The Grand Canyon of Durham

Tue, 07/03/2000 - 00:00

On Friday night, it was a perfectly ordinary, perfectly flat, cornfield. By Sunday morning, it was devastated by a vast trench estimated in places to be 30m across, 5m deep and about 200 metres long.

The enormous gully - so big that locals have called it ‘the Grand Canyon of Durham’ - is believed to have been formed in a matter of minutes when millions of gallons of floodwater from surrounding farmland suddenly tore through the soil towards the River Wear.

Simultaneously, the high waters of the Wear had broken the banks at exactly the same point - and in an instant, a new tributary to the river was formed. Luckily, no buildings were near enough to be directly affected. However, the general flooding has caused 10s maybe 100s of thousands of pounds worth of damage to the College buildings and land.

Now the floodwater has drained away and the river has returned to its normal level, an almost empty canyon remains, with just a trickle of water at the bottom.

It is an extraordinary illustration of the power of nature - and shows that enough water, flowing with enough force, doesn’t need decades to carve a path through the earth. In fact, it is estimated that the water carried into the river up to 12,000 cubic metres of soil, weighing 15,000 tons, the volume of 25 swimming pools.

Durham experienced 80mm of rain in 24 hours, ten times the average, helping to create the new feature in a field belonging to East Durham College’s Houghall Campus.

Peter Whitfield, from the College, discovered the canyon in the early hours of Sunday morning when he rushed to work to investigate the flooding. He was early enough on the scene to see the water thundering into it from the field.

‘I heard this rushing like Niagara Falls,’ he said. ‘And I could see this water wearing away the land. The field was perfectly flat 25 acres before. Now there’s only about 18 acres left. It's a stunning piece of work. It is Mother Nature at work, showing the power of the forces that are out there.’

He added that staff were forced to swim through floodwater to save sheep, pigs, horses and other livestock from last weeks torrential downpour, however it was so sever several pigs and small other smaller livestock were drowned.

There was speculation that the flood had exposed the original course of the Wear, which was altered by monks back in the 15th or 16th century. But Durham University geomorphologist, Jeff Warburton, said it was not an ancient river bed, simply a new gully formed by the vast amount of flood water.

The College staff are now all extremely busy with the clean-up operation to get the College in shape for the start of the new academic year in September. Houghall last year provided land based studies for nearly 1000 students.

Grand Canyon v Durham Canyon

Where: Nevada, USA  HISTORY: Carved over 17 million years by Colorado river SIZE: 1,904 sq. miles  VISITORS: 5 million a year

Where: In a small field  HISTORY: Dug in 16th century. Reappeared on Sunday SIZE: 80 ft. wide by 15 ft. deep  VISITORS: 50 and counting! Including ITV North East Tonight; BBC Look North; ITN; BBC Breakfast; The Northern Echo.