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Dates For Your Diaries, a number of events throughout the coming year.

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A work party of eleven met up at 8:30 on Millfield, Seaton Sluice, to sort out the wagonway steps above the Pipe Pond. The weather was fine, if cold. I think the sun went in while we were working, but we were too busy to notice. The ground underfoot was moist but not too wet.

If you don’t know where these steps are: imagine the metal footbridge at the head of the Seaton Sluice estuary; imagine the so-called Pipe Pond nearby; now imagine the flight of steps up from there to the old wagonway which is nowadays a footpath. At the top of the steps is a stile, and then some old concrete steps leading to the wagonway surface. Well, those concrete steps are no more! I don’t think that will cause any grief because they were rather steep and most people just went up the slope alongside. Here are “before” and “after” pictures of the steps.

Photograph A. Steps before

Photograph B. Steps after

The first move was to demolish the old steps with sledge hammers. This turned out to be easier than expected, although it has to be said that one of the sledgehammers got broken in the process! Under the concrete was a flight of sandstone blocks. Both the shattered concrete and the blocks were reused in the new steps.

Photograph C. Demolishing old steps

Next, a series of retaining timbers was set into the slope alongside the old steps, secured with screws to heavy wooden pegs hammered in, two per retainer. Meanwhile, the space behind the retaining pieces was filled in with sandstone blocks, concrete rubble and soil, then surfaced with aggregate. The soil was taken from a well-chosen spot where we found some soil with a high gravel content. The aggregate had to be – very laboriously – wheelbarrowed from a distant pile and carried up the steps from the Pipe Pond in buckets.

Photograph D. Installing new steps

Incidentally, one of the sandstone blocks had drill-holes, suggesting to me that a rail (as in railway) might have been attached to it in the past – so perhaps the old wagonway (or coal railway) had sandstone sleepers. Anyway, we found no railway ballast (heavy gravel) despite digging into the wagonway surface in several places. So maybe the Victorian solution to the problem of securing the rails was to lay sandstone blocks and fasten the rails to them – just a thought.

Photograph E. Block with fixing holes

While all this was going on, some of us cleaned the flight of steps up from the Pipe Pond. This was badly needed, as they were covered with wet, slippery dead leaves and other detritus.

Not much wildlife to report today, but:

A large flock of wild geese was in the air as we arrived, and making quite a noise. These may be the pink-footed geese that have been seen recently (I will have to check them out with my binoculars some time). They fly down from their breeding grounds in Greenland and Iceland to over-winter here in Britain, and graze in farmers’ fields (if not disturbed by foxes, walkers, etc). Incidentally, that flock or another flock of geese was seen over West Monkseaton at midday.

Four bank voles (ginger-brown, blunt-nosed “mice”) were disturbed by “an inconsiderate volunteer” when digging out soil for filling in the new steps.

A robin was singing nearby as we were working. They are about the only birds singing at this time of the year.

It turned out that the morning session was just long enough to get the job done. Here is the outcome:

Photograph F. Completed steps



A work party of 10 gathered at Crowhall Farm on a winter’s morning to tackle the branches in the river that were left over from the 28th November. After a 10 minute walk we reached the area – between the embankment tunnel and Holywell road bridge – and were split into two teams. One was tasked with clearing the gullies of fallen leaves in the area; the other started on branch removal.

Two winches were set up to tackle the heavy work of pulling the branches out of the river.  To achieve this a member of the work party had to pull on a pair of waders to brave the chilling water of the river to attach a strap around the branch. The winch wire was then fixed to the strap to commence pulling the fallen branch up the river bank, making sure it did not roll back into the river. This process was repeated throughout the morning, carefully picking which branch was to be removed next, and making sure they were stored safely on the river bank.

Photograph A. Branches waiting removal

Photograph B. Branches being winched out

A party of three were asked to cross the river down steam, where it was shallow, and come back up to remove the smaller branches that could be shifted by hand. Those were placed on the opposite side of the river to where the winches were being operated. After a hard morning’s graft the river was cleared, so we packed up for a well earned rest and to thaw out.

