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

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3-May-22

A working party of ten volunteers met outside the Milbourne Arms at Holywell this morning to do some more step-laying work. This was a grey and chilly morning, but the ground was nice and dry – although a late-morning shower dampened things a bit.


There was a lot of kit and materials to be transported along the ups and downs of the path – some of it carried but most of it transported in our four wheelbarrows. Before the main task got under way, two of us went off along the path upstream of the Holywell road bridge to sort out a small fallen tree. This was tackled in about ten minutes using bowsaw and loppers.

Photograph A. Tree blocking path

Meanwhile the main party went downstream along the south-side bank of the burn to the side burn, where the footpath dips down almost to the level of the Seaton Burn before rising up a steep slope to dene-top level. If you remember, we installed a flight of steps on that steep slope a fortnight ago. Well, the task today was to extend that at the bottom end to make a flight of 32 steps in all.


It won’t be necessary to describe in detail the steps taken as this was more-or-less a repetition of the earlier task (see 19th April report). The timber steps had been made up beforehand, so it was only a case of digging them in with mattocks then securing them with stakes hammered into the ground. Aggregate was then used to fill in the spaces behind the steps.

Photograph B. Installing steps

Aggregate-shifting was, as usual, a major part of the operation, and this time we had a better method of getting the material down the steep slope from where it was stored to where it was needed.

Photograph C. Moving aggregate

One of us had put his thinking cap on and come up with an ingenious rope-and-pulley system for taking the weight of a loaded wheelbarrow as it was guided down the slope, and this worked very well.


It is worth noting that Northumbrian Water has funded the materials for this work – so many thanks to them!


This was not exactly a classic day for wildlife; the birds were rather quiet in the dull conditions and the flowers were not showing well for the same reason. Nevertheless we saw/heard:

at least two blackcaps singing near where we were working

also singing: chiffchaff, robin, wren

a pheasant was heard, also a grey wagtail

a pair of mallards were spotted on the burn (but no chicks)

the bluebells are coming out, and are beginning to form carpets in some places, and there are still some celandines (yellow) in bloom

and of course the trees are slowly getting their full summer foliage

We are aware that the path-verge strimming season is approaching, but fear not! – the vegetation is only a few inches high as yet.


10-May-22

Pleasant weather greeted the ten-volunteer workforce this morning as they gathered near Hartley West Farm to lay a new section of footpath near the meadow – it was a sunny, breezy day and nice and dry underfoot.


The work was roughly divided into two parts today: laying the path and moving aggregate to the site.


First we rigged up the trusty bucket bridge across the river to get the gravel across. This had to be brought from a pile near the stone bridge on the north side to the vicinity of the side-waterfall on the south side. Meanwhile work started on the path installation.


We cleared the weeds from the proposed line of the path first. Next we cut a shallow trench along one side of the intended path. Next we placed edging boards (recycled decking timber) along one side (the other side was on higher ground and not in need of edging). The edging boards were secured with stakes and screws. Next a membrane was laid along the length of the path to suppress weeds. And finally, aggregate was laid on the path to make a durable surface – then smoothed with a rake and compressed with a tamper and/or volunteers’ feet.


While all that was going on, the logistics operation was unfolding on the other bank. Some volunteers were digging the aggregate out of the old pile. Others were wheelbarrowing it from there to the bucket bridge. Others were transferring the gravel from wheelbarrow to the carrier buckets and pulling those back and forth across the river via a winch cable suspended between two trees. And finally, on the south side of the river the material was being removed from the buckets and applied to the path.


We got the job done with time to spare this morning, despite taking two tea/coffee breaks. So at around a quarter to twelve, we packed up our kit onto the wheelbarrows and trekked back to the van before going home.


Wildlife:

It was a fine day, and the birds were singing. We heard chiffchaffs, blackcaps, a song thrush, wrens and a blackbird.

The rooks were making their usual raucous noises in the trees overhead.

The plant life is flourishing now, and the following were in bloom: wild garlic, red campion, bluebells, lesser stitchwort, buttercups, cow parsley. The lesser celandines are still in flower. The dog’s mercury is flourishing, although it does not have a showy flower.

If you want to check out our work, just stroll along the south bank going upstream from the stone bridge on the Hartley West Farm road until you come to the side waterfall (dry today), then pass over the short boardwalk and you should see it. It used to get very muddy there in winter, so the new path should be a useful improvement..


24-May-22

Today’s working party numbered just eight volunteers, but we managed to get a lot of sycamore bashing done nevertheless. The weather was perfect in the sense that the rain held off – only just – and it was dry under foot, as we like it.


