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Eight of us turned out today to form a work party for a morning’s path repair work. We managed to stick it out from before 8:30 until about 12:00 despite the cold and snow. The snow may only have been a dusting, but it made the surfaces very slippy and slimy.

The footpath along the southern side of the burn opposite the meadow upstream of the stone bridge on the Hartley West Farm access road was today’s venue. The path is now in good order from the stone bridge to the side waterfall (where the path passes over a wooden ramp). Repairs were made at three sites today, along with some general maintenance and widening of the path.

At site 1, we installed some woodwork (the skilled part of the job) to retain the path bed material, which had been eroding and slipping away on the down side of the path. The path bed was then levelled (hard work with spades and mattocks) and a layer of path-gravel was laid on top.

Photograph A. Repair site 1 being worked on

At site 2, the same process was repeated further up the path – a shorter section this time. Meanwhile general maintenance and widening was taking place along in-between sections of the footpath. Levelling, widening and root-removal were the watchwords.

Photograph B. Maintenance and widening

The third repair site was close to the side waterfall, with its boulders and boardwalk. The path material had been disappearing down a dip on the down slope, so a timberwork “fix” was improvised, before levelling and resurfacing the path. Recycled wood was used for all this work.

Photograph C. Third repair site

Guest appearances:

our link man at Northumberland County Council came along midway through the morning with some thank-you confectionary and some words of warning about giant hogweed spreading on the Wansbeck

our chair lady also dropped in on her usual dog-walking and squirrel-checking rounds

star guest of the day, sporting her tartan winter coat, was Poppy the canine team mascot


we were working under the main rookery in the Dene, and the rooks seemed to be totally unfazed by the bad weather and calling away to each other as though it was the first day of spring

for some reason, the great tits were in strong voice today and were singing loudly

however, most other woodland creatures must have been indoors watching the telly, as not much else was seen

It has to be said that the path was in a poor state before the work, suffering from the erosion that occurs when so many pairs of feet use it; in particular it was sliding down the bank in several places. It is now, over that limited length, restored to an acceptable condition, as the photos, I hope, illustrate. Get out and use it!.


A work party of twelve turned out to do path repairs this morning. The weather conditions were poor: wet, cold and windy (when not in the shelter of the Dene). The underfoot conditions were OK at first but soon got very slippy when light rain set in.

Our instructions today were to sort out the path upstream of the stone bridge near Hartley on the south bank. This is well used and has been eroded by many feet, causing it to slope sideways towards the burn. The path has been worked on in the past and has a layer of gravel under the surface, but a layer of mud had accumulated on top, as always happens.


As usual the procedure was:

fit recycled timber edging boards, held in place with pegs made by sawing up wooden rails

cut out the upside edge of the path using mattocks

redistribute the soil to make the path more level

compress the soil surface

apply path-gravel, a graded mix of larger and smaller grains – harder work than it sounds, since the gravel had to be wheelbarrowed over the stone bridge from a pile on the other side of the river

rake over and compress – the “Holywell Dene foot-dance”

have occasional cups of tea/coffee and complain about the weather

admire completed work and go home

Photograph A. Path being worked on

Photograph B. Completed – please clean your feet before use!

It was such a miserable day that even the rooks were quiet. There was no wildlife to report apart from the obligatory robin singing, with one or two other songbirds joining in. Several walkers, with and without dogs, and one runner showed great patience circumventing our workings.

Another useful job completed, and another squad of volunteers pleased to get back to their warm, dry homes.


A ten-strong work party turned out to tackle logjams either side of the Holywell road bridge this morning. The weather was strikingly more pleasant than it had been on previous outings, with some sunshine and milder conditions, albeit that the ground was sodden and waterlogged after recent rains.

We were asked to meet at two assembly points in Holywell. The first group, numbering four, assembled at Wallridge Drive to tackle an old foe: the big beech that fell across the river many moons ago and has been causing river blockage trouble ever since. This was largely sorted out on 16th January, but a very large branch still remained in the water which was, if not a danger to shipping, at least a trap for branches and litter from upstream. It had to go, so a manual winch was rigged up to a nearby tree, for support, and after a lot of effort this large lump of timber was removed, along with some river litter.

Photograph A. The problem

Photograph B. The solution

Meanwhile the other group, of six volunteers, dealt with a large logjam spanning part of the breadth of the river just downstream of the Holywell road bridge. This was a case of putting on waders and dismantling the “beaver dam” of branches and twigs, which we stacked on dry ground nearby. It was noticed that there was less plastic litter in the debris than in the past – the Blue Planet II effect? This subtask was finished off by cutting down branches overhanging the opposite bank of the river.

Both groups now converged on a point upstream of the road bridge where a pipe crosses the burn. Here a large log had floated downstream and jammed against the stanchion holding the pipe up, and a large mass of twig-and-branch litter was stacked up behind it. This was cleared, and then the log was winched out. Another rogue log was found in the river slightly upstream of the pipe, and this also was winched out.

