After Monday’s torrential rain the volunteers assembled on Tuesday morning wondering what the Dene would hold for them in respect of a flooded river. The surrounding fields must have absorbed all the rain that fell on Monday as the water level in the river had hardly risen and consequently the stepping-stones were still usable, which was important for the morning’s work.
With autumn holidays coming to an end the number of volunteers reached double figures, the first time for some weeks.
In 2000 when the two Councils were granted a 99 year lease for the centre part of the Dene, the practice of farmers grazing their cattle in the Dene in winter came to an end. At that time a new fence was erected along the field edges at the extremities of the Dene to keep the cattle out. This resulted in considerable stretches of fencing in the Dene itself becoming redundant.
At the same time over the years the river has worn away some of its banks such that fencing, close to the river, had become unstable and, if amongst high vegetation, very dangerous.
The volunteer’s main task today was to remove this fencing and clear it from the Dene. The first task was to carefully remove the wooden rails and then, as the two photographs show, to loosen the posts and then pull out a length of fencing before dismantling.
Photograph 1 – Loosening the fence posts
Photograph 2 – Removing the length of fencing.
The staples holding the netting were next to be removed and the netting rolled for easy carrying. While some volunteers created drainage ditches for the wettest parts of the path everyone else had the task of getting the 40 odd posts, rails and wire over the river (some over the stepping-stones) and up to the farm road.
There Michael Sharp from NCC had parked his truck which was loaded high with everything recovered and driven to our store where three volunteers helped him sort the load. Sadly only a handful of posts were considered reusable but the rails were in good condition and are now safely stored.
Finally a couple of small fencing repairs, using recovered timber, were successfully carried out to an existing fence and stile.
Despite the previous evening’s forecast for heavy rain, twelve volunteers assembled with only a few spots of rain in the wind, and that was how it stayed all morning. The strong wind from the north east was significant, especially as we were working on an exposed stretch of the northern bridleway, with no shelter from it.
This stretch of the path from Hartley West Farm going west to the first wooden gate with the adjacent seat, was considered to be the worst stretch of path in the Dene, requiring care by walkers and being positively dangerous for cyclists and horses. In places it had deteriorated into two deep ruts and in other places was only half a metre wide.
Numerous discussions had taken place over the years with NCC about its possible refurbishment without anything happening, so it was decided that the volunteers would see what they could do. At one stage it had been a wide stoned path and so the first task was to remove the grass and soil and see if we came to stone. What we actually came to was a very fine dust like layer, which the grass roots had not penetrated, so that became the level of the new path. The first photograph shows the start of operations, illustrating the existing path and the start of the refurbished one.
Photograph 1. Start of operations, showing the existing and refurbished path.
All the grass and soil removed was barrowed to the nearest trees and spread amongst them. The width of the path was increased to 1.5 metres and on the fence side the depth of soil/grass to be removed was of the order of 100 to 150 mm. A very satisfying length of path was uncovered and levelled before a group of weary men and women departed for the shower and armchair.
There are concerns as to what will happen when it rains, whether puddles will form, as what has been created is a slightly sunken path without drainage, however only time will tell. Certainly it is a far less dangerous stretch of path now than when we started.
Photograph 2. A stretch of the refurbished path.
Without a shadow of doubt this week’s session will be remembered by the strength of the wind, which battered the volunteers from start to finish. This week was a continuation of the path refurbishment started last week on the northern bridleway in Holywell Dene and this report should be read in conjunction with that of 14 October, which gives background information.
Last week about 90 metres of path had been widened to 1.5 metres but there was fear of surface water lying after heavy rain. Two days after the work had been carried out it rained all day but an inspection late afternoon showed there was no lying water, so work this week could follow the same pattern as last week.
The amount of grass and soil to be removed before stone/clinker was found increased dramatically in places, the first photograph illustrates this.
