The big twitch in Hartlepool

I was settling down to work on Monday morning, and idly flicked through some birding websites. My plans were  disruspted by the news just breaking, that a major rarity had been discovered on the Headland in Hartlepool. People were already arranging lifts from as far away as Sussex just to see this bird… Work would have to wait – I had to see this bird!

The discoverer was a local birder, Chris Brown, who lives on the Headland – a promontory which is good for attracting migrating birds because of its position jutting into the North Sea. He saw an unusual bird on the bowling green, and as he is part of the local ringing programme, he got his equipment out to net and ring it. He first thought it might be a red-flanked bluetail, – which would in itself have been a rarity – but was surprised to find that it lacked a blue tail. Phoning for advice, someone suggested that he might have a white-throated robin – and indeed, it proved to be a female of that species. My bird book tells me that it winters in East Africa, and breeds in south-east Europe in the summer – so this bird was a thousand miles off course.

I arrived to find around a hundred birders already in the bowling green, all standing at a respectful distance. The bird was flitting around the shrubs and long grass around the edge, disappearing for a few minutes but then re-appearing, clearly visible to everyone assembled. This image, by Jim Lawrence of BirdLife International, beautifully shows the robin and how easily seen she was.

White throated robin on Hartlepool Headland. Photo by Jim Lawrence,

A little later I was standing next to another birder who annouced to those around, “That’s UK bird number 550 for me!”. It occurred to me that the total list of existing bird species that have ever been seen in the UK is not much larger than this number, so I said “There can’t be many other birders who’ve seen more than that!”. He replied, “No, to be quite honest, there aren’t any!”. (I didn’t say that for me it was just number 194…) Jim Lawrence, who took the photo above, has been waiting for more than twenty years to see it, since one visited the Welsh island of Skokholm for four days in 1990.

All eyes and lenses on the robin…

Of Stockton and flying finches…

Stockton parish church

I’ve just started a term-time placement at Stockton Parish Church, with the vicar Alan Farish. I am absolutely delighted to be here because this is a church which is growing, from unpromising circumstances.

Alan had been the vicar at nearby Eaglescliffe, and had acquired a key role in finding leaders for other churches in the area. One of these was Stockton Parish Church – a large building in danger of closure unless something drastic happened. One day Alan was going into Stockton to get a watch battery or something similar, and as he passed the Parish Church he felt the Lord telling him that he was the one who should be the next vicar there. So he went back to Eaglescliffe, tendered his resignation immediately, and started at Stockton soon after.

Two years later the congregation has grown to around 100 on a Sunday, with an additional thriving midweek congregation as well. There’s an active Healing on the Streets team (which I was a part of in spring and early summer) – and a general desire to seek the Lord’s guidance in everything. It is an exciting place to be for a couple of terms.

On Saturday, I went on an unashamed tw*tch to Hartlepool Headland, to see a woodchat shrike – but what amazed me was what else was happening amongst the birds there. It’s the time of the autumn migration, as flocks of birds fly in from across the North Sea. As it had been stormy overnight, the birds were tending to flop onto the first bit of greenery they reached. Hence, the headland was host to flocks of chaffinches, siskins and redwings, and small numbers of others like bramblings, redpolls and blackcaps, all of which were newly arriving.

Goldcrest. Photo by Jaybee.

There were also goldcrests – not normally the easiest birds to see as they prefer the tops of conifers, but after their journey they weren’t being fussy. That they could have made the journey at all astonishes me: they are 6g in weight (less than a quarter of an ounce), but they managed to fly the 300 or so miles overnight through bad weather. For such a tiny bird that seems to be a staggering feat of endurance. Nevertheless, small flocks appeared all along the Durham coast on each of the last few days, having completed the same journey.

The woodchat shrike showed well, favouring a small patch of parkland opposite a chip shop. It’s been very obliging, hanging around for more than a fortnight.

Finally, a couple of recent photos of Durham during one atmospheric evening…

The Cathedral at sunset

Durham Cathedral, just after sunset…


Back in the 1980s, the Guardian‘s Matthew Engel wrote a series of articles on “Fourth Division England”. He argued that the Football League’s lowest division was full of teams from run-down northern cities that had suffered the most from the recent recession. Amongst these was Hartlepool – whose team had, until then, spent every season bar one in the lowest division. (The exception was when some geezer called Brian Clough had his first experience of managment with them). Hence I had a strange feeling of anticipation when I first ventured into the town.

The motivation for the journey was a bird quest, to Jackson’s Landing in the marina. From it one could see birds such as red-breasted mergansers and a great northern diver. Jackson’s Landing was part of a recent re-development to help regenerate the town and was, variously, a factory shopping centre and a discount department store. It now stands empty, having closed in 2004.

Hartlepool Headland, from the Heugh Pier

Last weekend I visited the nearby Museum of Hartlepool and began to learn more of the story of the town. The Headland, ‘Old Hartlepool’, has some claim to continuous occupation since the early Iron Age. It was mentioned in Bede’s history of the English Church and people, where he records that in 649AD an abbess called Hilda was appointed. Ten years later she was transferred to Whitby, where she effected the reconciliation of the Celtic and Roman churches, and later became canonised as St. Hilda.

The town has had two periods in which it has flourished, the first being in the mediaeval era when it was strategically located in the ongoing conflict between the English and Scottish. Around 1100 Robert de Brus arrived from France, one of the many Norman landowners to benefit from the conquest of 1066, to become Lord of Hartness and therefore of Hartlepool. If the name sounds familiar, it is because his descendant, Robert de Brus VII, became the famous Scottish king known as Robert the Bruce.

The town declined from the Tudor era onwards. Its unexpected regeneration occurred when the railway arrived in the 1830s. Hartlepool is a sea-port, so for a few brief decades it boomed, as a fast and efficient route for shipping coal from the West Durham mines. It was developed by one Ralph Ward Jackson, who in the process set up the adjacent new town of West Hartlepool. (The two towns have since merged).  For a while it was the fourth largest port in the country.

Hartlepool – the coast at high tide, with dock cranes in the background

Since then, Hartlepool has struggled, as have so many towns in the area. The mines have closed, as have the shipyards, which were unable to build the colossal ships that are now necessary. Attempts at renovation have included the Hartlepool marina, at best a partial success.

Fourth division England? Maybe – but this is just the kind of place where revival might ignite.


I need to start this post by saying something that may cause shock and surprise to some of you who know me: I enjoyed Evensong from the Book of Common Prayer on Wednesday this week. Yes, that’s the version published in 1662. There were reasons for this: Andy Stinson had completely re-done the music in a contemporary style, and Phil Morton spoke the words in a manner which made it easy to pray along with him, so it wasn’t just any old recitation.

An early(ish) printing of the Book of Common Prayer, from 1771

This is the season in college for doing the daily acts of worship using the Book of Common Prayer – and it is safe to say that, despite Wednesday’s high point, most of us find this a frustrating experience.

This is not to deny the beauty of the language, or for that matter the deep reverence of Thomas Cranmer, who wrote most of it in the 1540s. Indeed, there is a danger in modern worship (of which I am generally an enthusiastic participant) of there being too much emphasis on the friendship of God. We try to be too familiar sometimes. Cranmer’s style does the opposite, stressing our sinfulness in front of an awesome and majestic God.

The problem is that there is an awful lot of emphasis in Anglicanism on maintaining the traditions of the past. If this were the right thing to do, the  Church of England would be booming, instead of shrinking and closing churches. The churches that are growing now are the ones that speak and worship in today’s language, not hanging on to some mythically wonderful past.

Clearly the college here, like other Anglican colleges, is constrained by the requirements of the Anglican hierarchy – but it is a pity that this leads to so much emphasis on maintaining the past rather than developing new styles that communicate to people of today. After all we believe that Jesus Christ is good news for all time: the 21st century as much as the first, tenth or seventeenth.

Jacksons Landing

Since returning to college I’ve made a couple of trips down to Jacksons Landing, aka Hartlepool Marina, which has become a temporary home to a couple of unusually interesting bird species, including a great northern diver which was showing well on Friday. Last week I saw a large number of mergansers, attractive and eye-catching saw-billed ducks that come complete with punk hairstyles! Here’s one of Jaybee‘s images.