Today it’s pouring with rain, but earlier in the week we had some dry weather and I found myself sitting on a bench on the west bank of the river Wear, drinking coffee, looking up at Durham cathedral and watching the world go by. To my left, the bustle of Framwellgate Bridge and the old town. To my right, the constant but oh so soothing roar of the weir at the Fulling Mill.
We can be so busy in our lives that we don’t take time just to sit, to be in the now. The future is always crowding in: I can only spare ten minutes for this break, then I must do this… or go there… or speak to so-and-so… Sitting by the river I could forget these day to day worries, and time itself: my thoughts drifting with the river.
There were plenty of black headed gulls in the water, and several cormorants. A group of gulls was chilling out on the far bank, or so I thought. They all waddled off and I realised they were grey and white muscovy ducks. I haven’t seen them before. I wonder if anyone is missing their duck collection? They were definitely not feral.
And wait a minute, those cormorants look very small. I do believe they’re shags. A bit bigger than a great crested grebe, and no obvious white patch. I’ve just got out the bird books to confirm and I’m pretty confident that there were at least three shags on the river. Another first.
I’m deep in thought, and half way through my coffee, when a blue bullet zips downstream. A kingfisher! Even on this dull day the electric blue flash is unmistakable. A few minutes later it darted back upstream towards the Fulling Mill. As it passed me it tilted in flight, alternately showing off its blue back and orange breast. It flew so close to the water I thought it was going to launch itself in like a submarine.
I’m sitting here, watching the birds and admiring the cathedral, and remembering just what it is about Durham that captured my heart when my Taller Half and I decided to up sticks and move here from down South three years ago. The city itself is gorgeous. You do need to overlook some pretty hideous pieces of 60s and 70s architecture (what were they thinking of?) and the seemingly never ending improvement works in the city centre. But we have some lovely medieval streets, and the castle and cathedral grandly stand over the city and the river.
People are friendly here too. None of the rudeness and hurry that is standard practice down south. You have to get used to being called hen and chicken and pet, and the standard greeting when out walking is ‘alreet’ not ‘hello’. Oh, and you can’t hide the fact that you’re not a local, especially out in the pit villages. You don’t even need to open your mouth. Get on any bus and the locals know you’re not local simply because they don’t know who you are. To be honest, I got used to this pretty quickly and the community spirit in the North is something all Southerners should envy.
Another great draw in the North is the vast amount of open and empty space. This was a major factor in deciding to move here. No need to get on a train, cross London and then take another train to get anywhere worth walking. Just pick up a map, choose a direction and set off. Generally you’ll have the whole Durham countryside to yourself too. Getting out to the ‘nice stuff’ doesn’t require much effort either. Haltwhistle and Hadrian’s Wall country is about an hour by train. Alnmouth and the Northumberland coast is 40 minutes away. Without a car getting about can take a superhuman knowledge of bus timetables and ticketing systems, but Teesdale and Weardale are both accessible to the carless. Go any further West and car free travel gets long and complicated, but there are plenty of easier places still waiting for me to explore.
There’s a ripple in the water as a fish surfaces. It reminds me of another time when I was just sitting by the river. It was late Autumn and the salmon where running. We saw a splash on top of the Fulling Mill weir, then another. Now our eyes were in, we could make out fish after fish leaping the weir on their relentless journey up the river to spawn. I walked up to the weir now to chance my luck of a sighting, but no salmon today. Maybe next time…
…but then, I can hardly complain today: kingfisher, shag and muscovy. My coffee cup is empty now. Time to go home.