Your refuge from the bustle of daily life © 2012 Friends of Holywell Dene. All Rights Reserved


Forthcoming Events

Previous News Items

Past News Items and working party updates can be viewed by clicking HERE.

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

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


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!


A work party of fifteen converged on the estuary today for a morning’s reed-planting and path maintenance. The conditions, though cold, were an improvement on last week, and (unusually) rain-free – in fact, with the sun peeping out later on. Ground conditions were poor: very muddy, although this was not a problem for those of us who were working with wellies on in one of the new ponds.

The squad today consisted of eleven Friends of Holywell Dene volunteers (but without the team leader, who was skiing in the Alps – anything to get away from pond work in runny-nose weather!) plus four from the Northumberland Rivers Trust – the director and his family. Celebrity guests included the chair lady (with Poppy), the ex-team leader and two of our Northumberland County Council partners (bearing cakes).

Today’s tasks were (1) planting the new pond on the west side of the estuary with reeds, and (2) maintenance of the west-bank path.

We have all now got the knack of planting reeds: you dibble a hole in the bed of the pond with a tree stake (which makes a good improvised tool for the purpose), then drop the baby reed, which comes as a plug complete with roots, into the hole and press in. The reeds are common reed (Phragmites australis) and come in packs of plugs – a total of 500 plants. We also scattered some wildflower seed around the embankments around the pond, as last time, to try and get the vegetation off to a flying start when the spring comes – whenever that is.

Photograph A. Pond before reed-planting

Photograph B. Reeds being planted

Photograph C. Pond planted with reeds

By the way, last week’s work on the Pipe Pond seems to have paid off, and the minewater that seeps up alongside it is now running nicely into the filtration pond, which is what that pond is there for – the reeds we have just planted are designed to filter out the heavy metals from the minewater, leaving clear water to flow into the river. The second purpose of the new ponds (one each side of the estuary) is to serve as a haven for the kinds of wildlife that like reedbeds – moorhens, water rails, dragonflies, reed warblers, etc – see last week.

The second task of the day – equally important, especially to walkers – was annual maintenance of the path that runs southwards down the west side of the estuary from Dene Cottage. This path was badly in need of removal of encroaching turf and clearance of the gullies – those little drainage ditches that keep the path nice and dry, given half a chance. Impressive progress was made with this work, with perhaps half the length of the path completed. We will be back for more, fear not!

Well, the reed-planting work went so well that we were out of work by 11 o’clock so, lacking tools (and having cold hands and feet), some of us departed to swap the great outdoors for the warm indoors. The rest continued with path work until the usual completion time of 12 o’clock.

Wildlife interest:

A pair of grey wagtails were flitting about near where we were working. Look out for a small bird with a yellow breast, grey back and long tail, often near water, often making its “chit-chit” call.

Willow tits have been seen at feeders and elsewhere nearby – not as common as the blue tits and great tits. Apparently they aren’t as good at getting food out feeders, which might explain why they are less common. Coal tits and long-tailed tits are also often seen in the Dene.

The herons that are such a feature of the estuary were strangely absent today, and from their favourite nesting place upstream. They’ll be back when the weather improves, no doubt.

I am happy to announce that the little egret has been seen on the estuary again (but not by me). It seems to have gone off in a huff when the ponds were being dug, but has decided to return now that things have settled down. Look out for an all-white bird with a long neck and bill, poking about in the salt marsh (and trying to avoid dogs, which it does not like).

Crocuses and daffodils are to be seen in the Dene, but I have not seen a single celandine yet – the little yellow wild-flowers (Ficaria verna) that normally appear in swathes to announce that winter is over. Look out for them.

The new ponds look a bit bleak at the moment, and I think a lot of local residents think we have been dropping bombs on their favourite walking place. Please don’t give up on it! Nature will soon transform the barren-looking ponds into flourishing green habitats with wildflowers, insects and birds, as well as filtering the minewater to keep the estuary clean. Watch how they progress over this summer and next.


A ten-person work party turned out today to improve the south-bank path near the Hartley Lane lay-by. The weather was just about ideal (not) for path work: drizzly-to-rainy and very muddy.

The path we are talking about is the one that connects the top of the long flight of steps (down from the lay-by) to the upper footbridge in the middle Dene. If you have been along there, you will know that there is a long steep slope downwards from the path to the burn. Well, we wouldn’t like anyone to fall down there, so we have taken some measures to improve things, viz. (1) fencing the edge of the path at the most perilous point, and (2) levelling the path in that general area to make it less likely that anybody would slide down the bank when the path is slippy.

