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!


Catching insects by the beakful

Redstart at the Gilfach Farm reserve

Redstart at the Gilfach Farm reserve

Walking around the Gilfach Farm nature reserve near Rhayader feels a bit like walking along a 19th century valley. Birds species which are elusive in other woodlands are quite showy there.

My main aim was to photograph redstarts. The first one I saw, which was lower in the valley than expected, ended up providing the best pictures. There were several others in the field above the farm, which moved far too quickly for my camera skills…

Shortly after, I wanted to get a good picture of the stream running through the valley (which soon flows into the upper reaches of the River Wye). As I waded through the undergrowth to get the edge of the stream, I noticed a dipper perched on a rock in the middle of the stream, doing lots of odd bobs up-and-down (hence the name). It was ideally situated – and for me it was quite by chance.

Dipper on the Afon Marteg, flowing through the Gilfach Farm reserve.

Dipper on the Afon Marteg, flowing through the Gilfach Farm reserve.

Male pied flycatcher

Male pied flycatcher

The reserve is a great location for pied flycatchers, because there’s a hide just next to some nestboxes which they use. While I was there they were feeding their young: the female seemed to do more trips and probably collected from closer by, while the male appeared to fly further. It would be interesting to know if there was a difference in the kind of prey they were collecting.

Pied flycatcher female at Gilfach Farm.

Pied flycatcher female at Gilfach Farm.

Pied flycatcher with a beakful of insects

Pied flycatcher with a beakful of insects

Gilfach Farm is an easy place to romaticise, but the disused industrial workings – such as a 30-yard railway tunnel which now hosts five species of bat – show that the 19th century scene would have been rather different. However the lack of insecticides then would at least have been far better for the flycatchers and redstarts.

To twitch or not to twitch…

Goosander on the River Wear from Prebend’s Bridge

There are a range of addictions that wannabe vicars would do well to avoid: I’ve begun to realise that the Temptation To Twitch might well be one of them.

I need to explain, for the uninitiated, that birdwatching and twitching are not the same thing. This point was forcibly made to me at the Durham Bird Club by Geoff Mitchell, who had just won a distinguished service medal for 30 years monitoring his local patch. He takes great delight both in the resident birds and the unexpected ones that fly through – and has no inclination to chase around the countryside, twitching after rarities, and polluting the atmosphere with more car fumes.

Group of 3 goosanders, off Prebend’s Bridge

There is, however, a much more mundane reason why I’ve pursued neither the Black-throated thrush near Whitby nor the Long-billed Dowitchers in Cheshire: I simply don’t have the time. The temptation is there – and I’ve had to argue myself round on this one!

Last Friday I did a walk that made me appreciate how much good wildlife is close at hand. Crossing the river at Prebend’s Bridge, I glimpsed a bird disappear from view. It re-appeared a bit later – and I realised it was a goosander. Occasionally I am asked about my favourite bird: and at the moment, this is definitely it. Seeing one is always a thrill: there’s something very majestic about these large ducks – and something deadly serious about their hooked beaks!

Dipper on the River Browney

I then made my way to the River Browney and along its banks for an hour or two. Crossing a bridge, I spotted a brown bird fly low over the water: when it landed, its large white breast showed it to be a dipper.  I’d not seen one before – or at least, not in the 30-odd years since Dad showed me one. For some minutes I watched it flit around, bobbing on rocks, with a beakful of moss, seemingly unable to decide what to do with it. Despite not looking adapted to an aquatic lifestyle, they feed by dipping into the water or running under it to catch insects and other invertebrates. For me, the dipper is definitely another ‘wow’ bird!

I’m currently struggling with a cold, which is not good timing given the intense nature of the next ten days. The surprising thing is just how intense and pressured life is here. A couple of days ago I went to a talk on ‘science and faith’: this felt like real self-indulgence! We’re all struggling with it to a greater or lesser extent; while I’m doing ok, there are some really good people here who aren’t. Something is not right.