This was a similar task to last week, so please refer to the last report if you need to know why we control sycamores. The area of activity this morning was along the south side of the burn upstream and downstream of the Holywell road bridge.


The management of the Melbourne Arms, Holywell, very kindly let us park our little red tools van in their carpark. So, that was the meet-up place today, and it was from there that we set off with our tools in wheelbarrows and over our shoulders.


The object of the exercise, as last week, was to reduce the sycamore population of Holywell Dene by pulling up saplings, cutting down smaller sycamore trees and removing the lower branches from the larger ones. The tools used included the long-reach chainsaw, a couple of long-handled saws and several bowsaws and pairs of loppers.


We started work at the old Holywell bridge, now a footbridge located more-or-less under the modern road bridge. Here, there were several sycamores growing up from around the base of the bridge. After a bit of discussion, our task leader decided to go down to the water level under the bridge and cut through each of these trees at the base with the long chainsaw, while the rest of us held the top. Each having been severed, the tree was hauled up onto the bridge, hacked up and disposed of nearby.


Next, the working party split into two groups. Two of us went upstream to sort out sycamores along the south bank. The others proceeded downstream, doing the same thing. Later, around the first tea break – yes, we have two – the upstream duo joined the others. So, after a cuppa and a natter we proceeded further downstream then up the little valley in which runs a side burn that seems to have no name.

Photograph A. Long-handled saw in use

Photograph B. Long-reach chainsaw in use

Photograph C. Long-handled saw in use

That seemed to be a good place to stop so, with drizzle coming down, we tramped back to the van with our tools. The rain came down in earnest at precisely 12:15, just as we were getting into our cars – so good timing.


What we noticed was that there were very few sycamore saplings, so we spent most of our time today trimming lower branches off large trees and cutting down a few smaller sycamores. Why so few saplings? Perhaps the seeds are all being eaten by mice or jays or grey squirrels. But it is noteworthy that the 2020 and 2021 springs were relatively dry, so perhaps it is simply a case of seeds not germinating in the dry spring conditions.


Anyway, as usual we did a bit of wildlife spotting on the way:

a dipper was spotted on the burn

wild geese were heard flying overhead as we were having our second break

some small birds were heard singing: goldfinches, a blackbird, a robin, a chiffchaff and a whitethroat

wildflowers and butterflies were very thin on the ground under the heavy shade in that part of the dene

It could be either strimming or path work next week. Watch this space …

17-May-22

Fine weather greeted the thirteen-volunteer taskforce this morning – warm and sunny, but slippy under foot because of overnight rain. The venue was Hartley Lane carpark and the mission was sycamore control.


A brief explanation first. Sycamores are fine forest trees, but they are a foreign species and they have an invasive habit. We can’t realistically fell all the full-grown sycamores in the Dene and we wouldn’t want to, but we need to prevent them from taking over. So, to maintain a balance between tree species, we regularly (a) pull up sycamore saplings, and (b) trim the lower branches off existing sycamore trees.


So, after loading up our wheelbarrows with tools from the van, we headed off for the stone bridge on the Hartley West Farm road. The idea was to sweep the south side of the Dene upstream from there, and in the event we got as far as the straight section of riverside path upstream of the stepping stones.


Tools in use today included the long-handled saw, the long-reach chainsaw and the new mini-chainsaw, but mainly loppers and bowsaws. We spread out across the deneside slope in pairs. The hunt for sycamore saplings was now on, and in fact there were surprisingly few. Indeed we came across several dead small sycamores that had obviously given up the ghost in the competition for light.

Photograph A. Long-handled saw in use

Photograph B. Long-reach chainsaw in use

Well, in previous years we have come across swathes of saplings in some places. So perhaps something has been eating the sycamore seeds before they have had a chance to germinate – jays, pigeons, crows, squirrels? Nevertheless there was plenty of sycamore-control work to be done.


Most of our task work is done either on or close to one of the paths, but today we needed to work on the steep slopes of the Dene. That wasn’t easy, because overnight rain had made the ground surface soft and, in places, muddy. The result was a number of slip-ups (with no harm done). Your correspondent, for example, slid on his backside down a steep muddy slope, and had to put plastic bags on his car seat for driving home. Those overalls will have to go in the wash!


It was a good day for birds and flowers, although not many butterflies were seen.

Birdsong: blackcaps, whitethroats, song thrushes, wrens, robins, chiffchaffs, blackbirds and probably others.

The rooks and jackdaws were calling overhead.

