By Rachel Barlow
The lack of lighting along the riverside is an age-old problem at Durham, and one that has seen repeated bursts of support and silence from students and the County Council respectively. For anyone who hasn’t walked along the riverside at night (or after 3pm in wintertime), I would not recommend it. Especially during wintery weather, the river walk is slippery, creepy, and somehow seems longer in the dark. This year has also included heightened fears about women’s safety, especially when walking at night, meaning many students feel justified in calling for change.
Lumiere 2021 sparked debate in its inclusion of the installation of ‘Lines’, an artwork by Pekka Niittyvirta and Timo Aho. This involved (unsurprisingly) lines of light, which ran along the Fulling Mill stretch of the riverside. Even in describing the site of the installation, Lumiere added a warning: “The pathway is not well lit and there may be leaves and mud depending on weather”. If Lumiere had to warn visitors that the path was dangerous even when it had some level of lighting, we might ask why it remains in the dark for every other week of the year.
Welfare officers from 11 colleges have since called for lighting to be installed permanently, with one welfare officer stating: “Lumiere showed that it’s clearly something the council is capable of doing”.
There seems to be a resounding agreement among the student community that lighting is needed along the Riverwalk. Durfess saw several responses to this issue after Lumiere, one post angrily stating: “It’s the fact that it takes Lumiere to light up the Riverwalk and the goop of it all is that they expect us to sidetrack to the dark parts of the city if we don’t have a gold pass […]”. Another post said, “Petition to make the Lumiere lighting permanent. Would make this area so much safer (plus its pretty)”. In an even more damning Durfess post, a commenter said, “I’d like to thank Durham council for fulfilling their basic duty of care by illuminating the walkways by the river for 4 whole days every 2 years”. Can we really blame them for pointing the finger?
I was surprised when looking at the Council website to find that Durham had, in 2015, already reviewed and acted on the advice of the Royal Society of Prevention for Accidents following the death of three students (in separate incidents) on and near the riverside. After finding that the riverwalk was “not well illuminated beyond railings”, the path was resurfaced, fencing was installed, and lighting added. The lighting that they did install, however, was limited. They only listed it as being added along the footpath up to the Cathedral from Silver Street – ie. enough so they could say they had acted on the experts’ advice. The walkway on both banks remains dark, while further down the river the path from Gilesgate to Maiden Castle is illuminated only in part.
The reason for this minimal action is to discourage residents, especially vulnerable after a night out or in extreme weather, from going down the hard-to-access riverwalk late at night. The Durham City Safety Group announced that, “the group has chosen to use signage to direct path users to safe, lit night time routes”, visible also in their introduction of the ‘nightlights’ mapping network. Another possible concern about installing lighting (other than having to splash the cash) is that it could disturb a “potential” bat cluster close to Prebends Bridge. Perhaps the riverwalk is best left in some state of disrepair so that more well lit and accessible routes are taken, and the nature along the river is left undisturbed.
The Council’s tactic seems like a surefire way to avoid further deaths or injuries along the riverside, but it also displaces the responsibility onto the individual. Returning from Maiden Castle to Gilesgate via main roads, for example, adds 10 minutes to the alternative journey by the river, which is just a bit miserable in wintertime. Choosing routes along main roads might also contribute to other issues like dangerous levels of overcrowding along Hallgarth Street and Church Street. Nor does the council’s attitude bode well in light of Durham Student Wellbeing’s thoughtful post at the start of term, warning students “don’t get spiked”. The Council uses inaction as a tactic, and seems to be saying ‘don’t walk along the riverside’, which is easier said than done in the bustle of student life.
Even if well-intentioned, these kinds of messages always put the responsibility on the individual’s shoulders. Daily inconveniences are, of course, preferable to dangerous accidents, but I believe both could be avoided by the installation of proper lighting and CCTV cameras along the riverside.
Image via Artichoke Trust