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A reduced squad of seven (magnificent) volunteers turned out this frosty morning before dawn for something different: re-instating the old high-level path on the western side of the estuary. It was cold, dark and frosty when we started (and there were not many dog-walkers around), but it got milder and brighter later. The ground was muddy where not frozen.

The problem is shown in the picture below: the low-level path is crumbling where it goes round a rocky outcrop, undermined by high tides and storm surges. Also, the path disappears under water when the estuary is flooded. For these reasons, we are restoring the old high-level path, which was the original path before the low-level path was created. This can be used by the public while repairs are made to the low-level path, and will be a permanent asset for when the low-level path is flooded.

Photograph A. The problem

In fact, the Council is proposing, in due course, to revamp the whole of the west-side low-level path. This will include creating a culvert for the famous minewater seepage where water bubbles out of the ground. The path is a Heritage Way, so funding should be easy. The existing boardwalk near the seepage will then be surplus to requirements and will be removed. It was installed in December 2006.

The seepage was, actually, non-existent today – we are told that they have restarted pumping water out of the Ellington colliery because of the multitude of subsidence and other problems that have cropped up since pumping stopped a number of years ago. The low rainfall of 2018 will also have contributed to the reduced flow.

Funny things are still going on, though: the Seaton Burn was bubbling today near where it flows around the old upturned boat in the middle of the estuary. One observer thought it was rain; another thought it was an otter; I thought the water was boiling, but was dissuaded from this theory when it was pointed out that it was not a very warm day! It must, surely, be minewater, with dissolved gas, welling up from the depths of the earth.

Well, we started at northern end of the high-level path, and immediately encountered an obstacle: an old hawthorn encumbered with a tangled mass of ivy. This had to be felled, cut up and stacked nearby. Next, we set to with spades, mattocks and other tools to uncover the steep old path. This was a bit of an exercise in archaeology, and the path that emerged turned out to have been well made, with well-constructed steps at intervals. The old railing on the downhill side was removed and the wood processed for recycling into path-repair timbers etc.

Photograph B. Path before

Photograph C. Felling ivy-clad thorn

At the top of the slope, we came across a problem. There is a minor gorge that eats back into the line of the path. At this point, a tree has fallen down and in doing so its roots have pulled up a hollow in the earth. It is evident that the fence has been redirected on a couple of past occasions for this reason. We had a confab to decide what to do about this: to circumvent it, in essence.

We left off shortly after this, with an impressive amount of work done for such a small team (though we say it ourselves). Perhaps a third of the work of re-instating the path has been completed.

Photograph D. Path after

The number of passers-by increased as the morning went on, and we were wished Happy New Year on more than one occasion, as well as being asked (as usual) why we spend so much time drinking tea and coffee. Our mascot, Poppy, the chair lady’s dog appeared, seeking treats as usual, but this time with a male rather than a female escort.

Wildlife sightings:

several redshank (wading birds of the sandpiper family), the “ubiquitous sentinels of the marsh”, were patrolling the shallows of the burn and calling loudly in flight, especially when spooked by dogs

a cock pheasant was prowling about on the other bank

also seen: a grey wagtail, a kestrel, a black-headed gull and a cormorant

heard but not seen: a magpie, mallards, a robin

three old nests were found in the ivy-clad thorn bush

two tawny owls were heard by a volunteer on his way to rendezvous (one near the tunnel and one further east)

Our work is not yet done on this path project; watch this space for future progress.

Oh, and Happy New Year to all our readers!


A large work party of 12 met at Dene Cottage on the estuary to continue work on the high-level bypass path. It was a fine day for the time of year, with the sun actually showing well. The ground was not too soggy underfoot.

This report is shorter than last week, because the work was a continuation of the previous session. The main point to note is that my estimate – that the job was a third complete – now looks like a serious underestimate; to avoid further embarrassment I will desist from further estimates.

The objective of the work is to reinstate the high-level path on the western side of the estuary, to provide a way round the undermined part of the low-level path, which is going to undergo extensive renovation.

We are working along the old path from north to south, and today’s work consisted of:

removing the pathside guard fence by pulling posts out and removing old wire

recycling the timber thus obtained – removing nails, etc

digging out and widening the old path – a big job!

filling a hole in the ground caused by a tree falling and pulling its roots up

constructing a new guard fence, starting at the northern end, using recycled timber where possible

Photograph A. Constructing guard fence

Photograph B. New guard fence

Photograph C. Path restoration work

Wildlife spotted:

redshanks, as usual, in the water’s edge

an oystercatcher (black-and-white wading bird)

a family group of long-tailed tits

blue tits, and various other small birds, vocalising

a grey wagtail (grey and yellow bird with long tail) on the river

the usual herring gulls and black-headed gulls – noisy!

Incidentally, the mine-water seepage pool was still at the start of the session start and bubbling at the end, as if the water had decided to start flowing! Also, the river was bubbling away nicely in the same place as last week.

Meanwhile the path work goes on. I suspect you will be hearing more news from the estuary in forthcoming weeks ...



An almost complete work party of 13 assembled near the Melton Constable to continue the estuary bypass path project this morning. The working conditions were good: mild and dry, but dullish with some glimmerings of sunshine. At this time of year it is dark at 8:30am when we start, but more-or-less light by 9:00am. The ground was muddy but not as bad as it can be in winter.

Four teams were doing different jobs along the line of the path, and because of the large number of volunteers there was a continuous traffic of tools from one party to another as we strained the resources of tools and materials (mainly fence timber).

The object of the exercise, as last week, was to re-establish the high path that bypasses the west-side low-level path, which is breaking up and will be shut for renovation later in the year. The four sub-tasks were:

Digging out the old high-level path, which has become buried under soil and leaf litter.

Installing a short flight of steps at the highest part of the path – made necessary by the need to redirect the path around a small gorge cutting back into the hillside.

Ripping out the old guard fence. Only a short section needed to be removed today.

Installing a new guard fence. See below.

Photograph A. Digging out old path.

Photograph B. Installing steps.

Photograph C. Replacing guard fence.

Photograph D. Part-completed job.

The last of these four activities seemed to consume most effort. Digging holes for fence posts is good exercise! We found that the soil low down is very dry, even though the surface layers are damp and muddy. We recycled old fence posts where possible, only using new ones where strength was particularly needed. Cement was used to secure some of the critical fence posts in the ground.

The installation of new steps – item 2 above – was made easier by the fact that a set of square timber frames had been made up in advanced. It was “only” a matter of hauling them to the site and bedding them in – although this took all morning for the team in question.

We had our usual two brief tea/coffee breaks, and life and politics were discussed energetically as usual. Our chair lady and her black-and-white dog paid a visit at break time as usual – she likes to check that we are working hard!

Wildlife sightings were few and far between today, partly because the tide was out and the water birds were away foraging on the rocky shore. We noticed a miniature version of the Severn bore when the tide changed, and the Burn was bubbling away nicely near the upturned boat as usual. Sightings (and hearings) included:

curlew calling overhead

the mew of a buzzard up aheight

blue tits and robins calling

daffodils coming up in the bank-side

Final note: TAKE CARE if you venture up the new path. We don’t recommend using it yet as it is not yet completed and, although we have left it safe, there are nevertheless some hazards.


A work party of ten volunteers assembled at Hartley Lane carpark for a morning of hazel coppicing and fencing. This was under an open sky and over ground that was frozen in places and rather too soft in others, with a wind getting up later.


If you walk through the meadow near the Hartley West Farm stone bridge you will see some shrubs that look as if they have been vandalised – they have not! This is the result of our (part-completed) regular coppicing exercise – see below.

The party split into two groups, one coppicing and the other constructing a short section of fence. (We had two guest volunteers today: a former team-leader and a former chair of the Friends, who “supervised” the coppicing and hazel-weaving respectively.)

The first group started coppicing the hazels in the meadow. Hazels are small trees or shrubs, with multiple stems. They are very good for wildlife, producing catkins and nuts at different times of the year. They need to be cut back regularly, however, to keep them in good order. We call this coppicing – cutting out the larger stems at the base in order to encourage the slimmer stems, and thus revitalise the plant. The work involves pruning saws, bow saws and loppers. It is quite fiddly, because of the difficulty of sawing a stem when other stems are crowded around it.

Photograph A. Coppicing

Some of the cut material produced by this activity was suitable for fencing work and was carried and/or dragged to the fencing site. The rest was cut up and dumped nearby.

The second group of volunteers set about the job of creating a section of fence to fill a gap in the hedge that runs alongside the Hartley West Farm access road as it slopes down from Hartley Lane to the bridge. A line of four heavy fence posts was hammered into the earth in the gap in the hedge. Next, three stout hazel stems (a side-product of the coppicing) were hammered in vertically between the posts. Long hazel wands were then woven horizontally between these uprights. This was skilled work, involving choosing the right wood and trimming it, as well as weaving it in. As a finishing touch, three roundels of woven hazel were placed on the fence as decoration.

Photograph B. Staking out the hedge gap

Photograph C. Weaving the fence

Photograph D. End result

Wildlife notes:

Coal tits, robins, nuthatches and blue tits were calling (among others).

A great flock of several hundred pink-footed have been seen and heard near Old Hartley and elsewhere in the Holywell Dene area.

Catkins were present on the hazel bushes today, but they are not fully out yet.

Daffodils are pushing out of the ground – they think it’s spring.

The coppicing is not yet complete and more work is probably needed. And there’s that estuary high-level path to finish off. There’s no rest for the Friends-of-Holywell-Dene volunteer ...


A 12-person work party continued reinstating the estuary high path and coppicing hazels this morning in wet conditions.

We don’t normally get wet on task days, either because (rarely) the session is called off because of bad weather or because any rain comes in light showers. Today was the exception. It started cold and the ground was hard, but quite quickly the weather changed to drizzle, and that continued all morning. We were all well wet by end-of-session. Naturally, the ground was very muddy by the end, which is our least favourite ground condition.


Eight of the twelve volunteers arrived at Dene Cottage at 8:30 to resume the work mentioned on the 8th and 15th of January: restoring the high-level path on the west side of the estuary. It took a few trips to and from the car to get the tools and the timber (posts and rails) to the site.

This party was split into three groups: two on steps, two on safety rails and the other four putting posts in. The steps had been made up off-site to save time and, as you can see from the picture, they are very intricate. The safety rails were fitted as the posts were secured in the ground, and the area was made safe as possible.

Photograph A. Installing steps

After a few minutes walking about, the ground underfoot became very muddy and fairly difficult to walk on and it was quite a job to keep your footing. The main topic of discussion was whether we would get a full shift in or finish early. Most of the fencing is now complete. It will take a few more weeks’ work to finish overall.


Meanwhile, the four other volunteers set off to the meadow upstream of the Hartley West Farm stone bridge and set about finishing coppicing the hazels there. Coppicing, as stated earlier, means cutting shrubs down to ground level to re-invigorate the plant and keep it bush-sized. The hazels are interspersed with oaks, and are meant to be an “under-storey” – but they have a habit of outgrowing the oaks, hence the coppicing work.

The job requires patience as it is difficult to get in between multiple stems. Time also needs to be spent dragging, cutting and stacking the hazel branches. About three-quarters of the job has now been completed, but about fifteen or more hazels still remain to be done.

Photograph B. Coppicing

Wildlife (that wasn’t hiding from the rain):

On the estuary: a few mallards were seen on the burn.

Around the meadow: rooks, jackdaws and coal tits were calling, a jay was churring, blue tits and a robin were singing.

Moles are always busy in the Dene, even if not often noted. They seem to be carrying on the local mining traditions in the meadow area.

A very friendly little robin was accompanying the coppicers, flitting down to our feet to pick up morsels, then sitting in a tree to sing for us.

A V-shaped formation of about 50 wild geese, perhaps the pink-footed variety, flew overhead.

The birds are singing more and the bulbs are coming up, so we are hoping there will not be much more weather like this before spring arrives.


Ten volunteers assembled near Dene Cottage this morning to continue the refurbishment of the estuary high-level path. It was a frosty start, but there was enough brightness for the working conditions to be tolerable. The ground was hard at the bottom of the dene bank, but sloppy and muddy further up, In fact, if you like slithering around on steep muddy slopes, it was a perfect day!

Today, the work was in three parts, being worked on by groups of different sizes. Three people worked on extending the northern end of the path and its guard fence to the bottom of the slope. Five people finished off the flight of steps that were started on a fortnight ago, complete with guard fence. And two volunteers continued the hard slog of removing encroaching vegetation and soil from the southern part of the path.

