back to top

Student Drownings Cause Durham Police To Lose Patience With "Unsafe" Drinking Culture

BuzzFeed News went to Durham and found a deep disagreement over how to keep students safe following three recent deaths in the River Wear.

Posted on
Richard James / BuzzFeed

“The issue isn’t the river, it’s the people are getting so drunk they can’t look after themselves.”

Kate Shepherd, the owner of the Whisky River bar, is not alone in her opinion of what caused the recent deaths of three Durham University students in the River Wear.

Durham police and local politicians believe that a dangerous drinking culture now exists among the city's student population, and that something has to be done to control it. After another student came perilously close to losing his life after falling in the river last week, the authorities are beginning to take active steps to address the culture of "pre-loading" on drink before heading out, and the availability of cheap alcohol in the city.

Sergeant Mick Urwin of Durham Constabulary's alcohol harm reduction unit told BuzzFeed News: "We’re not babysitters, we just want them to tone it down. Enough is enough now."

The students, though, insist that there is no issue with drinking, and are adamant that local authorities are simply not doing enough to improve safety along Durham's river paths.

When BuzzFeed News visited Durham it was clear that the deaths of Sope Peters, Luke Pearce, and Euan Coulthard still hang over the city.

BBC Look North

Conversations we heard in pubs and the city centre showed clearly that the events of the last 14 months are still fresh in people's minds.

Some students told us stories of people being too scared to walk home alone after a night out.

That, however, does not appear to have dampened students' appetite for drinking. On Wednesday evening the Walkergate complex teemed with thousands of young people in fancy dress enjoying the biggest social evening of the week.

What was striking though was how quiet the city centre was for most of the night, before the college bars emptied and people raced to the Loveshack nightclub or the Bishops’ Mill bar.

According to those running Durham's bars and the police, students are now heading out later than ever before after loading up on cheap alcohol.

PC Claire McNaney of Durham Constabulary told BuzzFeed News:

What we're finding is people pre-load at home, so they'll drink an awful amount at home and then come out at, say, 11–12 o'clock, and probably not drink much whilst they're out.

They drink more when they're at home, and that's a massive thing we're seeing.


The "pre-loading" issue is one that crops up again and again.

Richard James / BuzzFeed

Shepherd said that a lot of students are now just drinking water when they get to clubs.

Guy Stoker, the manager of The Bishops' Mill, agreed, and said he can have 1,000 students through his doors on a Wednesday night but only make a few thousand pounds on drinks.

He said there are times when he turns away over a hundred students in a single night for being too drunk before they even get in.

Gary Clark, the assistant manager of The Slug and Lettuce, said the drinking culture among the students had become "more extreme".

The price of alcohol in the city is what the authorities seem most keen to address.

Discussing the cost of booze in the city's supermarkets, Durham's chief constable, Mike Barton, told the BBC's Look North programme: "If you look at the strength of some of the drinks that's available, kids who are getting it could make themselves insensible for £1.50.

"But what sort of world are we living in? They're flogging stuff that's killing people."

Durham City MP, Roberta Blackman-Woods, told BuzzFeed News she was intent on addressing the issue.

"I do think there is an issue about the availability of cheap alcohol that might be fueling an unsafe drinking culture among students," she said.

"I'm going to have a meeting with the people who run and manage the licensed premises and the supermarkets' managers as well, to see if there's anything that can be done [about low prices]. I'm determined that I am going to meet them."

Catherine Wheatley, assistant manager of the Boat Club bar, said she thought certain venues in Durham were serving alcohol too cheaply and suggested that a set minimum price could help.

Shepherd disagreed, though, saying: "I don't think the prices are going to put the students off drinking. It's more I think the training – the staff need to be educated as to when who is drunk, to recognise who to serve and who not to serve, and a lot of these bar staff are students themselves and they're serving their friends."

The students we spoke to rejected the idea that Durham has a particular problem with drinking and said it is no different to any other university city.

Richard James / BuzzFeed

Jasmine Harrison, a first-year at Trevelyan College, said she was recently on a night out in Newcastle where she saw offers such as three trebles for £5.

She admitted, though, that she sometimes worries when she sees extremely drunk students out in Durham. "Some people don’t realise the dangers," she said.

Jacob Savill, a first-year at Hild Bede College, said his friends had become more vigilant and now discussed the dangers of the Wear frequently.

And Ellie, a second-year student who didn't give us her surname, said people were now looking out for each other a lot more, even strangers.

A number of students confirmed that police officers and members of the fire service had spoken to them about drinking responsibly and the dangers of the river.

