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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


26-Feb-19

Eight volunteers braved the expected heatwave to meet at Hartley West Farm metal gate for a morning of coppicing and removal of disused fencing. The sun had not yet made an appearance over the top of the trees, so the meadow was covered in a fine coating of frost when we started.


We were split into two groups of four which then headed off to perform the above tasks.


We had already, in earlier sessions, coppiced most of the hazels in the meadow area near the stone bridge, and today we managed to finish the task. Coppicing is the removal of some older branches of the hazel trees to let the light in for fresh growth. We also take out the branches that are intertwined, with a view to keeping the plants open in shape.

Photograph A. Coppicing on a frosty morning

Photograph B. Completed job


The other group of four went on to the south side of the Dene, opposite the meadow, to remove unwanted fencing. This was then cleared of any nails or wire, then taken away to be stored for use on another project in the future. This part of the job did not last all morning so the party of four came across and helped in the coppicing of the hazel trees.

Photograph C. Dismantling fence


The unusually hot weather we have had over the last few days brought out a lot of people enjoying a nice walk through the Dene. A few mentioned about some fly tipping that had happened on Monday next to the stone bridge. We explained that although in the past we used to remove any fly tipping to a suitable area for the County Council to pick up in a safe manner, the procedure now is to report it online, by telephone or by calling in to the Council office so they can keep a log of any tipping. This helps in any prosecutions for the offence.


There wasn't much in the way of wild life to report today, but lots of ladybirds were spotted.

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19-Feb-19

The work party finished off the estuary high-level path today – hurray! Eight volunteers assembled at near Dene Cottage on an amazingly sunny, mild and dry morning. The ground was dry enough to sit on at break time, later in the morning.


There isn’t anything original to to be said about the work, since it was simply a continuation of last week’s task. One group cleared soil and weeds from the top part of the path, one group excavated ashy material from the old wagonway and hauled it to the path for surfacing purposes, and a third group added edging boards to the guard fence. Some finishing-off took place – shortening and rounding the post tops – and then we went home. Job done!

Photograph A. Path clearance

Photograph B. Hauling surfacing material

Photograph C. Finishing off

Photograph D. End result


The path is now open for use! Please note however that the surfacing is temporary, and that proper path gravel will be applied later in the year when the low-level path is renovated.


Wildlife interest. Strangely, not so much as last week, but here are some bird sightings:

redshanks, as usual, on the estuary

blue tits, robins and other songbirds singing

crows and black-headed gulls squawking away


Some background on the path. We think it was constructed in 1690 when the sluice gate, after which Seaton Sluice is named, was installed. The location of this gate can be seen still: under the present road bridge. The idea was to deepen the harbour by scouring its bed. The gate was closed at high tide; as the tide ebbed, water built up in the estuary upstream of the gate; and at low tide, the gate was opened and a large body of water surged through the harbour, washing away lots of silt and sand. Repeated sluicing must have dramatically increased the depth of the harbour and thus increased the size of sailing ship that could be berthed there. Because the estuary was regularly flooded, there was a need for a path well above the estuary level – and so the high-level path was cut.


And some background on the wagonway. This primitive railway ran along the top edge of the Dene to the west of the estuary. We think it was for carrying stone not coal, and that it ran from the quarry to the estuary mouth. The quarry in question is the one that once existed between the Hartley Lane carpark and the Pipe Bridge at the top of the estuary. You can see quarry faces hidden in the jungle under the street known as Simonside. The stone was used for buildings such as Seaton Lodge and Dene Cottage. There is a lot of dusty/ashy material along the Dene top, with old crockery and other refuse embedded, which we think was the ballast on which the rails of the wagonway rested. Or it might just have been a rubbish dump.

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5-Mar-19

The work session was well-attended today: twelve volunteers turning out for fence-removal work on a damp, drizzly, grey morning (brightened up by the blooming daffodils in the meadow nearby).


The fence we removed today ran along the south bank of the burn from below the stepping stones to the side-waterfall up from the stone bridge on the Hartley West Farm road. We remove old fencing, which dates from the days – before year 2000 – when cattle roamed in the Dene, because it is increasingly dilapidated and rotten, and a bit of an eyesore. And what’s more, we can recycle the wood for repairing paths, fencework etc.

 

Photograph A. The fence to be removed


Fence demolition is a job that involves hammers, crowbars, hacksaws (for cutting rusted nails), wire-cutters, claw hammers and saws – and a lot of sheer brute force. The wiring was removed from the fence and left at the carpark for the Council people to take away. The timber, most of which was in good enough condition to be reused, was cleaned up (removal of nails, etc) and stacked for future use.


Photograph B. The fence demolition squad


Other than that, there is little to report. This was a repetition of fence-removal work we have done on past occasions, and details can be viewed in past reports passim.


