Greatham Creek revisited

Visiting Lloyd and Margaret Williams in Dewsbury with Tom Hiney

Visiting Lloyd and Margaret Williams in Dewsbury with Tom Hiney

I’ve just come back from a trip up north, starting with visiting Tom Hiney in Dewsbury, going via the seals on Tees-side and ending up watching red squirrels in Strathyre (the next blog post).

While in Dewsbury, Tom and I visited Lloyd and Margaret Williams: Lloyd has been a major figure in the healing ministry, if somewhat less well known than his contemporaries David Watson and John Wimber. It was a great opportunity for us to quiz someone with a proven track record in this area, with tricky issues such as “Are there times when it is better to pray for someone to pass away into the Lord’s care rather than to pray for their healing?” (Short answer: yes.)

Common scoter in Greatham Creek

Common scoter in Greatham Creek

I then travelled up to the north east, dropping into Stockton before meeting Jaybee for a day of bird-watching on Tees-side. We spent most of the time in the Greatham Creek area: I enjoyed being able to see birds that hardly ever occur in the West Midlands! Two notable examples were the common scoter, a sea duck, and the red-breasted merganser, a notably colourful bird with a punk hairstyle.

Red breasted merganser pair in Greatham Creek.

Red breasted merganser pair in Greatham Creek.

It was great to be able to catch up with Jaybee. It was meeting him in the first week of my time in Durham, and his showing me around the main birdwatching sites on Tees-side a few weeks later, that led to my taking up birdwatching in a big way. He’s a courageous character, absolutely determined to overcome the ill health that he battles with, and of which he is eager to be completely free.

I’ve always been fascinated by Greatham Creek with its combination of wildlife and heavy industry. This scene, with avocets skimming the water in the foreground, epitomises it.

Heavy industry on Tees-side, with avocets skimming the water in the foreground.

Heavy industry on Tees-side, with avocets skimming the water in the foreground.

Just over the road – which is the main route from Middlesbrough to Hartlepool – is the haul-out point for the seals (just visible in the image below).

The A178 road bridge at Greatham Creek, with the seals languishing on the mudflats beyond.

The A178 road bridge at Greatham Creek, with the seals languishing on the mudflats beyond.

The seals at Greatham Creek

The seals at Greatham Creek

Spot the male redshank unsure what to do when a female flies in... "if in doubt, keep yapping"

Spot the male redshank unsure what to do when a female flies in… “if in doubt, keep yapping”

I was also amused by the antics of a male redshank, who made quite a racket in an attempt to attract a female. One flew in – which seemed to astonish him, as he was silent for a while, not sure what to do. Then he continued his racket, so that she eventually flew off. Some blokes just seem to lack a bit of panache! ūüôā


Rico Tice (right) with Richard Vardy

This week we had an unexpected guest speaker – Rico Tice, an evangelist based at All Soul’s, Langham Place (John Stott’s church). He gave us a high-speed guide to equipping the church for evangelism, presenting in an hour-and-a-half what most normal people would spend half a day doing.

He asked a question which he said is key for evangelists: “do you love the local church?”. He’s¬†noticed that very often, those with evangelistic gifts¬†tend to do their own thing – but it is vital that new believers are linked in to the local church. Rico has a huge belief in the importance of the church: for him,¬†the task is “not about me doing evangelism” but “me equipping the church to do evangelism”.

One of the main¬†barriers to effective evangelism is that people are afraid to encourage people to read the Bible. There’s considerable resistance which is important to overcome,¬†because the power is in the Word of God. So part of the purpose of the training he does is to teach people to ask the question “Would you like to look at the Bible with me?” – to which there are only two answers: ‘yes’ and ‘no’! This approach crosses the pain threshold for many people.

The session was as refreshing as it was energetic: I felt much better equipped for having been to it.

The stump of Jesse: a pastel sketch by Tim Coleman, inspired during a Tuesday evening college service.

Just prior to this, my discipleship group took part in a creativity workshop, run by two of the group, Tim and Helen. One of the delights in leading this group has been discovering just how creative people are in this group. Helen, for example, is a gifted poet with unusual insight; Tim uses his artistic gifts prophetically, shown particularly in this pastel drawing that he did during a recent college service.