Photograph C. Removing another logjam

Most of us agree that logjam removal is more fun than most other tasks. This may seem strange, bearing in mind that it involves wading in cold water, trampling about on muddy river banks, and lots of heavy work; but it is varied work with a clear objective and a beginning middle and an end, and – well – we like it anyway!

Wildlife notes:

a dipper was seen fleeing from the scene when we first arrived at the road bridge

grey wagtails were heard while we were working

wild geese – I'm guessing pink-footed – were seen (and heard) in the sky on at least three occasions

snowdrops are out everywhere

most hazels seem to to have catkins

Things felt more spring-like today, but we hear that another arctic blast is on its way. We're not out of the woods on the weather front yet!


A work squad of ten volunteers turned out today at the estuary to plant reeds in one of the new ponds and do some path maintenance. This was a pleasant day for the time of year, with some blue sky but limited sunshine. The ground, however, was very sticky indeed.

There was an extensive guest list today. The director of Northumberland Rivers Trust was leading the reed-planting work, with his family mucking in. The venerable ex-work-party leader was present to advise on the Pipe Pond work. And finally, our chair lady visited us on her rounds, accompanied by her faithful hound, Poppy, who seemed to be more hyperactive than ever!

Welcome back after the Beast from the East, by the way! If you are wondering what we were up to during the 26th February to 5th March snow-spell, the answer is: not much. Some gravel-shifting was done in mid-Dene by a small squad last Tuesday, and nothing happened the week before – called off owing to blizzard conditions!

The work team today was divided into three groups initially: a group of four went downstream to do path work, a group of two worked on the Pipe Pond, and the rest started off by relaying a drainage pipe.

The path work was conducted down the estuary, on the path that leads up to the carpark alongside St Paul’s Church. The encroaching turf was removed with spades and mattocks, then a layer of gravel was added to the surface. Local residents should feel the benefit when walking themselves and their dogs – this work has been needed for some time.

The issue with the Pipe Pond (the pond under the black pipe that runs on struts across the Dene at the head of the estuary) is that it tends to get contaminated with polluted minewater that bubbles up out of the ground nearby. So, today the work was to construct a low earthen barrier between the pond and the minewater spring, and to give the pond an outlet to the Seaton Burn via a small ditch.

Photograph A. Pipe Pond workings

The third job concerned a corrugated black plastic pipe that was recently laid under the path to drain the minewater into the eastern filtration pond. The problem was that it was not low enough, so we dug it out, deepened the channel, then replaced it and re-filled with gravel.

Photograph B. Fixing the drainage pipe

The main job of the day, however, was the planting of reeds in the newly-created filtration pond on the eastern side of the estuary. The reeds we have planted are common reed (Phragmites australis). This plant has been used in many places around the world to filter heavy metals out of polluted water. The idea is to run your stream of polluted water (in this case the outlet from the old bell pit up the bank at Old Hartley’s Millfield street area) into a pond planted with reeds, let the reeds take up the heavy metals, then let the purified water seep out into the nearest water-course, the estuary of the Seaton Burn in this case. This has proved effective in many places.

The other objective is to establish reedbed habitat for birds such as water rails, reed warblers, reed buntings, moorhens, etc. Now, I know a lot of local people are sceptical of the recent pond-digging work, and think it is a bit of an eyesore. New ponds always look like that. Think of it as an investment: as plants, birds, amphibians and insects establish themselves in the new ponds, the result will be more habitat variety, more wildlife and an even more beautiful Holywell Dene. Watch the new ponds develop over the next three years!

Quite a few passers-by were taking an interest in what we were doing. Most of the comments were positive, some were negative, and some comical. I typical jest was “What are ye deein’, plantin’ rice?” Well, I must admit that we did look a bit like paddy-field workers – see photo.

Photograph C. Planting reeds

Wildlife notes:

Things have gone very quiet since the Beast from the East passed on, and there is a feeling that spring has been delayed. The river is still very silty, hence the absence of waterbirds, including kingfishers (which have been seen in other places).

The redwings and fieldfares have come and gone. These migratory thrushes must have been blown over on the beastly east wind, and seem to have returned to their Continental home after the storms subsided. Many people saw the “funny thrush-sized birds” (redwings) at close range in the mid-Dene, where they were foraging in the Dene bottom. The fieldfares were seen in many adjacent gardens, taking berries off bushes and feeding from bird tables.

Some birds were singing today (but not too many): robins, chaffinches, great tits, etc.

A pheasant was calling, and I thought I heard a woodpecker drumming in the far distance.

Three herons flew overhead, at one point.

We came across some litter today, and as usual we bagged it up and disposed of it. The work of keeping Holywell Dene relatively litter-free is a never-ending task. If you see any litter lying around, feel free to bag it up and take it off; your efforts will be appreciated by everyone!