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.

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

Behind a Wall

I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in Byker, an Urban Priority Area in Newcastle, with five others from Cranmer. In the 1970s, the old, high-density housing was cleared and replaced with the architecturally award-winning Byker Wall – but architecture doesn’t change communities, and Byker continues to have high deprivation and residents who are tired of projects being done to them.

Part of the Byker Wall, with the Metro station in front

This is a tough environment for churches, and all four Anglican parishes there are struggling with low numbers. The clergy have however poured heart and soul into the area – none more so than John Sadler, who has done remarkable work to renovate church buildings to be more flexible in their use, and better able to serve the surrounding communities. John works daily from 6am to 9pm, and sweats blood for Byker. One result is St. Martin’s church in nearby Walker, the result of partnerships with Barnardo’s and SureStart. In the photo below, a nursery is at the near end, the church at the far end, and a flexible-use space in the middle.

St. Martin’s Church in Walker.

Grace Inn, Shields Road

As a fan of Gloucestershire cricket, I was surprised and delighted by a pub on the Shields Road, the shopping street just outside Byker, commemorating the 19th century cricket colossus, WG Grace. He was one of those rare players who was not just a superstar but transformed the sport itself. The fact that a pub in Newcastle is still named after him nearly a century after his death is a testimony to his stature.

Flamborough Head

Gannet colony at Bempton Cliffs: above the arch are lots of nesting gannets

I’ve just spent a great day at Bempton Cliffs on the Yorkshire coast, with my local birding friend Jaybee. It’s mainland England’s best site for nesting seabirds, with large numbers of the dramatic gannets, the usual kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills, and small numbers of puffins and fulmars. Although the birds aren’t quite as close or prolific as on the Farne Islands, it was a brilliant experience nonetheless, and the overall scenery is just as spectacular. It was a much needed day of refreshment after the time in Byker!

Owls

On Friday morning I had a most amazing wildlife experience. I’d seen on a local bird forum that there are short-eared owls at a pond near Seaham, so as my brain was fried after a hard week’s work and the weather forecast was good, I headed out there. The first person I met was Jaybee, along with three other local birders.

For the first hour there was no sign of the owls. (The short-eareds generally hunt in the daytime, unlike most others, such as the tawny and barn owls.) Indeed several of us wandered off to a nearby pond (where we proceeded to mis-identify a pair of swans). We kept an eye on what Jaybee was doing; we knew that while he was leaning back against his car, we were not missing anything. After about a quarter of an hour, he disappeared: something was happening! As we trekked back across the field, an owl flew straight across our path. The others followed it; I pressed on towards Jaybee; as soon as I approached he said, “there are four owls up!”

We watched as they flew around the fields across the road from where we were parked: turning, wheeling, flying fast along hegerows, skimming low over the ground, interacting with each other, shrieking, chasing off other birds: it was an absolutely stunning display. For about twenty minutes we watched as one bird after another came close to view, so that it was quite hard to know which one to focus on; then after a while they drifted off – still active and visible, but further away. I then had to return to lunch and an impending assignment!

Short-eared owl quartering the ground: photo by Jaybee taken on Friday

This weekend my German friend Thomas came to stay: it was great to be able to catch up, and to hear about his recent marriage to Carmen. (I first met them when I was camping in Pembrokeshire after my first selection conference; I was not in a good place, but they looked after me one evening – it’s the kind of thing that makes an impression.) We had a look round the cathedral, then wandered up to Hadrian’s Wall: which is even more impressive west of Housesteads Fort than it is to the east.

Thomas at Hadrian’s Wall, west of Housesteads Fort

Two more weeks in Durham this year: the final one of term, and then another week to try to complete a couple of essays due for the beginning of next term. Then back to Cheltenham to connect up with folks. All good!