This weekend hasn’t quite worked out as planned… I’d intended a couple of days of solid essay writing, combined with attending the final service at Whinfield, the church plant in Haughton-le-Skerne that is being re-merged; but that all evaporated when a mild cold I’d been harbouring decided to take over.

Top: Mallard; middle: Bauxite no. 2, an industrial shunter; bottom: the Flying Scotsman, in pieces in the workshop.

Before that happened, I went down to the National Railway Museum in York. [By the way, trains are very much ‘in’ here at Cranmer. As soon as he heard I was going, Russell – normally a cool dude – told me that the Sir Nigel Gresley (twin of Mallard) was going to be passing through Durham the next day, arriving at 7.29 and leaving at 7.31… And John used to work in rail safety (handling multi-million pound contracts) at Henry Williams, a Darlington firm that has existed for over a hundred years.]

The railway museum was a great chance to re-live my cildhood fascinaton with trains. (I thought I’d grown out of it… it appears I was wrong!) They give pride of place to Mallard, which is the first engine you see on arrival, and one could look around the cab as well. However I was just as fascinated by some of the less glitzy engines, such as the black industrial shunter Bauxite no. 2, which a sign describes as “cared for, but not restored”. There was also a talk given in the workshop about the restoration work currently going on, including the Flying Scotsman – the first engine to do 100mph, designed to bring Edinburgh within 8 hours of London.

The museum is due to close for a year for a re-design; it would be interesting to see whether they introduce more of a narrative to the  museum – which is where Darlington’s much smaller Head of Steam railway museum excels.

Last Saturday, I had the unexpected treat of going to a Royal Scots Guards dinner. David Bryan is the chaplain of the Durham & Yorkshire division, so I joined him on the top table. We were therefore processed into the room behind bagpipes! It was a very pleasant, congenial evening, and great to hear some of the stories. A major from London brought news of the regiment, which is expected to provide the manpower for the upcoming increased British numbers in Afghanistan. He posed an interesting condundrum: do we defeat the enemy to protect the people, or do we protect the people to defeat the enemy? The strategy chosen is the latter.

Putting on a show

The Lindisfarne gospels projected onto the Cathedral

I’ve just been to a spectacular light-show, which used Durham Cathedral as a canvas. The highlight was seeing pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels projected onto the cathedral,

Terrified locals watch as the Vikings burn and pillage Lindisfarne

but it also provided some historical narrative. It then intrigued by projecting images of the interior onto the outside walls.

Not content with last week’s weekend away, I have spent this weekend near Scarborough with the church in Haughton-le-Skerne. This is a critical time in the parish’s development, because a church that was planted in the nearby district of Whinfield is being re-merged, later this month, back with the parent church of St. Andrew’s (of which more in a subsequent post). This weekend away was an important time of developing greater fellowship between members of the two congregations, prior to the merger.

For me personally, this weekend was a great opportunity to get to know people in the two churches, far more than would normally be possible. This was an absolute pleasure as it was a very friendly and welcoming environment.

The speaker for the weekend was Geoff Maughan, a saintly scholar, who with gentleness and perception encouraged everyone to see the future not as a return to a past glory, or one culture taking over another, but as the creation of something new. This weekend has been a large step in that direction.

I wasn’t going to write about wildlife this week – but that idea was re-arranged by my chancing upon a fight between three seals at Greatham creek!


Two seals are lounging around, as seals do, when a third one slithers up the mud.


There then appears to be a bit of an argument…


They take to the water and a full-blown scrap takes place. I only realised afterwards that all three seals are involved (though only two are shown here).


Two of them are still going at it after the other slips off.

The fight dissipated after this. I’d love to know more about what was going on – for example, whether it was about territorial or mating rights. The darker seal appears to have been the aggressor and wasn’t the one slipping off first – but it’s not clear whether he was the victor.

The long arm of the Tudors…

I seem to have given the impression that I’m spending my time tripping round the north-east, with the occasional lecture thrown in for good measure. Sadly, that is not the case… it’s just that not everything in the lectures is worth sticking on a blog.

One of the ‘delights’ of the last week has been reading some of the Tudor Acts of Parliament which led to the separation of the Church of England from Rome. Reading from the vantage point of the 21st century, it’s hard to see how the imposition of so much state control could have been thought ‘enlightened’. Alan Bartlett, our lecturer – a man who combines a penetrating intellect with an extraordinary degree of niceness laced with Irish charm – described parts of this as ‘stalinist’.

My memory of this particular lecture is tarnished  by the realisation that I was losing the battle against the cold/flu I was trying to stave off. I spent most of the next 24 hours in bed. I hasten to add that as I have not degenerated to oinking or rolling around in the mud or snuffling for truffles, there may not have been much of the swine about it… Joking aside, though, my friends here have been wonderfully kind and supportive: Andy – whose career prior to coming here was in the army – even brought a lunch tray up when I was at my lowest ebb.

Interior of St. Andrew's, Haughton-le-Skerne

Interior of St. Andrew's, Haughton-le-Skerne

Having church buildings that are modern with a flexible seating area is a natural desire of many growing churches… but what if your church is a Grade 1 listed building? Such is the case with my placement church in Haughton-le-Skerne. The main building dates from 1125 but the particular feature of this church is the Tudor pews. Look carefully at the photo on the left and you will see that they are all gated! The novelty wears off quite quickly as the nuisance value becomes obvious, but as these were installed around 1640 they are, from a heritage perspective, untouchable.

David Bryan, the present vicar, was determined that this should not prevent the modernisation of the interior. It took 6 years of negotiations and battles with various organisations (such as English Heritage, the Tudor Society and the Victorian Society), who were all required to approve the renovation. The result is a remarkable blend of antiquity and modernity. There are now modern sound and projection systems, and some of the pews have been re-arranged to clear space in front of the arches for a much less formal style of worship. The church is now fit for worship in the 21st century rather than being a museum piece from the past.

Under the wings of an angel

The countryside around here is spectacular.  We had a year-group trip to Barnard Castle, where the Tees river valley is beautiful. (I have to admit I did not see too much of it as I was discussing Anglo-Saxon history with Phil, a former mediaeval historian!) Then on Saturday Tom and I went to Hadrian’s Wall, starting at Housesteads Fort – which has large and extensive remains – and then walking alongside of the wall for a couple of miles to the east. The

The Angel of the North

Wall here is at its most impressive, rising along with the Whin Sill – a geological welt that marks the collision of two microplates, roughly correponding to England and Scotland, more than 150 million years ago. Walking with Tom can be humbling. As we came to a patch of boggy terrain,  at 6ft8 he strode across. I, well, splashed.

On the way back we drove past the Angel of the North, which necessitated a change of plans to see it more closely. It’s truly impressive!

I’ve started my parish placement. It’s at a church in Haughton-le-Skerne, on the north-east edge of Darlington: the area used to be a village in its own right before being absorbed by the growth of the city. The vicar, David Bryan, has a lively and engaging style, and we have already enjoyed some good, intelligent conversations! Economically the city is deprived: it grew in the 19th century when it became a hub for coal being transported from the West Durham coalfields to the port at Stockton-on-Tees – hence the reason for the world’s first commercial railway from Darlington to Stockton. As the demand for rail transport declined, so to did Darlington and its factories. Much of this I learned at the Darlington railway museum – a little gem, a wonderful blend of social history and trains!

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall