Evolving Landscapes and Invasive Species: Kielder Water and Forest Park and the river bank at Durham


By David Moon


Wooden squirrel carving at Kielder (Photo: Peter Coates)

After leaving Kielder at the end of the workshop, Petra and I walked along the bank of the river Wear in Durham. Shaded by the broad-leaved woodland on the steep side of the river bank, we walked past the picturesque Old Fulling Mill, and stopped to look at the majestic cathedral towering above us. After a squirrelless weekend at Kielder – the last bastion for the native, if shy, red squirrel – we saw a squirrel scurry off through the undergrowth. What more English, or even ‘natural’, scene could we hope to see? What greater contrast could there be between the river bank at Durham and the man-made dam, reservoir, hydroelectric power station and forest, with introduced coniferous trees, at Kielder?

And yet, the flow of the river Wear at Durham has been regulated by a weir; the mill – which now houses the Museum of Archaeology – was originally built to harness the power of the water; the path along the bank was built and is maintained by the council; the trees were mostly planted from the mid-eighteenth century, where there had previously been terraced gardens;  the cathedral – regarded as the finest Romanesque building in northern Europe and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – was built by members of an invasive species from Normandy in a few decades starting in 1093.

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral (Photo: David Moon)

The Normans built their new cathedral out of local sandstone. Their aim was not to construct a building that would blend into the ‘environment’ and  appear ‘natural’. Rather, the cathedral was built of out stone in a prominent position on top of the peninsula created by the loop in the river Wear in order to impress on the indigenous population, who had risen in revolt against the invaders, they it was they, the Norman conquerors, who were now the rulers. The hopes of some of the local population that the kingdom of Northumbria would be a last bastion for the native population was in vain.

The squirrel Petra and I saw on the river bank was not red, but grey. It was a member of a more recent invasive species, originally from north America, that worked its way northwards through Britain almost a thousand years after the Normans. The typical ‘English’ scene we saw by the banks of the river Wear in Durham was just as ‘artificial’ as the views across the man-made reservoir and planted forest we had seen at Kielder a few hours earlier. But the landscape along the river Wear at Durham had not been constructed over a few decades, but had evolved over many centuries.

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