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

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

Disturbing a quiet meal

I was photographing a robin at the feeder, thinking the lighting was just right for a cute photo that might go on this blog, when suddenly there was a rapid flurry and a nuthatch appeared instead. But it was only on looking at the photos afterwards that I saw the aggressive raid involved…

You don’t mess with a nuthatch…

The 4wd cluster Christmas meal: Wendy, Helena, Hilary & Chris, John, David, Pearl & Rod in front.

I’ve just come back to Durham from four weeks in Cheltenham. It’s always great to go back there and re-connect with friends. One of the highlights was the Christmas meal with the 4wd homegroup at Chris & Hilary’s – honestly, Hilary’s cooking is sensationally good; I thought the Thai red curry couldn’t be beaten until we came onto the cheesecake…

Redwings munching catoneaster berries

The severe snow brought some unusual birds to the garden, including a small flock of redwings. After initially guzzling some catoneaster berries, they lurked for several days but, bizarrely, ignored all the food I put out for them.

I restricted myself to one twitch – down to the Cotswold Water Park, in the fanciful hope of seeing some smew. I struck lucky – largely because I bumped into some birders coming the other way, who willingly shared what they’d seen. I therefore changed my planned journey and hot-footed it down to pit 39. There, along with a group of my favourite goosanders, was a small number of smew, including the spectacular black-and-white adult males. The photo below really is too small – so click for a bigger image.

Smew at Cotswold Water Park – click to enlarge

Finally I have to share a photo from early December before I left for the holidays. Sometimes you get lucky with lighting and placement…

Sunset at Greatham Creek

And just to prove that some birds on the feeder can still act cute…

Not all birds are so aggressive with each other…

Winter wonderland

It’s snowing as I write this – which is not unusual for the past week, during which several inches have fallen and very little has melted. I thought I’d share with you a few pictures from around the place. This was the view from my window a couple of days ago when the Sun was out:

View from the window

Here’s a couple of photos of the Cathedral from Monday.

Durham Cathedral and River Wear from Prebend’s Bridge

The Cathedral from Observatory Hill

Birding opportunities have obviously been limited, although I did manage to get to Rainton Meadows the other day to see a bittern that had arrived earlier in the week. These are elusive birds, notorious for hiding deep in reedbeds – no-one had seen it the day I was there. Luckily, after half an hour peering at the reedbed, I saw a brown wing stretch up, and then the head and neck peering above the reeds. A few seconds later, it was gone. My friend Jaybee was more fortunate a few days later: not only had the icy weather forced the bittern out from its normal skulking habits, but he and a fellow birder discovered there are actually two of them!

Bittern at Rainton Meadows – photo by Jaybee

Being a tourist

I’ve just spent most of the past week being a tourist, as my mother has been visiting Durham for a few days. This was much helped by the weather, as we had some of the only days of summer so far this year!

Puffin posing with sand-eels

We spent a day up in Northumberland, which included a trip to the Farne Islands. Mum had never seen puffins properly before – but there were plenty here! I was keen to photograph one with a beakful of sand-eels. I noticed many fly directly over the island, but they seemed spooked by the number of tourists and only a few landed. Then just before departing for the boat, this one appeared, and almost posed for the cameras!

We also visited some of the local museums, which offered great insight into the once-thriving economy of the region. The first of these was the excellent Head of Steam Railway Museum in Darlington: this houses the original Locomotion, which ran on the inaugural Stockton-and-Darlington railway, and was a fully working engine for thirty years.

Locomotion at the railway museum in Darlington, and the HMS Trincomalee in Hartlepool’s marina.

Sue, Tom and Mum at a local Italian restaurant.

The Hartlepool Maritime Experience has as its showpiece the HMS Trincomalee, a fully restored battleship that was built in 1817, and had active service in the Navy for ten years from 1847. It’s an impressive sight (see above), and the tour of the decks was a window into a different era – and a tough environment. The sailors living in the dark and cramped lower deck would have slept in hammocks that were hung just above the dining tables, and owned little that could not be stored in a two-litre duffle bag. There was an odd contrast later in the day with the monks’ dormitory in Durham Cathedral: spartan though this may have been, they at least each had a separate bay to sleep and study in, with copious light and space compared to the sailors.

