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A walk along the River Don

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Grey Heron, River Don, Jarrow

An excellent way to fill a Sunday morning.

Those old enough to remember what it was like when we had heavy industries in the north-east will recall that low tide at the River Don in Jarrow presented a particular olfactory challenge, the area around St. Paul’s Church and Jarrow Slake stank to high heaven, and any sort of gentle breeze would carry the malodorous stink for miles.  Coal, coal gas, chemicals, and petro-chemicals were responsible for polluting one of the Tyne’s tributaries in an age when we cared far less for the environment around us, this is thankfully not the case any longer. Along with the change in Tyneside’s economic landscape there has come an acceptance of greater social responsibility and a caring attitude towards the environment, cleaner water and the nurturing of returning wildlife has made some parts of South Tyneside that bit more interesting, informative, and pleasurable to be surrounded by.

Yesterday I joined my younger brother in a photographic “walk and talk” along the banks of the River Don, it was a refreshing and welcome venture as we rarely spend as much time together as perhaps we should. He is very knowledgeable about birds and other wildlife and has a keen eye and ear to know what is happening around him, so binoculars and long lens at the ready we set out from the jetties at the Nissan Terminal just as the ebb tide was about to turn, taking in a landscape shrouded in eight inches of snow over packed ice after Friday’s substantial snowfall. The banks of the Don at this point are certainly not pretty, they are more mud flats carved and moulded by the silt and water that has flowed since before Bede started his education at the nearby monastery, it is also near to this point that I believe the underground remnants of South Shields’ historical Brinkburn Dene make their way into the Don from a culvert within the boundaries of the Port of Tyne Authority. These muddy flats provide a great source of food for wading birds, ducks, and larger specimens, and the surrounding meadowland between the river and car park is an excellent habitat for other wildlife including rodents and in spring/summer a variety of colourful moths and butterflies.

Yesterday morning we found teals, curlews, sandpipers, and the huge grey heron that you see pictured above, it probably sensed us as we approached and it took off waving it’s huge wings in a languid flapping motion as it circled and headed over South Shields, probably heading towards Boldon Flats or the Wildfowl centre in Washington. We pressed on past the restored Jarrow Bridge and St. Paul’s Church and monastery before climbing the hill to cross over Church Bank, it was while we were on the next stretch that we began to hear robins, great tits, and blue tits (some of whom sat like good models for the camera) and also a chap from Jarrow also out with his binoculars, the chat then revolved around a legendary terrapin of all things! Apparently it is common knowledge in Jarrow that a terrapin inhabits the Don and this chap claimed to have photographs of it – so if you have any do kindly email me a copy – from when it was young and small, now according to locals it is bigger than a regulation Fifa size 5 football, and it feeds on ducks! A couple of hundred yards down the path a small iron bridge crosses the Don, to the left a path wends it’s way through dense copses of trees interspersed with areas of long grass which in summer months provide surprises such as a partridge family which startled me last year, eventually you arrive at a still pond under Church Bank where I’ve photographed tadpoles, newts, toads, and mayflies; we followed the path to the right at the end of the iron bridge skirting past a pumping station before heading under the A19 Tyne Tunnel approach road, on the left after this underpass is an altogether much larger pond, another great spot for the keen wildlife photographer. It was here that I once saw the talked about kingfisher that some lucky guys photographed, I never had their luck. A gentle rise once more takes you to the other carriageway of the A19 as you bear left and follow the path downhill to another underpass before following the Don uphill again across open land swathed in a deep covering of snow, we were now well on our way towards Jarrow Cemetery set high on the hill over on the left.

I had noticed on my walks through Harton Cemetery quite a lot of numbered boxes fixed high in the trees which I had previously assumed were nesting boxes for birds, it was only now as I encountered the same things in Jarrow that I learn that they are not for birds at all, and on closer inspection find that there is no familiar hole for the birds to gain access. These are bat boxes with a small slit on the underside to encourage pipistrelles to roost (recent bat surveys show that Jarrow Cemetery and the River Don are popular foraging sites for these bats!)  Whilst here, we also spotted blue tits, long tailed tits, redwings, and the greater spotted woodpecker. Most of these birds were quite flighty and didn’t present good opportunities for the camera although I did get three decent shots of the tits. After a good stroll around the cemetery we could have decided to press on down the hill to follow the Don to the Robin Hood and get a little closer to where otters have been spotted, it would have made a good lunchtime rendezvous, but we decided instead to turn around and head back towards the car, our toes were pretty chilled by now.

We didn’t intend to spend two hours slowly sauntering along the banks of the river, and our wives were probably surprised that we’d been away for so long, but for gentlemen of a certain age, with hobbies, and a need to chat whilst getting some much needed exercise it was a great way to fill in a Sunday morning. If you feel up to it you could get your better half to drop you off near St. Pauls and follow the River Don all the way to Brockley Whins station or carry on past Newton Garths farm to Boldon Tilesheds and have her pick you up there. Despite the odd shopping trolley dumped in the river it does get surprisingly clean the further you get upriver, and if you spend too much of your time in town this little taste of urban pleasure can really open your eyes!

For those with the political minds, the exercise will come in nice and handy, there is a general election coming along, as well as a council by election, so plenty of foot slogging and leaflet distribution will be the order of the day – I’m starting tomorrow!

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Written by curly

February 1, 2010 at 3:02 pm

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