Wild flowers in bloom: ramsons, garlic mustard, red campions, bluebells, lesser celandine, cow parsley, lesser stitchwort, dandelions.

And the fly season has started – annoying!

Photograph C. Bluebells

The vegetation is growing at quite a pace now, so we sense that the strimming season is coming on, but perhaps we can get a few more non-strimming tasks in before then. Watch this space!

31-May-22

Ten volunteers met up this morning at the metal gate on Hartley West Farm road for a morning of path improvements on the south side of the burn. The weather was cold and showery.


With wheelbarrows loaded with tools, a winch and strops to wrap around the trees, we headed off to the pile of gravel on the north side of the burn which was delivered in 2016 – pending the arrival of the next big delivery courtesy of Northumbrian Water.


Four team members set about rigging up the bucket bridge across the river, while the other six waded across the burn to rig up the anchor for the bucket bridge on the other bank. Two members set about fixing the wood to make the steps, while the other two went off to repair damage to the river bank caused by dogs going in and out the river.


The down-slope on the other side from the steps by the stepping stones was made a bit safer by laying three planks across and filling the spaces with aggregate. The steps themselves were cleaned off and covered with gravel.

Photograph A. Inserting retaining boards

That work having been completed, it was decided to do the other side of the incline, which required the stripping off of loose soil and debris then topping with gravel.

Photograph B. Improved steps

After this, another set of steps, to the east, was cleaned and gravelled, and a short section of path gravelled using just one plank to hold the material.

Photograph C. Improved path

Spare a thought for the workers who were doing the sticky work digging up gravel from the pile, taking it to fill the buckets, pulling it across the river, emptying the buckets into another wheelbarrow and transporting it to the new steps – made worse by drizzle and sunshine at the same time!


While all this was going on, the other two volunteers were repairing the river bank downstream from the main party.


Willow branches were cut and taken to where the bank had eroded away and then pushed hard into the river bed to make a coffer-dam, then willow was weaved around the branches. Soil was then used to fill the hole made by erosion and willow branches used to try and stop the dogs going into the river again at the same place.


It was midday when all the jobs were completed so we packed up the tools, transported them back to the van and cleaned them down ready for use on the next job.


It might be path-verge strimming next week, so keep watching this space!  

7-Jun-22

The strimming season got off to a flying start this morning despite a lower-than-average turnout of eight volunteers. We met up near Dene Cottage, Seaton Sluice, and strimmed the path verges from there right along the western side of the estuary to the Pipe Bridge (the wooden footbridge near the overhead pipe).


The weather was dull and cool, but that is actually good weather for strimming, which can be a sweaty and tedious task in hot weather.


We were using four strimmers this morning – so four people strimming and four people raking the cut vegetation into piles, taking it in turns. The strimmers we use are heavy-duty ones: actually “brush-cutters” with metal cutting heads. They have been sharpened and serviced for us by a local firm, paid for by Northumberland County Council.


We wear harnesses and safety helmets, as you can see in the photo. Safety is always an issue. We put up warning signs on the path either side of where we are working, and we take care to guide pedestrians (especially those with dogs) around the strimmers. Hazards of the trade include flying stones and metal shards, dog-poo and wasps’ nests – although we did not encounter any of those today. A pitchfork got slightly modified however.

Photograph A. Strimming

By the way, we also strimmed the high path as well as the estuary-level path on the west side – the one that runs through the dene-side woodland and is accessed by a flight of steps at each end.


Wildlife:

a toad scampered across the path, escaping the strimmer

the black-headed gulls were squawking noisily as usual in the estuary

also heard were blackcaps, blackbirds, wrens, a chaffinch, jackdaws

across the salt-marsh was an extensive pink bloom caused by thousands of sea asters all in flower at the same time

there was no sign of the egret that is often seen on the estuary

Photograph B. Salt marsh with sea asters

We do this strimming work basically because if we didn’t, the paths would be impassable in high summer, when the vegetation grows to a great height very quickly, then flops down on the paths. It is also necessary to stop scrub, especially brambles and overhanging branches, from obstructing the paths.


So, please, when out walking in the Dene, have patience if you hear the loud buzz of the strimmers – it is necessary work. And please take care of yourselves and especially your children and dogs when going past people doing strimming work.

14-Jun-22

A work party of eight volunteers turned out for another morning of path verge strimming, on a dull day which was, agreeably, neither too hot nor too cold.


The meeting place today was Millfield, a street in Seaton Sluice which runs along the top of the steep slope overlooking the estuary.


