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Previous news items / working party updates can be viewed by clicking HERE


6-Apr-21

A work party of six volunteers – the maximum number allowed under Covid rules ­– assembled at Holywell this morning to clear another river blockage.


Many of you will remember the great willow tree that has been damming the river just downstream of the Holywell road bridge. Well, it isn’t any more! Some would regret that, but we have had a lot of comments about the backlog of litter and scum behind that obstacle for many years. The pros and cons of removal were:

Cons: (1) it created a deep pool for fish, kingfishers and cormorants to fish in; (2) clearing it was always going to be a big job!

Pros: (1) no more litter build-up; (2) less flooding (and therefore littering) of the north-side river bank.

If the decision was difficult, the implementation was more so – especially for a small squad. This was another waders-and-winch operation, similar to recent ones, but with a much bigger tree to shift. The elements of the operation, to cut a long story short, were as follows.

clearing wood and plastic litter that had piled up behind the fallen willow

using chainsaw to cut up the willow and removing the lesser branches to high ground

winching the larger branches of the willow out onto the north bank

clearing litter from the river and the banks

having a cuppa …

discussing what to do next …

winching the trunk to one side of the river (as it was too big to either saw up or winch out)

packing up and going home …

I have included more photos than usual since they give a better impression of the complex task than words can convey.


Photograph A.  The old willow

Photograph B.  Removing branches

Photograph C.  Cutting up trunk

Photograph D.  Winching logs, etc

Photograph E.  River afterwards

Photograph F.  The trunk in its new place


The weather, by the way, was cold but bright. There was a snow flurry as we left. Typical Easter weather! On the wildlife side, little to report as we were too busy to notice, but there was a nice little grey wagtail (with the usual yellow markings) flitting about.

13-Apr-21

The working party today consisted of nine volunteers, but divided into two groups working at different places – because of covid rules. Three river and path maintenance tasks were undertaken, as follows.


Task 1 was path rewidening at Holywell road bridge. Here the soil on the steep bank above the path has been rolling down onto the path. The first group, of five volunteers, set to work recutting the uphill edge of the path with spades and mattocks and removing the material by wheelbarrow.


Photograph A. Path requiring maintenance

Photograph B. Path maintenance in progress

Photograph C. The result


Task 2 was to tackle a logjam upstream of the Holywell road bridge, at a place where a pipe crosses the river. We did not have winches, so the job could only be two-thirds done. One of the volunteers went into the river in waders and removed the smaller branches, which were carried up the steep bank by the other four people forming a human chain. The bit that could not be completed was removal of a large tree trunk. Instead it was partially cut up by bowsaw and the main part pulled over to one side of the river ready for removal by winch at a future date.


Task 3, undertaken by the four volunteers forming the second group, was another logjam removal job at a point on the river close to the oxbow lake between the road bridge and the tunnel under the old railway. Here winches were used in a familiar scenario to drag branches and logs out of the river and deposit them on higher ground where they should be above the floodwaters when the burn is in spate.


Task 4 was in the same vicinity, and consisted of removing the top of a tree that had fallen into the river. The chainsaw was deployed to sort this out, and the cut branches were hauled out and deposited in a suitable place.


Photograph D. Removing tree from river


There had been an overnight frost, but by the time we got into the Dene this had gone and was it was sunny – pleasant working conditions, in fact, and dry under foot, for a change. Quite a few walkers, runners and cyclists were out as usual, and some of them stopped to have a chat and give us some words of encouragement. One gentleman had been collecting litter and had found an orange traffic barrier in the Dene – presumably thrown in as a lark – which he thought might be useful to us.


The wildlife scene was quite lively, with plenty of birdsong, but we did not have time to notice much apart from the usual robin that came down to pick up titbits of food where we had disturbed the ground. Oh, and some jackdaws were building a nest in a hole in the trunk of an ivy-clad tree near where task 2 was taking place..

20-Apr-21

A seven-person work party met up on a fine morning at the Seaton Sluice estuary to renovate the hand rail of the flight of steps near the overhead pipe and to do path maintenance.


The meeting place was near Dene Cottage, which is near the Melton Constable pub. The first task was to trek along the footpath by the river to the head of the estuary, with a heavy load of materials and tools, carried in barrows and over shoulders. Having arrived, we split into two groups, as follows.


The first group ascended the steps that lead up from the Pipe Pond to the old wagonway. Their job was to replace the hand rail and supporting posts where they were rotten – mainly the top half of the flight of steps. The most difficult part of this operation was making new post holes, especially where tree roots were present. The new “Root Slayer” tool was deployed and proved its worth. The rest of the job was mainly a joinery task.


Photograph A. Flight of steps beforehand

Photograph B. Handrail being renovated


The posts and rails were supplied free of charge by Percy A. Hudson of North Shields – many thanks to them!


The second group went over the wooden footbridge to the east side of the burn to do path repair work consisting of three smallish tasks as follows:

The congested gully at the foot of the steep path down from the street called Millfield was dug out, and the culvert pipe under the footpath was checked for blockages.

A boggy section of path upstream of the footbridge was rectified by cutting a gully to direct water under the fence and into the burn rather than running along the line of the path. Another shallow gully was cut a bit further down to prevent a muddy puddle forming at a low point.

A start was made on repairing the path alongside the willow-weaving up from the footbridge. The riverside edge was sloping away towards the river, so we removed weeds then poured gravel onto the surface to raise it. (Wheelbarrowing the gravel to site was difficult as this is exactly halfway between two of our gravel piles!)

The first two of those problems were caused by the old “bell pit” (primitive coal mine) which lies under a grassy square in amongst the streets above the Dene. It has been filled in and sealed off but, like all old mines, it tends to fill up with water which overflows into nearby watercourses.


Wildlife highlights:

Redshanks – wading birds – feeding by the banks of the burn and calling when disturbed into flight.

Several herons.

A willow warbler was heard singing its silvery cascade of a song near the upstream bench – the definitive declaration of spring?

We will need to return to the estuary to finish of the hand rail and other jobs.

 

27-Apr-21

The estuary was again the venue for a working party of seven volunteers today – the day when the long-awaited rain started, but only at the very end of the task!


We had a political presence today: Steve Leyland of Blyth Valley Green Party put in a plucky appearance to find out what we get up to after a controversy following remarks critical of the state of the Dene in his local election flyer.


The work was a continuation of last week’s. After the long haul from Dene Cottage to the Pipe Pond area carrying and wheelbarrowing tools and materials, the volunteers were split into two groups, of four each. The first group continued renewing the handrail of the steps up to the old wagonway, whilst the second worked on the path between the wooden footbridge and the seat upstream thereof.


Photograph A. After the long walk


The first of those tasks consisted of removing old handrails and posts, digging new post holes (“grunt work”) and fitting new handrails (more refined joinery work).


The path maintenance work concentrated on repairing the eroded surface of the path opposite the upstream seat. Here the grunt work was moving aggregate from a pile near the Hartley Lane carpark by wheelbarrow to the seat area. The more refined work consisted of making improvements to the willow-work opposite the seat: laying some of the stems horizontally, shortening others and planting cut stems to make a thicket of new willows. The objective of this was to make the willow-work dog-proof. Dogs love to splash about in the burn, but (a) it is somewhat polluted, and (b) the dog-slides erode the banks and the paths.


Photograph B. Willow-weaving site


Meanwhile one of our volunteers was making a magnificent job of digging a new gully system at the part of the path just upstream from the wooden footbridge, which should ensure that part of the path does not get as muddy as it has been.


Wildlife?

Quite a lot of birdsong today, such as willow warbler, song thrush and many commoner birds.

A pair of mallards, duck and drake, were escorting their two fluffy chicks down the river. The ducklings were darting about catching flies and the parent birds were repeatedly calling to them. They were seen with 13 chicks a while ago, so there has been a high but sadly not uncommon rate of attrition by predators.

A treecreeper (small bird) was seen upstream of where we were working.

A heron could be seen on the west side of the burn sitting on its nest.


Light rain started late in the session, and we all returned home somewhat damp, but after some good exercise.  

11-May-21

The work task today involved nine volunteers in two groups. The meeting place was Wallridge Drive, Holywell. It was a fine morning – sunny and warmish! The objective was to clear the whole of the Holywell end of the river of logjams and litter.


The outcomes were: (1) large amounts of wood litter removed from the river and dumped well above flood levels, (2) a large pile of litter for the council to take away (see photo below), and (3) nine exhausted volunteers, one wet from having fallen when wading in the river!


The first group set out for the Holywell road bridge with winch and chainsaw, and other equipment in wheelbarrows. They worked their way upstream, clearing minor logjams and picking litter until they got to a major logjam below the gas pumping station. At this point things got serious. Some very large logs were tangled up with lesser branches and twigs, plus the inevitable litter.


A couple of members of the other squad were called down to help carry the branches away from the river bank while two volunteers with waders on, including the team-leader, disentangled the logjam and lifted the branches onto the bank. The winch and the chainsaw were both put to good use, and by the time all this had been cleared it was time to go.


Photograph A. Big logjam

Photograph B. How it was cleared

Photograph C. Result


But meanwhile, upriver, starting at the upstream tunnel (really a culvert under a disused coal railway) the second group were also clearing branches and litter out of the burn. Two of them were in the water with waders on and the others were busy clearing away the branches and bagging the litter. They worked their way downstream almost to where the big logjam was being tackled.


In two places, it was obvious that outdoor parties of some sort had taken place. We wouldn’t mind that, if only they would take their litter home with them!


Here are some of the more unusual litter items found today:

two car tyres

one crushed wheelie bin

a bicycle wheel

a rusty iron tank

a squeaky ball for “Doggie” to fetch

plus the usual plastic bottles, cans, sweetie wrappers, etc, etc

The following photo shows one pile of litter. There was another similar pile at the Dale Top bin!


Photograph D. The litter haul


Spring seems delayed this year, but a willow warbler and its mates were singing and the ground under the trees is now a fresh green rather than the drab brown of winter. And there are carpets of yellow celandines in places, accompanied by the blue of the bluebells. Soon the trees will be getting their full cover of leaves, and the best season of the year in woodland will be past.


We will no doubt be back to clear the remaining sections of the burn.


Photograph E. How the river should look


25-May-21

This morning’s working party numbered eight volunteers, the meeting place was the metal gate on the Hartley West Farm access road and the tasks were unblocking a drain, mending a fence and sycamore control. The weather was poor – cloudy and rainy – but not too cold, for once.


The party split into two groups, as usual, and the first group took on the two maintenance jobs whilst the other ventured up the Dene to the vicinity of the downstream footbridge to sort out the sycamores.


The short section of fence by the metal gate had recently been reported as broken. It was removed, the straining post at one side was shored up with a short timber, a new post was put in and two new rails secured in place with screws. Job done!


Photograph A. Mending fence


The dipping pond near the Hartley Lane carpark had been over-full for some time because of a blockage in the pipe that carries overflow water underneath the path to the Seaton Burn. Clearing it proved difficult as it was packed tight with detritus. It was poked from both ends, but these attempts did not meet in the middle. Finally, the gully-clearance rod was deployed, which finally cleared the blockage. It’s so satisfying when you see water flowing freely in a gully as it should do!


Photograph B. Unblocking gully


The sycamore work consisted mainly of pulling up sycamore saplings and cutting them off at the base where that wasn’t possible. The reason we do this work every year is the (a) the sycamore tree is not a native species, and (b) it is very invasive because of it produces lots of seeds and seedlings. It’s in danger of slowly supplanting all the other trees in the Dene.


When the maintenance tasks had been completed, the squad doing that work came up-dene and joined in the sycamore work. But the rain, which had been drizzly at first was tending to get heavier and did not look like easing off, so it was decided to call the task off with about an hour to go. So eight damp volunteers trudged back to the Friends’ car with the tools then headed home.


Not much wildlife was evident because of the weather, but:

The resident robins were unusually tame today, probably because they were trying hard to find food for their young, which had fledged and were hopping about. They came so close, hoping for feeding opportunities, that there was a danger of standing on them!

A great spotted woodpecker, with its black-white-and-red markings, was heard calling and then came down to one of the bird-feeders.

The wild garlic was in flower, as were the bluebells, lesser stitchwort, primroses, etc, and the lesser celandines are still in bloom.

Photograph C. Robins


18-May-21

Good weather for the working party today: sunny and warm! Ten volunteers assembled at Wallridge Drive, Holywell (an eleventh turned up later), for another day’s river clearance and litter picking upstream of Holywell road bridge.


The work was simply a continuation of last week’s work. The party divided into two equal groups, one upstream and one downstream. There was no shortage of work! A lot of major and minor logjams have built up during the lockdowns. Whenever a logjam extends across the width of the river, a large backlog of organic and inorganic litter builds up behind – so we have to sort it out.


The two groups converged on each other from upstream and downstream until they met at the major logjam of the day. This required the deployment of the usual tools for this kind of job: chainsaw and hand-winch. I large pile of dead branches built up on the river bank as the work progressed, and several black bags full of litter.


Photograph A. Clearing a logjam

Photograph B. A snagged branch succumbs to the winch


Here’s some of today’s litter haul:

two wheels, one looking as if it dated from the railway age

a football

a length of hose

lots of charity bags, obviously dumped without ever being put through letter boxes

a vehicle tyre

the usual glass and plastic bottles, plastic bags, sweetie wrappers, etc

Photograph C. The litter haul


On the wildlife front:

the small birds were singing in overdrive today: goldcrest, chaffinch, blackcap, coal tit, woodpigeon, robin, blackbird, etc

a great spotted woodpecker was calling

and an orange tip butterfly was spotted


On getting back to the Friends’ car at end of session, the boot was founded to be jammed! After a lengthy confab and numerous tries at freeing it, our resident submariner reached inside the vehicle and released it. On being asked what the secret was, the reply was “I’m an engineer”.


8-Jun-21

A working party of eight met at Millfield, Seaton Sluice for a morning of path-verge strimming and sycamore-bashing today, on a sunny and hot day – a bit too hot for work, but we’re not complaining!


As usual there was a split. The strimming group, of four volunteers, worked their way down the ramp path to the estuary, then marched down to the harbour end of the estuary and worked back, one pair taking the west bank and the other taking the east bank.


This was the first strimming session of the year – always a milestone. The reason of course is that the pathside vegetation is growing very rapidly and encroaching on the paths. If left, it will reach head-height than flop down on the paths, so we have to keep on top of it. And the Dene has seven miles (perhaps) of footpaths!


The second group resumed the familiar job of pulling up and cutting down the smaller sycamores. This non-native species of tree reproduces itself prolifically and, although we can never eradicate it entirely, we try to keep it in balance with the other trees.


Photograph A. How to identify sycamore


Long-handled saws, bowsaws and loppers were the order of the day. We found that there were relatively few small saplings and seedlings along the east side of the estuary (although with the vegetation up, it is difficult to see them), so we devoted our time to cutting down the medium-sized ones and trimming the lower branches off the larger ones.


Photograph B. Sycamore control


Our chairperson paid us a visit whilst walking her dog, and there was no shortage of people walking their dogs, cycling etc along the paths on both sides of the estuary.


The wildlife was keeping its head down somewhat because of the noise of the brushcutters (“strimmers”), but the following was noted.

thrift (low, pink flowering plants) in bloom all over the saltmarsh

the trees are finally all in leaf, even the ash trees

one of our party who takes his walks in the Dene very early in the morning noted that there are several families of tawny owl breeding in the Dene

Photograph C. Estuary, with thrift (and lots of sycamores)


Sycamore-bashing is probably over for the year because the tall vegetation obscures the seedlings, but strimming will likely be a theme for many weeks to come.


1-Jun-21

The working party numbered nine this morning – two in the estuary fixing path drainage, and seven in mid-Dene sycamore-bashing. It could not have been a nicer day – sunny and warm, not too muddy underfoot and with few biting insects around.


The estuary job addressed a problem that has persisted ever since the new section of low-level path was installed by Northumberland County Council (see reports for 10th Sep and 8th Oct 2019). The drainage of that part of the path has been poor, resulting in a soggy surface. Well, that was put right today by digging a gully along the landward side of the path. That was completed before home-time.


The sycamore squad started near the downstream footbridge and worked upstream on the north bank – pulling up small sycamore saplings and cutting down the larger ones with loppers. Two long-handled saws were used for cutting down the more inaccessible sycamores and removing lower branches from the mature sycamore trees.


Meanwhile a sub-group of two had been sorting out some riverside sycamores near the gathering place, the metal gate on the Hartley West Farm access road.


Photograph A. Long-handled saw in use


This work is needed to prevent sycamore trees, which are non-native, becoming even more prevalent in the Dene. It’s not an easy job, what with steep slopes, brambles, nettles and the difficulty of telling sycamores, which are green, from other vegetation, which is green!


We got rid of a large number of sycamore saplings, but there are many more. We are probably doing just enough to make sure that no sycamores get from sapling-size to mature size – so that the population of mature trees is does not increase (and slowly decreases as they eventually fall down, one by one).


Wildlife? Well it was a day of birdsong but not much to see, as the birds can now hide from view amongst the verdant leaf cover. The spring flowers are still showing well.

birds singing and/or calling: song thrushes, blackbirds, blackcaps, jackdaws, chiffchaffs, robins, wrens, etc

flowers in bloom: greater stitchwort, bluebells, red campion, dandelions, dog violet, wild garlic, primroses, etc

There was one white butterfly, probably a female orange-tip, but that was late in the day and we didn’t have the energy to chase it around!