Safety precautions. To keep ourselves safe while the work was going on, we strung a rope between two trees to provide protection against sliding down the slope. We also, as usual, set out our “work going on” signs on the path either side of the work area. One good point about the bad weather was that there fewer walkers and cyclists about than usual. A couple of the dogs that came along, with their owners, found our unusual presence puzzling and unsettling, but managed to get past anyway.

The work consisted of:

digging holes for fence posts

putting the posts in place, one by one, and filling in with post-fix concrete and soil

fastening horizontal rails to the fence posts, including a rail at ground level to retain the path soil

levelling the path by using spades, mattocks and rakes to move soil from the uphill side to the downhill side

surfacing the path with path gravel, which involved a lot of wheel-barrow work to get the gravel to the site

Photograph A. Path before

Photograph B. Work in progress

Photograph C. Path after

The job was satisfactorily completed on time, and we returned to our homes to get cleaned up and dried out.

Wildlife interest:

A short-eared owl was spotted near the upstream footbridge over the weekend, and its identity confirmed by a birdwatcher with binoculars – one of the rarer species of owl.

A jay was spotted in the Dene recently.

Frogs have been seen spawning in the Hartley pond, but not elsewhere so far. This is normally the spawning season for frogs and toads, but delayed this year because of the Beast from the East.

I spotted a large flock of pink-footed geese yesterday, over Holywell Pond. This flock has been subsisting in the fields around the area throughout the winter, but must soon be migrating to their breeding grounds in Iceland or Greenland.

Last but by no means least, a solitary lesser celandine flower was spotted today, and I am told there are many in the upstream meadow. We always look out for these as a sign of spring – you can see swathes of them on the woodland floor in the Dene when spring gets going properly.

If you spot anything interesting in Holywell Dene, leave us a message on the Contact page of our website. And why not take a walk along the Dene top where we were working, and enjoy the enhanced path!


A select party of nine volunteers met up at Hartley today for a litter-picking task. Guess what the weather was like? – yes: rainy and very, very muddy.

Not a lot of people know this, but litter-picking can be an extreme sport! Try scrambling up a steep, slippery slope to retrieve a crisp packet, for example. Or try plucking an empty beer can from the midst of a bramble ticket. Or try pulling a carrier bag out of the high branches of a tree! Add a bit of climbing over fences and jumping across streams and you are looking at an extreme sport indeed. James Bond would hesitate to take on some of the challenges our dedicated volunteers have confronted in the line of duty today – maybe!

We were all clad in boots and hi-viz jackets today, and working in pairs, much of the time, to make it easier to look out for each other. Long-stemmed litter-pickers and black plastic bags were the tools of the trade.

We managed to pretty-well clear the Dene from the metal bridge at the head of the estuary right up to the footbridge above the waterfall. This was actually more than we were expecting to accomplish, and must be a tribute to those who have been doing litter-picking on a regular basis; also to people who have helped us by removing litter they have spotted whilst walking in the Dene – and finally to those who have managed to prevent themselves from dropping litter in the first place, of course. I think the five-pence carrier-bag charge has helped: it was noticeable that there were not many carrier bags to pick up.

Photograph A. An intrepid litter-picker

Photograph B. A major discovery: an old carpet

Examples of the trove of goodies that we found? Well, first the big items: carpets, materials discarded during a house upgrade, etc. Oddities: a bathroom mat, an interesting cylindrical object thought to be a spice dispenser, etc. Nasties: doggie-poo bags, condoms, a nappie, cannabis-production related stuff, etc. And of course the old standbys: aluminium cans, plastic bottles, glass bottles and crisp packets by the hundred, not to mention bits of polystyrene, aluminium foil, plastic and card packaging, etc etc.

Photograph C. The final haul, ready for collection

Nature notes:

The springtime blooming of the woodland flowers is delayed because of the horrible weather, and there have been few celandines and no wild anemones seen. Just one cowslip has been spotted in bloom.

However the native daffodils are showing well in the meadow by the stone bridge on the Hartley West Farm access road, and the 400 we planted in the waterfall meadow are coming up, shyly, and will be putting on a good show soon, we hope.

Birds spotted by volunteers today: a dipper, a grey wagtail and a jay; a nuthatch was heard and thought I heard a whitethroat (a little warbler that migrates in from Africa).

Familiar “usual suspect” birds: robins, blue tits, great tits, chaffinches, goldfinches, blackbirds, etc were all seen.

The war on litter continues! I think we are winning, and we need your help: any help with litter removal will ease the work of those of us that litter-pick regularly. And if you are the person that dumps cannabis-growing materials in the Dene, please STOP IT!