Four strimmers were in use today. Other tools included the motorised hedge strimmer, rakes, secateurs and loppers. And we always have to carry containers of fuel around for when the petrol-driven strimmers run out of juice.


We started by strimmed the verges of the path down from Millfield to the estuary path. We then divided into two groups, one going right up to the north end of the estuary and working southwards; the other continuing southwards in the direction of the Hartley Lane carpark.

Photograph A. Why we strim

Photograph B. Strimming

Strimming is always a noisy business, but most passers-by seem to be grateful that someone is keeping the paths clear. The vegetation is growing at a rate of knots now, and is in danger of obstructing the paths.


As always, if you hear the buzz of the strimmers when you are in the Dene, take care and look after children and dogs.


Wildlife? Not much showing, for obvious reasons, but:

a couple of orange-tip butterflies were spotted

a blackcap was heard singing

the usual-suspect birds were around: gulls, jackdaws, etc

We managed to stim the verges and trim the overhanging branches all along the path from near St. Paul’s Church to a point between the wooden estuary bridge and the Hartley Lane carpark – with the exception of a section towards the north end which does not need doing yet.

Photograph C. Trimming overhead branches

No guesses as to what we are likely to be doing next week.   

21-Jun-22

The strimming taskforce this today numbered ten volunteers, and we assembled at the Hartley Lane carpark on a fine sunny morning. The temperatures rose as the morning wore on, but there was an increasing amount of high cloud in the sky, which moderated temperatures, and indeed there was even some light drizzle towards the end of the session.


In a nutshell, we managed to strim all the path verges all the way from where we left off last week – midway between the carpark and the head of the estuary – right the way up to the top end of the meadow below Hartley West Farm.


The pathside vegetation is really high now, and it needs controlling to stop it flopping down onto the paths. Typical pathsize plants are: various grass species, stinging nettles, cow parsley, hogweed, dock, buttercups, meadow cranesbill, etc. Brambles and encroaching hawthorn bushes are also a problem.


We had five petrol-powered strimmers in action today, plus a hedge trimmer and a long-handled chainsaw for keeping the overhanging trees under control. We wear protective gear – helmets with vizors and ear guards – and because the strimmers are heavy, we need to wear a harness to support the weight of the strimmer.

Photograph A. Jungle encroaching

Photograph B. Sorting it out

The people doing the raking – we tend to take turns at strimming and raking – use either rakes or pitchforks, according to taste, for clearing the cut vegetation into piles.


Strimming and raking are tiring jobs and we get quite sweaty in summer, so we had two tea/coffee breaks. It’s chance to socialise a bit, which is almost impossible when the strimmers are roaring away.


As usual, a number of walkers came past us as we were working, and a few of them expressed thanks for the work we do. If walking a dog in the Dene, it is advisable to bring a lead with you, as you might come across a strimming party, and dogs are best kept on a lead near strimmers.


We tend to miss out on the midsummer wildlife when strimming, because of the noise, but:

Birds seen/heard included chiffchaffs, jackdaws, goldfinches, a wren, a robin and a heron flying around near the houses as we returned to our cars.

In bloom were dog roses, elder bushes, red campions, buttercups, wood avens and cow parsley.

We managed to get done more than we had intended this morning, and the upstream end of the meadow seemed a suitable place to terminate operations, so with time to spare before our usual stopping time of 12:30, we plodded back to the van with our tools and went home to recover from our exertions.  

28-Jun-22

Ten volunteers turned up today at the Hartley West Farm metal gate for another strimming session, on a day that started out cool but became warm and muggy later, with the sun more-or-less hidden behind high cloud.


As you will have gathered from previous reports in this series, we are on a mission to strim the path verges of the Dene from the estuary all the way up to Holywell. Today we continued where we finished off last time, which was the top end of the meadow by the old stone bridge. And by the end of the session we had cleared all the north-bank paths, both high-level and-low level, up to Silverhill – the location of the bench that looks out across the fields at the top of the lower-footbridge ramp path.


As usual, we were deploying strimmers (five off), rakes and pitchforks, and a hedge trimmer. We trim overhanging branches and path-side brambles as well as the verge vegetation.

Photograph A. Strimming

Photograph B. Result

As usual when strimming, the wildlife was hiding in the undergrowth wondering when the horrible noise was going to go away, but we heard chiffchaffs, blackcaps and goldfinches singing – despite the fact that it is getting close to the end of the birdsong season.


I don’t know what we are doing next week, but I wouldn’t bet against strimming. The grasses and weeds are growing like crazy despite the drought