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


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.



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.



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.



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!



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!



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.


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.