Wildlife that the team spotted today:

buzzard (heard)

mallards on the burn

groups of goldfinches twittering

rooks cawing in the rookery

woodpecker calling, also jay and pheasant


The Dene is beginning to look spring-like. Snowdrops and wild daffodils are showing well. The blackthorn is in bloom – see if you can spot the bushes with white flowers but, as yet, no leaves. Get out and enjoy it!

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12-Mar-19

The work party, of eleven volunteers, resumed its demolition of fencing along the south side of the Seaton Burn. The weather was OK for conservation task work: rain-free but grey overhead and a bit muddy underfoot.


The morning’s work may summarised as the completion of last week’s task: the removal of the redundant and derelict fence running along the south bank of the burn upstream from the stepping stones.


The process involved:

stripping wire netting from the fencing

removing the horizontal timber rails

pulling out the old fence posts

removing nails and staples from the timber so that it can be reused

stacking the timber to a suitable place for future use

carrying old wire netting to the Hartley Lane carpark to be picked up by the Council


That’s it!

Photograph A. Dismantling fence

Photograph B. Riverside afterwards


As for wildlife, well it was not a classic day for it despite it being springtime, but we spotted the following.

A pair of mallard ducks on the river; they need to be told that the Dene isn’t a great place for ground-nesting birds, with so many dogs around.

Lots of activity at the rookery above the stone bridge, with rooks and jackdaws noisily swirling around in the air.

A willow tit (probably) singing in a willow upstream of the stepping stones.

A toad was captured and released – see photo.

Photograph C. Toad Hall must be around here somewhere!


Spring seems on hold, just at the minute, with cold winds and showers replacing the summery weather we had in late February. Nevertheless, buds are appearing on the trees. Soon the spring flowers such as celandines and anemones will be appearing. Roll on spring!

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19-Mar-19

The ten-person work party was geographically divided today between the tunnel end and the estuary end of the Dene, and the activities were tree clearance and snowdrop transplanting respectively. It was a pleasant day for conservation work: quite bright and quite warm, but a bit muddy under foot.


The strong wind last Tuesday night / Wednesday morning had brought down the top section of a very large tree downstream from the wagonways, taking out two more trees next to it, and these were all lying across the path! Unfortunately neither the chain-saw nor the chain-saw operator (our task leader) were available this week, so the half-team of five volunteers had to clear as much as possible by hand, leaving the big trunks for a future session.


Before starting work, we had to survey the safest way to cut the branches and in what order. Then it was out with the bow-saws. We also had to rig up our hand winch to pull two parts of the trunk away from the path.


Thanks to our efforts, the path is now open – so long as you do not mind stepping over the one remaining obstacle, which will be cleared as soon as possible. A seat was also totally destroyed by the fall branches and we hope to replace this in the future. Lots of walkers expressed thanks for the work being done during the morning – always appreciated by the volunteers.


Photograph A. Fallen tree on path

Photograph B. Clearing the path

Photograph C. End result


The other five volunteers rendezvoused at one of our favourite haunts: the estuary high-level path, and the task was transplanting snowdrops. We know that Northumberland County Council are going to refurbish the low path, and that will mean some earth-moving that will likely destroy an existing patch of snowdrops. So, we dug a lot of those snowdrops up, separated them up into small clumps and replanted them along and above the recently refurbished high-level path. Let’s hope for a good show of snowdrops along there in future years!


The chairlady of Friends of Holywell Dene joined the estuary group at break time, and Britain in Bloom was discussed among other things. Poppy, our mascot dog, was disappointed not to get her usual treats – aww!


And finally, some (muddy) fun was had at the estuary when we used ropes, brute force and liberal amounts of swearing to pull an old car seat out of the water. It must have been in there for years and was an eyesore. Being clad in cloth and leather and saturated with silty water, it was very heavy. We managed to get it out above the strand line so that the Council can take it away.


Wildlife:

song thrush building a nest near Dene Cottage

black-headed gulls in unusual numbers squawking around the estuary

not much else!


It's a relief to be out of winter, and to be in the time-zone before the summer verge-strimming season. A good time of year for interesting conservation tasks.

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2-Apr-19

Ten volunteers turned out on a grey, damp and initially rainy day for a medley of tasks in the Dene near Crowhall Farm this morning. Since about four tasks were undertaken, this will have to be a swift run-through rather than a thorough report.


1. A squad of three ventured to the flight of steps near the Hartley Lane lay-by leading down to the lower wooden bridge. Here two jobs were undertaken: (1) repairs to the guard rail on the downside slope of the steps – basically patching it up to fend off the day when it will all have to be replaced; (2) clearing mud and leaves from the steps themselves, which is always needed at the end of winter.


2. A squad of two attended to the dilapidated short section of fencing alongside the Crowhall Farm stile. The old posts were rotten and were replaced with new and/or reused timber. The wiring had to be removed from the old posts and attached to the new ones.

Photograph A. Mending fence


3. A party of two visited the gully on the north side of the burn where a side-stream flows under the sewer pipe. This was partially blocked, and it proved impossible to completely clear it on this occasion.

Photograph B. Unblocking gully

 

4. The “default” task of the day was path maintenance along the south-side dene top under the beeches near Crowhall Farm. Initially, only three were working on this, but as the morning went on and the other tasks were completed, more and more volunteers turned their hand to this activity. The entire path along that section has now been cleared of encroaching vegetation.

Photograph C. Path maintenance


That’s about it. We actually got all these jobs done slightly before the usual finishing time of noon, so we packed up all the tools – more than usual this morning – and took them back to the car before departing our various ways.


Wildlife. As you would expect on a dull, wet and sombre day, the birds and bees were a bit quiet, but we noted the following.

Wood sorrel and primroses flowering – a good sign of spring.

Blackthorn in bloom (a dusting of white blossom on bushes with no leaves) in a number of places.

Hawthorn and rowan buds bursting into leaf.

A nuthatch (small tree-climbing bird) was calling, as were wrens, at least one chiffchaff, great tits, jackdaws and, as ever, a robin.

A drake mallard was spotted on the burn, leading to speculation that Mrs Mallard must be sitting on a nest somewhere.


The weather is a bit disappointing this week, so let's hope for sunnier weather as spring gets under way. .

26-Mar-19

The work party of eleven volunteers tackled several maintenance jobs in the lower end of the Dene this morning, in good weather conditions: initially dull, but sunny later – and good ground conditions: mainly dry.


The three tasks of the day were:

1. repairing the willow-weaving anti-dog defences at the seat upstream of the footbridge at the head of the estuary

2. fitting scaffolding bars to the metal cow-gate under the stone bridge on the Hartley West Farm access road

3. clearing up after a car had crashed into the Dene from Hartley Lane!


Task 3 required two volunteers, and task 2 needed four. The other five worked on the willow-weaving operation, and they were joined by the six others after they had finished their work.


The car accident mentioned under task 3 is described on the Newcastle Chronicle website under an article entitled “Car veers off road after swerving to avoid another vehicle which then left the scene”. The car descended the steep dene-side slope and ended up near the old well. It had to be winched over the burn onto the meadow and taken away. Fortunately nobody was injured! We had to repair damage to small trees and one of our recycled wood piles, as well as picking up bits of car!


The other secondary job, task 2, involved fitting scaffolding bars to the metal cow-gate under the stone bridge. This needs to be done at this at this time of year because the farmer, whose land it is, will soon let his cattle out into the field – the gate stops the cattle going under the bridge to get upstream in search of juicier plants to graze. In the past we have attached barbed wire to the gate in summer, when the cattle are out in the field, and when – hopefully – there will not be too many floods bringing tree branches down.


Barbed wire is difficult and actually quite dangerous to fit and remove, so this time we thought we would try another method: steel scaffolding poles. Waders were the order of the day as we attached these cross-wise, using scaffolders’ brackets, to the gate – so as to weigh the free-hanging gate down and impede the progress of the cattle. Time will tell whether that works, but it seems a better solution.

Photograph A. Fitting bars to cow-gate


Incidentally, the poles and brackets came from Castle Scaffold, a local company, who gave our team leader a good discount as one of the staff is a keen walker in the Dene. This job only took about an hour after which the party went to link up with the main group.

Photograph B. Completed cow-gate


Task 1 was the main task of the day, and represents a return to an old problem: how to keep the doggies from rushing down to the water from the path at that point, and thus eroding the river bank and eating into the path. This has been dealt with in the past by fitting edging timbers to the path and installing a basket-work of willow stakes and horizontal willow wands. Unfortunately this has disintegrated a bit and needed repair.


Today’s solution involved:

gathering willow (or osier in fact) by coppicing plants along the river bank

hammering in two rows of willow stakes parallel to the path

weaving willow stems horizontally between the stakes

packing the eroded places with stones obtained from downstream

packing with soil from nearby

placing turf on top

planting small willow wands vertically in the restored banking


We hope the willow will strike root and turn into a living barrier to keep our canine friends at bay.

Photograph C. First row of stakes

Photograph D. Second row of stakes

Photograph E. Completed willow work


ADVICE. It is not advisable to let your dog dip in the river – we know of at least one source of pollution that is getting into the river upstream.


