Holywell water pumping station was the assembly point for the eleven volunteers of the working party this morning, and the task of the day was installing a flight of steps in a steep section of the footpath network near the informal mountain bike park. The day was dull and chilly, but the rain held off, so conditions were good for task work.

After loading up the wheelbarrows with tools and materials, off we went down the path, over the embankment and down the slope to the site. Some of us went off to pick up some litter and barbed wire that had been left lying around in the area. The rest of us got stuck into the job of installing the new steps.

Photograph A. Before steps installed

The steep slope (see photo) has been a problem for years. It has caused more than one person to slip and harm themselves. So we decided to do something about it, and Northumbrian Water kindly agreed to fund the purchase of materials (timber and aggregate) for the job. They are also funding further work in that area of the Dene. Many thanks to them!

The procedure for installing a set of steps is roughly as follows.

1. Make some timber steps by screwing some short pieces of timber to a metre-long piece.

2. Dig these into the slope.

3. Attach them to the ground by driving a couple of stakes into the ground and screwing the step to the stakes.

4. Fill behind each step with rubble and soil, then with aggregate.

Photograph B. Installing steps

Photograph C. Shovelling aggregate

Step 3 above was not without incident. Over-enthusiastic attention to the task of driving stakes into the ground led to the breaking of the mell (heavy hammer), which has been one of the most useful of our tools over the years (see photo).

Photograph D. Broken mell

As usual shifting aggregate (step 4) was the most labour-intensive part of the task because it had to be wheelbarrowed from a distance away. However it could have been worse – we had paid a bit extra to have the material delivered in bulk bags, and our friendly local farmer had transported those by tractor to the dene top near where we were working.

A couple of bikers appeared and several walkers came by while we were working. Most seemed pleased by the work, although one walker seemed disconcerted by the change to a familiar scene.

Not much wildlife was seen today, because of the dull conditions, but we heard a song thrush singing, and several chiffchaffs, robins, blackbirds and great tits.

Photograph E. End result

If you want to view the results of our labours, try walking the path from the Holywell road bridge (look out for deer in the field over the burn) down to the tunnel area. The steps are in the path up to the wicket gate that leads onto the disused railway line.



Today’s work party of ten volunteers met up at the metal gate near Hartley West Farm to finish off last week’s path work. This was a dull but dry day after heavy rain, which had made the paths muddy and the river full and cloudy; but it was warmer than previous days.

The first part of the day’s task was simply a case of finishing off the work started a week before, so it will not be necessary to spell it out in detail, other than to say that, as previously, we set up a bucket bridge to get gravel across the river, and while that laborious operation was going on we finished laying the diverted riverside path.

Photograph A. Conveying aggregate across river

Photograph B. Finishing new path

Having completed that work, we were faced with the problem of how to discourage people (and dogs) from using the old path – which is not safe because of the undermined river-bank. This we did by (a) installing some temporary woodwork to block off the old path, and (b) planting some willow cuttings (taken from nearby willows) in the bed of the old path.

Here are some volunteering tips:

Tip 1. When you get a new pair of wellies, always put a bit of mud on before appearing with them for the first time, otherwise you can get a fair bit of ribbing from your volunteering comrades – as your correspondent can attest!

Tip 2. When planting willow cuttings, proceed as follows.

1. Take a willow wand and sharpen one end.

2. Try to poke it into the ground.

3. Realise that doing so is impossible as the earth under an old path will always be very hard.

4. Give up on that and use a pinch bar (heavy steel pole with sharp tip) and poke a hole in the ground.

5. Stick willow in hole.

6. Repeat for all willow wands.

Not very efficient, but it works. We expect that if only half the willow cuttings strike, there will be a substantial willow thicket there in a year’s time. Meantime, the willow sticks should effectively deter people (and possibly dogs) from using that ground.

Photograph C. End result

Wildlife? Well, it was a quiet day, being dull, but there was nevertheless quite a lot of birdsong. Here’s what we saw and heard:

chiffchaffs everywhere; also robins, wrens, great tits (but no blue tits)

jackdaws and rooks calling

a pheasant calling at a distance

a female mallard flew over and three mallard were seen on the burn upstream

a dipper flew up the burn

the wood anemones are in bloom, as are the daffodils in the meadow

finally, a bullfinch was seen as we were returning to our cars

It looks like fence work next week. We are finally getting stuck into reducing the backlog of winter tasks. Watch this space for further exciting developments



A fine turnout of twelve volunteers met at the Hartley Lane carpark this morning to do willow weaving and fence demolition. The ground was nicely dry under foot, and the drizzle mostly held off; in fact it was a pleasantly bright albeit chilly day.