Photograph 1. Showing depth of sods being removed
Once again the path was widened to 1.5 metres and all the time, after the grass had been removed, a stone/clinker surface was found and the whole width levelled. At intervals, where the adjacent ground fell away, we created drainage channels in case water started to lie. There were a few discoveries of earlier days, one being an old gate-post hole, which long ago had disappeared as the grass encroached. This at least confirmed our guess as to where the path edge should be.
Photograph 2. Old gate-post hole
Today our productivity increased as everyone knew what had to be done from the start and consequently about 110 metres of path was widened. As we left the site at the end of the morning and dropped down to the tranquillity of the river path, the true strength of the wind, which we had to endure without any protection on the northern bridleway all morning, became apparent.
The ‘Friends’ held another very successful coffee morning at St Paul’s Church, Seaton Sluice on Saturday 18th October which was well attended by members and the general public. The weather forecast had not been very promising, but luckily heavy overnight rain had given way to a warm, pleasant morning.
Sales of raffle tickets were brisk, probably due to the lure of the star prize being a long weekend in a luxury cottage in the Lake District. Some members also took the opportunity to pay their membership subscription, and 68 new 2015 calendars were sold, which were hot off the press.
A display board of photographs depicting the activities of the working party throughout the year was also very popular, with our volunteers answering questions from interested parties about our work in the Dene. The display board also featured a ’stop press’ photo of a red squirrel which had just been snapped in the Dene by one of our members.
By midday the mouth watering selection of delicious homemade cakes and scones were disappearing when a party of walkers trooped into the hall in search of some sustenance. They were soon merrily tucking into tea and cake, and later emerged fully refuelled for their afternoon walk with smiles on their faces, but slightly lighter in their pockets!
At close of play over £170 had been raised from sales of beverages and cakes, £206 from the raffle and £90 from general sales. Calendar sales also made £272, but this was partially offset by printing costs. We also gained three new members on the day.
The funds raised at the coffee morning enable us to continue our work in Holywell Dene into the future, and we would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who supported this event.
As 12 volunteers reported for duty at the usual time of 08.30, the sun was shining and the temperature unseasonably high. Even the wind, although gusty, was from the south so working on the northern bridleway we had some shelter – unlike last week. Due to the good weather, today we were constantly being disturbed by walkers and cyclists using the path who, without exception, thought we were doing a good job but didn’t offer to help!
Today’s work was a continuation of the widening of the northern bridleway and this report should be read in conjunction with the two previous week’s reports, 14 and 21 October.
The plan was to complete the remaining stretch of the path from where we finished on the 21st to Hartley West Farm. However, as the weather forecast was for heavy rain starting around 1pm, the length of path selected was shortened in case the rain arrived early. As things turned out the heavy rain held off until 2pm and so we were able to finish the whole path, albeit in two bites.
Once again we widened the path to 1.5 metres by removing all the thick grass sods and the thin layer of soil beneath. Beneath this we found stone/clinker and in a few places what appeared to be tarmac?
There were, in addition, a couple of strange finds, a small piece of stone, glazed on three sides and a length of copper wire the ends of which were firmly embedded into pieces of stone – there was some discussion on what they were and where they had come from but no conclusions were reached. The photograph shows one of the two teams working in the fairly confined stretches due to the adjacent hedging.
Photograph. One team working in confined area due to adjacent hedge.
So the majority of the very poor stretch of the northern bridleway has been improved. Two further short stretches remain to be widened at the west end but these will have to wait for another day later this winter.
With the temperature only a few degrees above freezing it was a cold start to the morning but as the sun came out and the temperature lifted slightly, it turned out ideal for the work being undertaken. The main task is referred to as ‘sycamore bashing’ and is carried out a couple of times each year to try and keep these trees under control and stop them taking over the Dene.
The work entails walking through the woodland and removing completely any small sycamore trees that can be pulled out, cutting down small trees of diameter up to 4 inches and for larger trees removing lower branches to let in more light.