Calls for an improvement in safety along the city's river pathways also remain contentious.

Richard James / BuzzFeed

Danielle Lewis, a Hile Bede fresher, said a railing along the towpath would put her mind at rest, while Harrison said the potential return of the university night bus could help.

Ellie agreed that railings along the river paths could indeed help prevent another tragedy, but argued that installing more lights could have the reverse effect of encouraging more people to walk along the river late at night.

That view was echoed by PC McNeeney, who added: "I don’t think [more] CCTV would be a bad thing. I don’t think railing at certain points would be a bad thing, but I don’t think that’s going to solve the problem that we’ve got, which is a drinking culture."


The lighting on certain stretches of the River Wear is non-existent. This is the view towards Hild Bede, where, Savill said, at certain points people have to use the light from their phones to see where they're going at night.

Lewis claimed also that the street lamps that are along this stretch of the river frequently don't work.

This is how dark it is at 5:30pm along the footpath at the bottom of Framwellgate Bridge, where 19-year-old student Euan Coulthard was last seen last month.

Richard James / BuzzFeed

Divers found his body near the bridge a week after he went missing.

Coulthard had been on a night out at the Loveshack and was seen heading towards this path just before midnight.

A petition calling for an improvement in the safety conditions along the river has been backed by prime minister David Cameron.

And a survey published by Durham's student newspaper, Palatinate, on Thursday found that 93% of students polled believe the area around the river is "dangerous to a drunk person".

Richard James / BuzzFeed

Of the 600-odd students surveyed, 73% chose “the area around the river is dangerous” as the main issue concerning student safety.

Meanwhile, 70% of those surveyed by the paper said they believed the student union wasn’t doing enough to educate students on alcohol awareness and river safety.


Chief constable Barton strongly disagrees with calls for better safety measures, however. He told the BBC:

One thing connected these three young men who died in the river and that was they were so paralytically drunk they were not in control of their bodies.

They have then walked or stumbled into the river.

Some people are saying this means we have to fence off the river. No we don't.

What we need to look at is the personal responsibility of young men and women who are coming away to university, starting their lives and who need to behave a bit more socially responsibly.

I was incensed when I heard some representatives of the student body saying the answer is for more police officers.

It is ludicrous that society is asking me to put police officers on the riverbank to stop bright young things falling in. What sort of world have we come to?

The Boat Club's Catherine Wheatley revealed that she had witnessed students deliberately jumping into the river on nights out, despite the recent deaths.

Richard James / BuzzFeed

"I’ve noticed students, particular societies, on a night out, no matter what the weather, no matter how high the river is, will jump into the river and swim to the second archway [of Elvett Bridge] and then swim back," she said.

Wheatley said the Boat Club put up temporary barriers, but that didn't stop people. The police would come down and tell them to move on, but by then it was too late – they had already gone into the river.

PC McNeeney said thousands of locals lived in the city and hadn't ended up in the river.

"There's one thing in common here, and that's the amount of alcohol that's on board," she said. "Whether there's a barrier there or not, I don't think that's going to prevent them [students]."

Durham University yesterday announced the launch of a £50,000 campaign, funded by the local council, aimed at promoting positive behaviour when drinking alcohol.

Richard James / BuzzFeed

Dan Slavin, the student union president, told BuzzFeed News in a statement that the union recognised that there is a "national drinking culture issue in the UK" and was working to educate students on alcohol consumption.

Blackman-Woods agreed there was a "huge job" in teaching the young academics about drinking responsibility.

The MP said she wanted there to continue to be a night-time economy in Durham but that it had to be managed in the interests of a wide diversity of people and on a scale suitable for a very small city with residential properties close to the city centre.

"Nobody is saying you shouldn't have, ever, any students drinking," she said. "It's just making sure that it happens in a way that keeps them safe and also keeps the permanent residents of the city safe as well.

"I'm not sure our licensing policy really reflects that, to be honest."

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents is now set to conduct a review of safety in the city and will report back to the council.

Richard James / BuzzFeed

Regardless of its findings, the police are determined to stamp down on drunkenness, and said that more students will be arrested if they continue to get so inebriated.

Sergeant Urwin said an incident last week where police formed a human chain to pull a 20-year-old student out of the river put officers' lives at risk.

The rhetoric from chief constable Barton also shows that those in charge have now had enough.

A spotlight has been shone on Durham's drinking culture, and despite their calls for a safer city, the students appear to be on their own when it comes to protecting themselves from another tragedy.

Richard James is the News Director for BuzzFeed Australia and is based in Sydney.

Contact Richard James at

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.