There was a new recruit to the squad this morning – welcome onboard! After introductions and loading up of wheelbarrows with tools, off we went (or most of us) to the seat at the head of the straight path leading upstream from the “Pipe Bridge” near the estuary.

This morning, we actually completed seven tasks, so here goes …

Firstly, one of us went off to the Hartley dipping pond and mended the damaged dipping platform temporarily. The platform actually needs replacing, but the repair should keep it going for the time being. Next the stile near the stone bridge was reinforced with a few screws to stabilise the wobbly foot-timber.

Photograph A. Repaired dipping platform

Meanwhile back at the seat, several of us went along the riverside path removing plastic guards from trees planted a few years ago. Simultaneously, we pruned some lower branches off some of the trees.

That’s four minor jobs done. The fifth was a bigger one: weaving a willow barrier along the burn opposite the seat. The main objective here was to discourage dogs from scampering down the river bank and into the river, which always causes erosion of the bank. The task involved cutting some of the existing willow stems short, and bending others down and fold them into each other so as to weave a barrier. You can see the results of our endeavours next time you’re down there.

Photograph B. Willow weaving

Photograph C. Result

The sixth task, also a major one, was removal of a decrepit old fence along the riverside running upstream from the seat. The difficulty here was that the fence was clad with wire mesh, and the bottom strands of that had become buried in the soil. This can only mean that the burn has, when in flood, deposited silt on that land over the years to raise the soil level. Bolt cutters and an improvised lever consisting of an old fence rail were the main tools deployed here (after the dead bracken and brambles had been cleared off the old fence).

And finally we come to the seventh task: removing tree guards from planted trees in the area between the Hartley Lane carpark and the stone bridge over the Hartley West farm road.

All the tree-guards, old stakes, fence wire and other disused materials were stacked near the litter bin in the carpark and left for the refuse collection people to remove.

The following wildlife was seen or heard this morning:

the herons at the heronry were very noisy from time to time

great tits, chiffchaffs, blackcaps and wrens were heard; also a blackbird, a song thrush, a pheasant

a kestrel flew overhead; also carrion crows and herring gulls

the gorse is in bloom, as are many of the usual spring flowers including numerous dandelions

Photograph D. Gorse in bloom


The working party assembled this morning near the Milbourne Arms, Holywell, to install a new flight of steps. The weather was brilliant – sunny, calm and warm – but actually a bit too hot for task work, and we were all getting hot and weary towards the end.

The steps we put in place today were at another place in the part of the Dene upstream from the tunnel. If you would like to inspect our work, just walk down from the Holywell road bridge to the place where a side burn runs into the Seaton Burn from the south. It that point the path descends via an old flight of steps to a little bridge, then up again to the dene top. That slope up is very steep, and it is there that we have put the steps in.

This work was necessitated by the fall of a huge beech with a rotten trunk – yet another victim of Storm Arwen last November. One of the walkers who passed us by this morning even admitted that he shed a tear when he saw that beech down – it was always a beautiful sight when the foliage was changing colour in the autumn.

I need not go into the details of the work too much in this report, because it was very much a repetition of last week’s work, and in any case the photos speak for themselves.

Photograph A. Installing steps #1

Photograph B. Installing steps #2

As usual, the barrowing of aggregate to the work site was as big a job as the work itself. This was mitigated today by the fact that the bags of aggregate had been deposited at the top of the bank by the farmer beforehand. However the difficulty factor was the fact that the material had to be wheelbarrowed down a very steep slope.

Photograph C. Barrowing aggregate

Photograph D. Completed steps

Please note that this work, as last week, was funded by Northumbrian Water, who have kindly provided us with the money necessary to buy the materials – timber and aggregate – plus some new tools.

By the way, on the opposite bank of the river from where we were working, a new arena for events involving horses is being constructed, and an excavator was at work there this morning. Some of us objected to the development as the entrance is on the steep part of the A192 where it drops to the bridge over the burn, and for other reasons. Well, it is going ahead and we hope it does not impact on the Dene and its wildlife too much.

Photograph E. Arena work

On the wildlife front, it was difficult to hear the birdsong over the excavator noises coming from across the river, but nevertheless we managed to pick out chaffinch, chiffchaff, great tit, wren and pheasant. The wood anemones are showing well and the bluebells are starting to come out; and this is the dandelion flowering season.

We will be back to add more steps to the bottom of the flight sometime, but there are other more pressing tasks to be attended to, so watch this space!