At the same time a lookout was kept for any tree that was being invaded by ivy. Trees that are completely covered were left but small infestations were stopped by cutting the many small ivy shoots that were clinging to the tree. In a short time the ivy above each cut will die.
Finally a sharp lookout was kept for litter, which is rarely cleared as it normally cannot be seen from the paths,
Especially on the south side of the river, work took place on very steep hillsides that made extremely difficult working conditions especially when using saws for cutting.
Today’s volunteers were divided into three groups all working from east to west. One group was working on the south side of the river, the second on the immediate north of the river going uphill and the third from the northern bridleway downhill to link with the second group.
Much excellent clearing work went on but there is still plenty to do. However, the real pleasure today was seeing the very small amount of litter. Previous years there have been many bags of litter collected together with numerous larger items: today we only gathered one bag half full and one cycle wheel.
Weather wise, it turned out to be a very favourable day for working in the woodland. However, after recent rain, including a shower just before we assembled, conditions underfoot were treacherous, wet and muddy made worse by the steep hillsides we were working on some of the time. Twelve volunteers assembled and we continued the woodland work started last week, cutting back sycamore trees, removing ivy from trees and collecting litter. This report should be read in conjunction with that of the 4th November.
The volunteers were split into roughly the same three groups as last week. The northern bridleway group continued on from where they stopped last week, going west as far as the old railway bridge and then descending to the northern riverside path where they worked in an easterly direction getting as far as the waterfall. There is far less ivy on the north side of the river so most of this group’s time was taken up cutting or pruning sycamore trees.
The other two groups continued work on the south side of the river, covering the woodland from the river to Hartley Lane, one group working east and one west, so that they met up just before morning’s end.
Although cutting or pruning sycamore trees was the priority, cutting ivy from mature trees probably took up most of the morning. This was much easier on trees we had worked on two years ago as the ivy stems were no more than pencil thick. It was interesting to see the result of our work two years ago, when trees that were covered with ivy, had these stems cut. Now the ivy was dead throughout the height of the tree and the stems had lost their adhesion to the trunk of the tree so that they were hanging clear, as the first photograph shows.
Photograph1. Dead ivy, cut 2 years ago, hanging clear of the tree trunk.
Once again there was great satisfaction with the very low level of litter found but there were some other surprising things found deep in the woodland. There were three massive trees which had come down, one very recently, which no one new about. Obviously they were not across paths but they were totally out of sight from either Hartley Lane or the riverside path below.
Photograph 2. An unknown fallen tree deep in the woodland.
Another lovely day for working in the Dene except that underfoot was still muddy and slippery. Very cold to start with but the sun came up and, with virtually no wind, it was very pleasant.
The task for this session was to plant oak saplings resulting from the Dene acorns planted in small containers during autumn 2013 and re-potted earlier this year and a number of older saplings that had been growing in a volunteer’s garden.
The 13 garden saplings were lifted at first light and wheel-barrowed to site 1, where they joined up with 12 potted saplings, stakes and tools: planting began.
Meanwhile in a volunteer’s garage the plastic rabbit guards were being worked on to convert those from single stake anchor guards to ones anchored by 2 stakes. This involved drilling 4 additional holes and inserting two extra plastic ties. When the first 25 had been completed they were taken to site 1, where planting was well under way.
Occasionally we get unusual incidents on the working party sessions, like strimming a wasps nest!! Today there was an incident of a totally different nature. As mentioned above three of the volunteers were working in a garage and they were joined by a Sparrowhawk, which flew the length of the garage and stopped suddenly at the window at the far end. Our lady volunteer was quickly to the rescue, wrapping it in a towel and whispering sweet talk in its ear. Recovery was prompt and it was released in the garden where it was once more free to catch the next small bird not quick enough to get out of the way!! That is nature.