Wildlife seen and heard today:

the chiffchaffs (small insect-eating birds) are in from Africa and singing in the bushes

a heron took to the air near where we were doing willow-weaving

a chaffinch, a great tit and several other small birds were singing

a kingfisher was spotted by one of us near the stepping stones

a great spotted woodpecker was noted nearby

a buzzard was both heard and seen in the sky over the head of the estuary

frogs and frog-spawn have been seen in the pond near the Hartley Lane carpark


The daffodils on the meadow near the stone bridge are looking very attractive at the moment, so get down there and admire them if you can. They are native wild daffodils – we don’t allow non-native or domesticated species – and all the more beautiful for that.

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9-Apr-19

A work party of eleven volunteers assembled on a sunny morning at the Crowhall Farm cattle grid for three maintenance tasks in the middle Dene. Butterflies were flying and wildflowers were blooming on a bright morning with a heavy dew on the grass.


Three tasks were undertaken as follows.


1. Tree clearance. The tree in question was the one mentioned in the report for 19th March – a fallen beech treetop near the tunnel under the disused railway. The path had been basically opened up on that earlier occasion. Today’s job was to clear the wigwam-shaped inverted treetop that remained, plus the log across the path. All the tree-bashing gear was in use: chainsaw and winch, plus the usual bowsaws. The photographs below give a rough idea of what was achieved.

Photograph A. Fallen treetop

Photograph B. Winching timber


2. Gully clearance. Here a side-stream of the Seaton Burn tumbles down the dene side just downstream of the upstream wooden footbridge and is obstructed by a sewer pipe. The object of the exercise here was to restore flow and thus prevent the under-path gully getting congested with silt and rubble. This was only partly achieved, despite the efforts of the author, whose clothing is now badly in need of cleaning! No doubt we will return to that one.


3. Dog-slide blocking. An old favourite, this one! There are several places along the meadow path downstream of the upstream footbridge where people allow their dogs to rush down into the water. This despite the fact that it is far from free of pollution, although trout, dippers, kingfishers and otters are seen. Anyway, the procedure here was to hammer stakes (obtained by felling unwanted small ash trees) into the river bank, wire them together, then infill with earth.

Photograph C. Blocking dog-slides


Wildlife corner:

great spotted woodpecker heard drumming and later seen

moorhen on the burn, well upstream of their normal stamping-grounds in the lower Dene

chiffchaffs and great tits predominated as far as birdsong goes

a buzzard was seen wheeling overhead

brown trout were spotted in the burn

Photograph D. Fungus on wood, thought to be elf cup


The spring flowers, especially the wood anemones, are showing well at the moment. Why not get down the Dene and enjoy it!

 

16-Apr-19

A squad of nine volunteers converged on the Crowhall Farm entrance gate this morning to tackle various jobs in the meadow area near the upstream wooden footbridge. The weather continued its recent cold-and-windy arctic theme, but at least there was little wind once we got down in the Dene.


The tasks we were set this morning were (1) repairing dog-slides along the riverbank path in the meadow area, (2) completing our work on the north-bank gully down from the footbridge and (3) a bit of sycamore removal.


Starting with the dog-slides: these appear wherever dogs get the urge to rush down to the water’s edge – the slight problem being that they erode the river bank, spilling soil into the river and potentially eroding back into the path. The repair procedure was roughly as follows.


hammer stakes into river bank along a line where the bank would be were it not for the dog activity

fasten the stakes together with wire

fill the space behind the stakes with stones out of the river bed

top up with soil then turf

job done! – move on to the next one

Photograph A. Men at work on dog-slide

Photograph B. Repaired dog-slide


Item two, the north-bank gully, required a lot of digging work. We needed to install a section of drainage pipe – corrugated and with slots to allow water to pass through – and this required a lot of messy work involving mud, gravel, a post-hole digger and various other digging tools. After the pipe had been installed successfully, we infilled with earth and turned our attention to the under-path drainage path, which has been in place for years and not cleaned out for a very long time. We used our multi-section pipe-cleaning tool, and got the pipe partly but not completely cleaned out.


Meanwhile, a couple of us had a look around for sycamore seedlings and saplings. There were plenty to find in that area: one of us pulled out 550+ and the other 150+. These need to be removed because sycamore is not a native species, and because anyway it is highly invasive and can take over a wood over time if left to itself. We pride ourselves that we never let any young sycamore make the transition from sapling to mature tree, so although there are loads of mature sycamore trees in the Dene, the number can’t increase.


Wildlife notes:

a pair of grey wagtails were flitting from stone to stone in the burn

there was a male mallard on the burn, but no sign of the female

the “works inspector” robin came down to check out our gully clearance work

there was a lot of birdsong, including: chiffchaffs, blackcap, wren, great tit

calling rather than singing: rooks, jackdaws, jays (two off?), woodpigeon

there are plenty of wood anemones flowering in the Dene, but few lesser celandines this year, probably because of the unusual weather


The weather is predicted to warm up soon. We can’t wait!