Healing on the Streets

Over the last few months I’ve been part of the Healing on the Streets team in Stockton. It’s been really good to be part of it from the start, to experience some of the wariness of the local townspeople as to what we’re about, and then to perceive a distinct thaw and greater willingness to receive prayer. One of the first people we prayed with in April was wheelchair bound and suffering from cancer. It seemed a significant moment, but we did not hear from her afterwards. Today she wheeled up to say that she had had a CAT scan a few days previously and was now clear of the tumour! We were concerned that she was not walking yet, so we prayed with her for that. We await further news of how she is doing.


Tom, Ajay and myself on Prebend’s Bridge

After a hard-working Reading Week, I’ve just had a most pleasant long weekend, largely with Ajay Jacob and Tom Parker, former colleagues at Nelson Thornes in Cheltenham. It was one of those times when we managed to combine a remarkable diversity of experiences!

On Saturday lunchtime, we were on the forecourt of a second-hand car dealer near Durham. Ajay, who passed his test only last year, had seen that cars in the north-east are much cheaper than down south, and liked the look of one advertised on the internet. While Tom and Ajay were poking and prodding the car, I was being entertained by the dealer’s perspective on life. His girlfriend had tried to interest him in feng shui: as far as he was concerned, feng shui in his life consisted of making sure that the distance between his seat and the fridge, in which the beer was stored, was the exact same distance as from his seat to the toilet. Simple, really. (Ajay bought the car.)

We had a guided tour round the Cathedral – despite living next to it I don’t have a good memory for its facts and figures, and the guide turned out to be both knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Afterwards, we made a quick dash down to Greatham Creek to see the seals: both high tide and sunset were approaching fast, so the ideal time for them would be short-lived. The seals were on good form… including a couple of them who seemed to be indulging in a little rumpy-pumpy below the water.

Seals at Greatham Creek, near sunset

We then went to an Italian restaurant which I’d recommended on the basis that the food was good and there was a waiter who was entertainingly rude. He did indeed serve us, but couldn’t have been more friendly and helpful. I think I need to adjust my values.

Nuthatch on the window feeder. Photo: Ajay

One of the major highlights of the weekend, though – and herein lies a confession! – was a completely unexpected visitor… I’ve recently attached a bird feeder to the outside of my window, and have enjoyed watching a succession of tits drop by, but began to wonder whether any other species – like a finch – would catch on to it. A couple of days ago I caught a brief glimpse of an unusual bird, but was sure I was kidding myself as to what it was. Then on Saturday morning, in full view of all three of us, with Ajay’s camera pointed directly at the feeder, it returned – a nuthatch!

The Farne islands

Tom looking small in front of the St. Cuthbert II

Yesterday I had a great trip to the Farne islands with Tom (my giant neighbour), which fortunately we did not plan too well. He’s been inspired by the local Celtic saint, Cuthbert, to such an extent that he has even enthused me as well – not least because  there were plenty of healings and miracles when he was around. We therefore decided to see if we could get a trip to the Farnes, where Cuthbert spent the last part of his life.

One of the colonies of guillemots – there were thousands of birds in the biggest two.

One boat company at Seahouses almost laughed when we asked about trips at this time of year; but as it happened another boat was running, largely because of a group of nine others who were on it. This tour was around the whole archipelago – and as Tom will attest, it was a bit choppy!

This wasn’t an ideal time to go for wildlife – many of the breeding birds like puffins and terns arrive in the spring – but what there was was impressive enough.

Seal colony on the Farnes

Seal colony on the Farnes

There were two huge colonies of guillemots, a variety of auk closely related to the puffin but without the colourful bill. They crowded the rocky ledges of the cliff-faces they inhabited, chattering incessantly, but tended to get spooked by the proximity of the boat and many flew straight into the sea.

Eider duck, of which there were lots, both in the harbour at Seahouses and around the Farnes. Also known locally as ‘Cuddy ducks’ because of their relationship with Cuthbert!

Further round the islands there were huge numbers of seals: I’ve raved before now about the ones that lounge around Greatham Creek, but these colonies are far bigger. Seals may look fat and lazy on land, but they’re amazingly agile in the water: I caught sight of several bouncing along the top of the water, almost dolphin-like.

We didn’t get to land on the islands, but did see the chapel on Inner Farne, at the site where Cuthbert was believed to have lived. Tom – no softie himself – is now seriously daunted by how tough a character he must have been, fending for himself on these treeless islands, at the mercy of icy gales and a tempestuous sea. Normal life in the Northumbria of Anglo-Saxons and Celts (around 680) would be a severe challenge for most 21st century Brits; but Cuthbert’s life was extreme even for those times.

Misty beach at Seahouses