Meanwhile on site 2 the shoulder high vegetation was being strimmed followed by digging and planting. The soil quality here was not very high and it is expected that growth will be slower than on site 1 and there could well be some losses.
Finally a few gaps were filled in where much earlier oak plantings had been made, taking the total saplings planted in the morning to 55.
Another lovely day for working in the Dene but underfoot it was treacherous due to a combination of fallen leaves and recent rain. The 10 volunteers assembled 15 minutes later than normal as most of the materials had to be brought from Morpeth in an NCC truck and this could not be guaranteed for a 08.30 start. The assembly place was the old narrow wagon-way bridge under the current Holywell road bridge.
There were two tasks for the morning, the first to plant a further 10 oak saplings in an area where we had planted 10 last winter and the second to put in a flight of steps to bypass a well-worn and highly dangerous short stretch of steep footpath.
The oak saplings were the result of acorns planted by FoHD members in pots two autumns ago.
Photograph 1. Oak sapling planted inside a rabbit guard.
Not only did these oaks join the line of 10 we planted last winter but also joined the 4 small self-sown oaks resulting from acorns dropped by the couple of mature oaks nearby. There were also a considerable number of self-sown ash saplings in the same area that will need thinning in due course.
The morning’s second task, to create a flight of steps down the hill, resulted from the erosion of one of the footpath’s steep declines at the western end of the river path from Holywell Road Bridge to the old railway line. This was caused by cycle usage and water flow in heavy rain and had resulted in a V shaped path nearly 30 cm below the original path level. The second photograph gives a good indication of the steepness of the path and also shows that taking a laden wheelbarrow down the old path needed a safety rope attached, controlled by a second person.
Photograph 2. The start of operations to create a flight of steps.
Luck was on our side in that there was another way down the hill to the bridge across the stream and nearby was an adjacent spoil heap of an old coal mine, which could be used as a surface dressing for the steps down the hillside. The third photograph shows the board and pegs, making up one of the steps, being hammered in.
Photograph 3. The board and pegs of a step being hammered in.
The fourth photograph shows work well on illustrating steps already in and work progressing to fit another one.
Photograph 4. Steps already fitted and a further one being actioned.
Finally after just over four hour’s work the 14th step was completed and the final barrow of top dressing was tipped. The fifth photograph shows the finished flight of steps.
Photograph 5.The finished flight of steps.
After days of heavy overcast weather, the volunteers met as the sun was rising into a clear blue sky, although temperatures were kept very low by a strong bitterly cold northwest wind.
The plan for today’s work, discussed at the conclusion of last week’s session, had been changed a number of times due to various factors, including the horizontal tree shown in the following photograph.
Photograph of horizontal tree infested with ivy across the footpath.
There had been no strong winds to bring it down but obviously the weight of the ivy, being wet for many days, was too much for the tree to bear and so down it came.
Five volunteers were tasked with clearing the footpath while the other three went off to plant a further 11 oak saplings along a stretch of the northern bridleway and the final one in the meadow.
The tree cleared, a party of three volunteers then moved to the area of the old railway line to carry out further cutting of sycamore trees and some ivy clearing from infested trees, while a party of two cleared some sycamore saplings close to the northern riverside path and did maintenance work on one of the wooden bridges by clearing mud and weeds from between the base planks. They continued by cutting a further drainage ditch on the northern bridleway to catch water coming onto the path from the adjacent bank and directing it under the path.
As tasks were completed volunteers rendezvoused at the seat on the northern bridleway where previously we had started on the clearance and widening of the path. With use by horses, cyclists and walkers certain soft areas had appeared on the surface of the path and a start was made to remove the mud in these areas, while the stone along the top edge was loosened and raked to level the path.
It was a cold morning with the temperature not much above zero, with a strong wind and it was hardly daylight when nine volunteers assembled for another Tuesday working party. There were three assembly points, the first for the two volunteers from Holywell who met on the Holywell Bridge path, the second for four volunteers at the stone bridge and the final three met on the east end of the northern bridleway.