Photograph C. Pile of smaller branches removed

Photograph D. End result

During the morning’s work an eagled-eyed member of the work party spotted three roe deer in the field on the north side of the river, where some some event fences have been set up, and managed to tell the rest of the party – so we all saw the magnificent spectacle of three deer in full flight running the length of the field.


A small but perfectly formed work party of eight assembled at the Hartley Lane carpark for a morning of miscellaneous jobs on a mild day with a bright sun shining at a very shallow angle. The ground underfoot was generally wet, but there was frost and ice in sheltered places: a reminder of the fact that the Dene is something of a frost trap.

The party was asked to split up into task squads as follows. One squad set off for the stone bridge on the Hartley West Farm road. Under the bridge is a cattle barrier designed to keep the cows out of the Dene whilst swinging up to let any logs through when the river is high. It has to be draped with barbed wire during the summer when the cows are in their field, because otherwise they will force the barrier to get at greener grass. In winter, when the cows are indoors, the wire has to come off to avoid snagging logs brought down by the burn when in spate. Anyway, the barbed wire was removed by volunteers in waders – and stowed away for next year.

Photograph A. Cattle barrier, with barbed wire removed

Another group commenced clearing the gullies (ditches) near the carpark pond. This involved strimming back the brambles, etc and clawing dead vegetation out of the gully with a rake. Gully clearance is a routine chore at this time of the year, and I’ve no doubt we will be returning to it later.

Photograph B. Gully, cleared out (some tree guards in background)

A third group walked up to the steps between the Pipe Pond (at head of estuary) and the wagonway on the west side, and commenced finishing off the small flight of steps constructed a fortnight before. The main part of this work involved adding a new step at the foot of the flight, positioned so that the walker can step from the stile directly onto it. Meanwhile the pre-existing flight of steps below was improved by filling in gaps.

Photograph C. Completed steps (and stile)

Photograph D. Repaired pre-existing steps

By this time the first squad had finished with the barbed wire and two of them had started maintaining the guard tubes on the recently-planted trees in the general vicinity of the Hartley Lane carpark. Plastic ties were trimmed, and in many cases the guards were lifted to allow the removal of dead vegetation and weeds, so that the saplings will get uninterrupted sunlight.

And finally, all but the tree-guard workers converged on the meadow upstream of the stone bridge for a spot of path maintenance. This addresses the old problem of paths narrowing over time as vegetation creeps in from either side. Mattocks and spades were used to remove the turf from the edges of the path.

Photograph E. Path being cleared

Photograph F. Nice, clear path

Wildlife interest:

a heron lifted from the burn near the carpark

blue tits, gold finches, a great spotted woodpecker and other birds were seen and heard

wild geese were seen and heard in the sky on two occasions; I'm betting they were pink-footed geese

a buzzard was spotted in the Dene yesterday

At the first of our two refreshment stops we were rewarded with hot mince pies by the lady chair of Friends of Holywell Dene, accompanied by her lively (and always hungry) dog as always. We seemed to get lot done today, despite the small numbers.

The next work party day will be Tuesday 2nd January.



A work party of nine volunteers assembled at the metal gate on the Hartley West Farm road at 8:30 for another session of winter footpath maintenance. The conditions were far from inspiring, with an unbroken blanket of cloud overhead and very damp conditions underfoot – albeit that temperatures had risen above zero after frost in the night.


The main theme of the day was a familiar one: keeping the footpaths in reasonable condition despite their tendency to degenerate into mudbaths at this time of year. Two special tasks were embarked on at first however, as follows.

First, a group of two set off to replace the plastic guards on some shrubs that had been planted on the north side of the river between the stone bridge and the lower wooden bridge. Here it was a simple case of removing spiral guards, which are cheap but tend to harbour mould and impair growth, with cylindrical guards, which protect just as well whilst letting more air in. This task was completed in about half an hour.

