The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily of Palatinate.
Last year the tragic news of Sope Peters’ death shocked the entire Durham student community. In many ways, the most shocking aspect of his death was the familiarity of the circumstances. I’m sure that many of you reading this have found yourselves walking home alone after a night out, perhaps via the banks of the river Wear. It could have happened to any of us.
Not even six months had passed before the student community was hit with the news of Luke Pearce, who tragically died under very similar circumstances to Sope’s. Both deaths have since been confirmed as ‘accidental’.
The news of Euan Coulthard’s disappearance three weeks ago was accompanied by the bitter taste of familiarity. Even before Coulthard’s body was recovered, we were bracing ourselves for the worst. Euan was a great friend to many, was described as ‘a model student’ and, just like Sope and Luke, will be sorely missed.
Euan’s disappearance prompted the creation of a Change.org petition calling for CCTV and locked gates to be installed along the banks of the river Wear. The petition, proposed by Robyn Tee, also suggested adding railings and lighting along the river’s banks in order to gain ‘a bigger picture in river safety/crime prevention’, and was widely shared across social media. At the time of writing it has reached over fifteen thousand signatures.
Since the petition’s emergence, Durham Constabulary has issued several statements with regards to riverbank safety. However, their angle has been far more centred on preventative measures such as curbing alcohol consumption and bringing back night bus services. This has led to many students’ dissatisfaction, including one journalist for the Tab remarking ‘stop scolding us for our drinking habits and put up some railings’.
Each measure put forward comes with its own pros and cons. For many the obvious answer is to install railings along the river bank. There is certainly a case to be made for railings along the more treacherous stretches of river path. But it is worth questioning how much difference railings would ultimately make. Whilst an accidental slippage that has occurred in close proximity to the river’s edge could easily be stopped by a protective barrier, railings will be next to useless for anyone who has purposefully climbed over or around them, whatever their motivation. And how high would these barriers need to be? If a person slips badly, even a relatively high barrier may not stop them from entering the river. Perhaps more attention should be paid to sufficiently gritting the pathways to avoid any slipping at all?
And the reality of installing many miles’ worth of metal railings along Durham’s riverbank is far from simple. There are issues of expense – in York, a council pledge of £100,000 was said to be enough for ‘hundreds of feet’ of railings, which would barely cover any of the length of Durham’s extensive riverbank. And whilst the issue of picturesqueness may seem petty in context, it must be remembered that many people’s livelihoods rely simply on the ‘prettiness’ of Durham’s riverside – tourism and art for example – and large unsightly railings may impact on Durham’s ‘pristine’ nature.
Ultimately, I am for the installation of railings. I believe they would significantly lower the risk of these incidents occurring again. My purpose of writing Devil’s Advocate here is to point out the counter-arguments that mean that railings may not, on the whole, be a viable solution. It seems unfair to expect Durham County Council to shell out a very large sum of money to install a measure which may not be the holy grail of a solution that it appears to be.
The issue of lighting is also a mixed bag. Some stretches of riverbank are pitch black at night time, and whilst this may deter many from even considering walking along the riverbank by night, the lack of lighting makes the risk that much greater for those who do. More extensive lighting would easily solve this. But on the flip side, it has been pointed out by many that more riverside lighting may simply encourage more people to walk along these potentially dangerous paths, so it could be argued that installing further lighting may be increasing the danger.
The CCTV camera suggestion seems particularly poignant after the release of camera footage showing Euan’s last known whereabouts. Installation of greater video security would allow us far greater speed and clarity when solving such cases in the future. However, I believe this is the wrong attitude to take. I do not want any future cases like this to occur and nor does anyone else in the student community. Prioritising the installation of CCTV security in the river area suggests that we are more concerned with finding the reasons behind any disappearances than preventing them occurring in the first place.
The petition, however, did miss mentioning a measure which in my opinion is just as, if not more, important than any of the ones suggested so far: education and deterrence.
We all know that walking close to the river is potentially very dangerous, especially at night. However, a small lapse of judgement – such as deciding to walk a river path to cut several minutes off a journey time – can prove to be a fatal mistake. It is not obvious how fast the currents are in the river Wear merely from looking, nor is it easy to see how cold the waters are, or how hard it is stay afloat when weighed down by sodden clothes. The recent rescue of a young male from the river near Hild Bede yielded an account of extreme cold and an inescapable, quicksand-like river bed. Clearly, even if you’re completely sober, negotiating a freezing, fast flowing river is far easier said than done.
In this writer’s opinion, the best measure for preventing any further incidents would simply be to raise the awareness of the underlying issue. Tenfold. We need to ensure that all Durham students – us – instinctively know not to go anywhere near the river after dark, just as we would know not accept a lift from a stranger, jaywalk a railway, or drive under the influence of alcohol. A belief that the dangers are slim, or not of importance, is surely the biggest factor involved if a student decides, for whatever reason, to risk walking by the river. Thankfully, Durham is a very small city, so finding an alternative route that does not include a river path is not difficult.
My article is almost certainly unnecessary. The awareness raised by Sope, Luke and Euans’ tragic deaths will surely be more than enough to instigate this awareness in our mentality as a University. But if this article has any purpose, it’s to encourage all who read it to consider carefully our priorities when taking action in this matter. If we have to make a choice – eg due to Durham County Council budget constraints – between these suggested measures, I would urge us not to prioritise CCTV surveillance for the reasons I have already mentioned, and to not immediately assume the railings and lighting are the best answers. Instead, I would urge us to focus on a measure that would actively prevent future events from occurring, and I believe that spreading the message that we, as a student community, must simply avoid the river at night – especially when we are alone, when it is slippery or if we are tipsy – is the most effective measure we can take.
Photographs: Les Bessant and Venus Loi