Photograph A. Working on north end of path

We try to use recycle materials as much as possible. A lot of the timber used for fence posts, rails and edging boards was recycled. The rubble that we used to fill in the steps had been extracted from under the floor of the house of one of our volunteers I believe, and had been transported from there to the path site yesterday. The amount of rubble turned out to be insufficient, so we went foraging for more. An enterprising volunteer found some useful stuff, which may have been part of an old waggonway, at the top of the bank, and we lugged it down in plastic sacks.

Photograph B. Bags of (heavy!) rubble

While I am on about recycling materials, another volunteer brought a load of paving blocks that had been lying in someone’s garage for a couple of years, and these were used in finishing off the steps.

Photograph C. Finishing off steps

Some wildlife, for interest:

the redshanks (wading birds) were a bit quiet today, but one took off from the shallows and made its piping call

a wren and a robin were singing

some boring old woodpigeons and black headed gulls were calling

there was a high-pitched call over the water which could have been a kingfisher or a grey wagtail

a great spotted woodpecker and a nuthatch were heard down the quieter south end of the path

It turns out that the high-level path is a very ancient one. It was the main path for getting up and down the estuary before the low-level path was put in on the west side. The east side was formerly without any path. When you finally get the chance to try out the reinstated path, you will be walking in the footsteps of many generations.

Photograph D. Nearly-complete north section

Note, however, that we are not recommending that you use it yet. THE WORK IS NOT COMPLETE and still has certain hazards, such as a very slippery surface while we await gravel to finish it off.



Refurbishment of the estuary high path continued this morning, with eight volunteers meeting at 8:30 near Dene Cottage on a milder-than-usual morning. The puddles had a covering of ice, but it was already melting by the time we started, so the ground was rather muddy. The sky was grey but with some brightness gleaming through early on.

The party was divided into four groups of two people to work on different parts of the path and its guard fence. The path in question, in case you have missed earlier missives, is the high-level path along the middle section of the western side of the Seaton Burn estuary.

The first group concentrated on fixing retaining boards to the guard fence, starting at the northern end of the path. These are needed to stop gravel from sliding down the slope – the ground slopes away steeply (or precipitously) to estuary level immediately to the east.

The second group worked on finishing off the mid-northern part of the path by covering over with ashy material from the dene-top edge. We think there was an old waggonway there once; some interesting old bottles etc have emerged from the ground. More on that below.

The third group reinstated the guard fence of the central section of the path – a case of renewing a fence post, replacing several rotten rails, and refastening the horizontal wires in several places.

Finally, the fourth party seemed to outdo all the others in the healthy cardiovascular exercise of re-excavating the old path by removing soil, dead leaves and weeds with mattock, spade and rake. This task has now been completed right down to the southern end of the path.

Photograph A. North end – with retaining boards

Photograph B. South end – nice and clear

Progress? Well, there is probably another week’s work to be done, so nearly there!

We all keep a look-out for wildlife when working, and here are some of today’s more interesting sightings:

song thrush singing above the middle section of the path

great tits, robins, etc singing, and rooks cawing

redshanks were seen, as usual, flitting about by the edge of the burn in the estuary – black-and-white in flight but brown (with orange legs) when grounded – piping calls – the “sentinel of the marsh” (as one volunteer always says)

oyster catchers were flying about and making shrill calls; so were black-headed gulls, as usual; also a magpie flew overhead

two woodpeckers – probably the great spotted variety – were heard drumming

a pair of mallard were flying around; also a heron in the burn

wild geese by the hundred flew across the sky to the south, calling loudly, as they do – probably some of the flock of pink-footed geese over-wintering in the local fields

snowdrops are showing well by the estuary path

Guess what awaited us at end-of-task? Hot steak pies, courtesy of a long-standing (four generations) local business: Nicholson & Son of Park View, Whitley Bay – a very welcome treat at the end of a morning’s hard work. Thank-you, Doug!

Photograph C. Steak pies

Incidentally, we suspect there was once a waggonway or railway running along the top edge of the west side of the estuary. If you have any information on this, we would really like to know – there is a contact page on our website.