Second, a group of three went up to the vicinity of the waterfall to block off a couple of dog-slides that were eating back into the path. This was done by installing timberwork structures, as shown in the photos. This was completed by mid-morning, and from that time onward all hands were to the spades, mattocks and rakes to get the north-bank path cleared of mud and leaves.

Photograph A. Repairing dog-slide

Photograph B. Completed job

About the best that can be said of this work is that it is good exercise. The objective is to remove encroaching grass and soil from the edges of the path, and to remove surface mud generally. The mud – which was particularly sticky today after recent rains – tends to be a mix of dead leaves and muddy slime that has oozed up between the grains of the hardcore path. The original hardcore surface was there underneath – it just needed a lot of back-breaking work to uncover it. New hard-core was applied to the surface in places where water collects. Soak-aways were cleared out. Puddle-draining channels were dug out or deepened.

Photograph C. Path-cleaning

Oh, by the way, while we were passing the major gully descending to the burn below Hartley West Farm, we gave it a good clear out, to keep the water moving and not flooding the path.

Wildlife notes:

A cormorant (see photo) was spotted by the waterfall – probably the one seen last week. Later in the day it flew downstream, keeping very low to avoid being seen.

A nuthatch, a jay, a greater spotted woodpecker and a bullfinch were heard and in some cases seen, as well as a smattering of the more commonplace small birds on the feeders and elsewhere.

Otherwise, it has to said that the Dene presents a very austere picture at this time of year; no signs of spring are evident yet.

Photograph D. Cormorant

As we returned to our cars, the sky was as overcast as it had been at the start. So, not the most exciting morning’s work, but it is satisfying to know that users of the footpaths, although not conscious of it, will be having a much better experience as a result of our work.



A work party of seven turned out for a “warm up” session for the new year which started at 9:00 and was rained off at 11:00. The weather was uninviting: dull and cold, with the ground partly frozen.

We were divided into two groups. The first was tasked with clearing out the gulley below Hartley West Farm and filling in a couple of “doggie dips”. One of the problems we have is that, with the Dene being a great favourite with dog-walkers, and with dogs having a tendency to rush into the river at the first opportunity, the river bank gets eroded in the places where dogs habitually rush into the water. Where the path runs close to the river, these “doggie dips” can eat back into the path.

What we do is (1) install a horizontal length of timber across the breadth of the slope, and (2) fill in the space behind with earth to build it up again. This was done in two places: downstream of the lower wooden footbridge, and at the upstream end of the meadow area near the stone bridge that carries the access road to Hartley West farm.

Photograph A. A doggie dip

Photograph B. How to fill one in

Photograph C. Completed job

The other group was asked to continue refurbishing the meadow path. Work started on this on 19th December. The idea is to counteract the encroachment of weeds and grass from either side of the path. Spades, mattocks and a rake are the requisite tools for this. We managed to clear all the rest of the path as it passes across the meadow. We will no doubt be returning to this work elsewhere during the winter.

Photograph D. Working on the path (and doggie dip)

Photograph E. Improved path

Wildlife notes:

A cormorant was spotted on Sunday (31st December) on a stone in the river at the outlet of the tunnel under the old railway. They are normally sea birds, but sometimes come up the Dene to dive for fish in the Seaton Burn.

A heron took off from the river by the meadow as we arrived this morning.

There was a strange absence of rooks from the tall trees on the south bank above the meadow, but some arrived later in the morning to make a noise.

A flock of about 70 wild geese flew overhead at 9:20, apparently heading for the fields west of Old Hartley. They were making quite high-pitched calls, so possibly pink-footed geese.

A woodpecker was heard drumming near the stepping stones by out chairlady whilst walking her dog this morning.

Photograph F. Cormorant in the Dene

With first drizzle then rain adding to the dark and cold conditions and the icy ground, we departed early, having worked off a bit of the Christmas / New Year flab and having got ourselves up to speed with work again. Hopefully conditions will be a bit more welcoming next time out.