The purpose of having the workshop was both¬†to learn how to use the creative arts in one’s own spiritual journey, and how to enable others to do the same. It was important that we didn’t have technically-proficient professionals running it, but people who have a passion for enabling ordinary churchgoers to develop their own gifts –¬†for the benefit both of themselves and those around them.

Last weekend I thought I would check out how the seals were doing at Greatham Creek, given all the snow and freezing weather. The answer: it appears they are completely unfazed by the conditions – you’d think it was midsummer! They must have an awful lot of blubber on them…

It may be freezing, but the seals are still lounging around like it’s summer…

Cafe Philo in York

St. Paul’s, Holgate

I’ve just had a really good week on placement at St. Paul’s, Holgate, on the SW side of York. It’s the first part of the “Fresh Expressions” course run at Cranmer. The vicar, John Lee, is a quiet personality whose understated style nevertheless goes with clear vision and strong leadership. He’s passionate about building good teams, and sees it as his task to choose people who are “better than himself” – which is a great approach to the task! Modest he may be, but he’s clearly astute in selecting and handling people.

Pig & Pastry – the location for the Cafe Philo event.

On Wednesday evening I went to a “Cafe Philo”¬†event at the “Pig & Pastry” on Bishopthorpe Road. It’s event that grew out of a men’s Bible study run by Julian Richer, the business entrepreneur, and loosely follows the form of Cafe Philos in Paris.

There were about 40 of us¬†there, with good supplies of food (including pork pies!). We were all invited to come up with suggestions for topics to discuss, and about 10¬†were put forward. These were put to a vote¬†– we had unlimited votes, but only the top three topics were discussed.¬†These included¬†the power of the media¬†– which eventually focussed on Rupert Murdoch’s influence – and on whether those on benefits should work for them.

The event was moderated by Julian himself, who is a lively and opinionated compere Рmore Alan Green than David Dimbleby!  Discussion flowed freely, with most people contributing at some stage or another.

It was an excellent event that would work well in different places Рalthough the format probably appeals more to readers of broadsheet newspapers than to those of the Sun.  The church connection was not obvious, which may or may not be an advantage.

On Friday I visited the men’s Bible study which Julian runs. It was a most refreshing experience! There’s a great cameraderie amongst the guys who are there, many of whom are businessmen, and it is a relaxed environment in which both seekers and established Christians¬†can discuss freely.

In the evening I nipped back to Durham briefly, stopping off at Greatham Creek to see the seals – which were lounging around in their usual style!

Seals at Greatham Creek


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 Рand 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

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.


So, where would you go to see seals? Isle of Skye? Skomer off the Pembrokeshire coast? The Farne Islands? All fine, but how about the windswept waste land between Hartlepool and Middlesborough?


Seals along Greatham Creek

Just off the A178 between the two towns is Greatham Creek, a short distance from the smoke stacks of heavy industry, where seals regularly haul themselves out of the water to recuperate from a hard day’s fishing in the North Sea. Jaybee introduced me to it while giving me a tour of local bird-watching sites.


Slavonian grebe at Saltholme; photo by Jaybee

We finished at the RSPB’s excellent new reserve at Saltholme, where I was lucky enough to see (amongst other things) a Slavonian grebe that had recently arrived, and a merlin. I hardly expected this area to be so good for wildlife – but it turns out to be a haven for birds, especially those that have migrated across the North Sea. It also shows that wildlife can co-exist with heavy industry – provided that the water is not polluted.

Part of the reason for the bird-watching enthusiasm is the need for constructive relaxation. Studying here is a brilliant experience but it is quite intense, and I’m having to learn some time-management skills… I’m also discovering, again, the need for a disciplined prayer life. There are many distractions and demands on time, but it is just as essential to be¬† grounded in one’s spiritual relationship with the Creator here as anywhere else.

As today is All Saints Day, the vicar of Haughton-le-Skerne, David Bryan, asked me up to front to name three ‘heroes of the faith’. Here are the three I chose:

  • Alfred the Great, King of Wessex (871-899): warrior, father of the English language, devout believer.
  • John Stott: scholar and pastor, father of modern-day Evangelicalism in the Anglican church.
  • John Wimber: founder of the Vineyard Movement of churches, whose¬† low-key, relaxed style was “naturally supernatural”.

Which three would you choose?