a couple of hours we lounged on one of the dunes. In the distance, seals called to each other as they lay around on mudflats. Eider ducks rested on the rocky outcrops, while in the distance little groups of gannets headed intently passed. Gulls and a couple of fulmars drifted around. We chatted, mused and occasionally gazed seawards. Afterwards we found ourselves saying to each other what an amazingly enjoyable afternoon it had been – an unplanned but fitting finale to time at Cranmer.

Never mind the photograph, we're just chilling out. Roderick, Andy Grant, Tom, James and Sylvia

Supernatural and natural

Woodie, Anna and their daughters

Earlier this week, Woodie came into college with his wife, Anna, and twin daughters – the first time they’d brought their kids in. This would have been a significant event in itself – but this was more than that. Last year Woodie had shared openly with the community about their going for IVF, and that it hadn’t been working. The community prayed, the miracle that was required happened – and then they had not just one child, but twins!

Last weekend Jenny came up to Durham, and on the Thursday evening we went to the Stockton Community Church. We got chatting to a couple we’ll call Mike and Rebecca. He’s been a Christian for a year, whereas she’s adamant that she isn’t. She’d just been in a serious car accident – her car was a write-off, and she was suffering from considerable pain in her neck, left shoulder and side. Later in the meeting Duncan announced a session for praying for healing: one group for those who were suffering in such a way that they would know immediately if they were healed. Rebecca put her hand up for prayer, and Jenny and another lady, Rachel, prayed for her. I was praying with Mike on the opposite side of the table. We then became aware that something had happened: Rebecca was trying out her arm and saying, “this is really weird. I feel no pain. I don’t understand this and I’ve been healed. I don’t even believe in God but I’ve been healed. This is really weird!”

It’s so exciting when God acts supernaturally like this: it’s good to celebrate these events and remind ourselves of them. Sometimes when we get disappointed, we need to remember to focus on God and his sovereignty. My course at Cranmer ends in a week, and unless something miraculous occurs(!) I will end without a curacy. This is not a situation I’d have chosen! But focussing on God and not allowing oneself to be downhearted is really important.

On Thursday afternoon, I had a quick trip to the Durham coast, to see an unusual scoter from Blackhall Rocks, and to visit the colony of nesting Little Terns at Crimdon Dene. My walk to the terns was interrupted by a bold and showy yellowhammer, and I spent some time trying to get as close as possible with my camera. He’d fly off a short distance, but would still allow me to approach quite close. Here’s the best of the pics.

Yellowhammer at Crimdon Dene

God’s ambassador from Lesotho


One of the privileges of the last year has been getting to know Obed Sebapalo, an Anglican ordinand from Lesotho. He’s spent two terms here in Durham and is returning home at the beginning of April. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed travelling with him to Stockton most Sundays and conversing on the way.

Lesotho is a land-locked country surrounded on all sides by South Africa. It’s economically poor, with 60% unemployment, and those who are employed are generally subsistence farmers. Around ten thousand are miners in South Africa, sending some of their wages home each month to their families. Obed is from the Thaba-Tseka district, a mountainous region with peaks generally around 2,500m. They’re high enough that they often have snow – unusually for Africa – so he was entirley unsurprised by the white stuff in Durham this winter!

He originally trained as a lawyer, and since 2002 has worked mainly as a registrar. His training for the priesthood started a year later, fitted in around his full-time work. Indeed he will continue as a lawyer after he has been ordained, as the Anglican church in Lesotho is rarely able to afford to employ priests full-time.

Obed with the late Fr. Constantinus, a Catholic priest who was a major influence and encourager

As anyone who gets to know Obed for any length of time discovers, he is a deeply devout person. He sees his life as a journey with God through daily prayer – he has regular prayer times throughout the day which he observes strictly. During this time there may be an act of contrition; he will invoke the Holy Spirit; he will talk to his guardian angel and the saints, and will offer to God the day with its works, joys and disappointments. However, the most important part of his spiritual journey is to take Mass and attend communion.

Within the Church of England there is often a stark contrast between the Anglo-Catholic and the charismatic spiritualities, but within African churches the distinction may often be less clear, with a recognition that God may be actively present in both. Thus, although the informal liturgy in Stockton is not his normal style, he’s been quick to see the activity of the Spirit within the community, and is open to the gifts of the Spirit being used.

Although he comes across as a quiet man who is very courteous, he is also a passionate and lion-hearted preacher. He is not afraid to challenge his audience if he believes it is what the Lord has told him to say: he has a fire that can only come from deep relationship with God.

Obed’s vocation is deeply conceived. He has “always cherished ideas of being a beacon of hope and encouragement to needy people, to ground them deeply in Christian values, to arm them with the heavenly weapons of prayer and faith to fight, and to help them on their journey to heaven”. After I’d finished interviewing him, he added:

My vocation is to serve the marginalised people, to help them to experience the divine life through the sacraments and the Word.

We’ll miss him when he returns to Lesotho, but the church’s ministry there will be greatly enriched by this ambassador for God’s kingdom.

Along the River Wear

Earlier this week I took advantage of a bright sunny morning to wander along the bank of the River Wear. Going upstream towards Shincliffe, the river passes the university sports grounds, and the path provides great views of the city. The river was unusually calm, giving reflections of the cathedral and castle – which I appreciated on the return journey, when there was enough wind to ruffle the surface of the water and remove all trace of reflection.

Durham from the River Wear

Durham and the banks of the River Wear

I’d gone without the intention of doing any birdwatching. Nevertheless, when I stopped off at one point in the journey and sat amongst the trees, I was rewarded with a treecreeper landing just in front of me. It was fascinating to watch as it spiralled its way upwards, pecking at the bark as it searched for insects, then flying low onto another tree-trunk to spiral upwards again.

Treecreeper on trees by the Wear