The small party at Holywell had three jobs, the main one putting a little more stone/clinker on the steps we had created on 18 November 2014. The surface of a few of the steps had settled and needed a topping and the 3/4 metres of the original path leading to the top step had proved to be slippery and so was given a top dressing of stone. Then on their way to join the main group these two volunteers recovered the remains of an abandoned shopping trolley and replaced a vandalised “No Cycling” sign.
The four volunteers at the stone bridge had the ‘cool’ job of removing the barbed wire from the water-gate under the stone bridge. With the cows now in byre for the winter it is important that, in heavy water conditions in the river, the gates can swing up easily allowing branches and logs to pass beneath without causing a blockage. So the barbed wire linking the gates was removed by two volunteers in the water wearing waders, while the two on the bank wound it onto lengths of timber as it was removed. It will be stored until next spring when it will be replaced and then, hopefully, it will stop the cows, and especially calves, getting through the gate and into the Dene. It was remembered to give the gate hinges a good squirt of oil to ensure they moved freely.
So, by refreshment break time the whole party was together and after a hot drink (which went cold very quickly) continued with the task of clearing and hence widening the northern bridleway path, firstly completing the remaining short stretch at the east end by the farmhouse and then moving west and continuing from the first point we cleared on 14 October 2014, next to the gate with the adjacent seat.
We were lucky again with another dry day, plenty of sunshine and only a light wind. It was cold to start with but, after a short session of shovel work, the adjoining fence was covered with discarded coats and sweaters.
The 11 volunteers were initially split into two groups. Team A started to clear the grass and soil from the path going downhill from the northern bridleway eventually joining up with the riverside path. This is very much an ancient path dating back to around 1650 when it would have been used by horse and carts transporting goods between the windmill and the water mill.
Photograph 1. Team A clearing downhill path to river.
Meanwhile Team B continued clearing the northern bridleway going west, which we have been working on for four weeks. It was the last stretch of the really narrow part of the path but once again we found plenty of fine stone under the build-up of grass and finished up with a two metre wide stone path.
Photograph 2. Team B clearing northern bridleway.
We had our usual break around 10 am and were joined by the Chair of FoHD with her young lively dog who got its usual treat. Our 11 o’clock break coincided with the arrival of staff from Northumberland County Council bearing gifts of cream, unhealthy cakes! Sincere thanks were offered to the working party for all their work throughout the last 12 months.
For the last short session of the morning everyone concentrated on the bridleway, completing the last stretch of grass removal as well as creating small drainage channels where it was known water gathered in hollows in the path.
So ended the last session before Christmas; however, there is one more organised before the New Year.
The last Working Party session in 2014. The group has worked on 48 Tuesday mornings in 2014, missing 2 through bad weather and 2 through holidays.
This week the volunteers were greeted by a very picturesque scene as they started work. The photograph shows one of the two teams starting work in the heavy frost situation.
Photograph. 9am shortly after starting work
There were 11 volunteers on duty today meeting in two places, three at Old Hartley to collect and wheel to site two of the wheelbarrows, while the remainder met on Hartley Lane at the entrance to Crowhall Farm. Today’s task was to clear the encroaching grass and hence widen the path back to its original width on the south side of the river running east from the upstream wooden bridge.
This is very similar to what we have been doing on the northern bridleway for the past few weeks except that it should have been much easier as the grass and soil to be removed was thinner. In the event it was anything but easier, with the path’s surface as hard as concrete with the frost.
We were lucky in that the temperature rose quite quickly during the morning with the frost disappearing, which allowed us to make good progress in areas that were not frozen solid. We will have to re-visit the site when conditions are better to finish the clearing and do the necessary raking.
So, goodbye 2014 and a thank you to the weather for allowing us to work on every planned Tuesday, except two. This meant that we had a record breaking year, having completed 1711 person hours work in the Dene.