3-Jan-17

A work party of ten volunteers assembled at Crowhall Farm at 8:30 to renew the assault on logjams in the burn upstream of the tunnel. At the start, the sun, still below the horizon, was casting a rosy glow on the underside of the clouds. The clouds stayed in place all morning, unfortunately, accompanied by a cold wind, but the wind was milder in the Dene. There was no rain today, so the ground was not too slippy.

The task was a familiar one: clearing the river after the floods of 21/22 November. The site was part-way between the old railway embankment tunnel and the Holywell road bridge, where the burn makes a sharp left turn and the burnside path dips. (The spot is marked by willows which have fallen into the burn.) The whole squad stayed together for today's work.

First, a large accumulation of branches, twigs and leaves (with litter) upstream of the willow was removed by volunteers in waders using digging forks. Wheel barrows were used to get the material away from the burn, to hopefully avoid it being washed back in by the next flood. Then larger logs were removed using two hand-winches and a lot of exertion. The chainsaw was deployed to cut up larger logs for removal.

The river was flowing noticeably more freely after this work.

Attention now turned to another logjam slightly downstream of the willow. Again the job consisted of removing a large quantity of leaves, twigs and branches before tackling larger logs with chainsaw and winch. The woody material was mostly dumped well clear of the burn.

Photograph 1. Clearing large accumulation of detritus

Photograph 2. River after clearance

Photograph 3. Some logs needed two winches

Photograph 4. Just some of the material hauled out of the river!


At the bend in the river, bank erosion is a problem, not to mention path erosion. For this reason, some of the logs have deliberately been left in place to reduce damage to the bank next time there is a surge in the river. The fallen willows have also been left in place, partly to control flow under spate conditions.


Nature notes:

The local grey wagtail, flitting about as if perturbed at the changes we were making to its riverside habitat.

The local robin, apparently happy to have its territory disturbed because of the feeding opportunities we created by churning up the earth, etc.

Some “orange shag carpeting” on a dead branch, which turns out to be an example of “ozonium” – fungal mycellium – likely Coprinellus domesticus (firerug inkcap).

Photograph 5.  Firerug inkcap showing “fur” but not the toadstools that sometimes appear


Litter notes:

A sporting theme today: one mini-football (with snail attached), one mini-rugby ball, one tennis ball and one ping-pong ball.

The usual plastic bottles, polystyrene, etc.

The litter, as usual, was bagged up and taken off for disposal.

Glowering clouds and a cold wind escorted us back to our warm homes at midday with a lot of hard work under our belts, but lots more to do.

 


10-Jan-17

A work party of ten assembled today, to coppice hazels in the meadow area and continue removal of logs from the river, near the Hartley West Farm stone bridge at the usual time of 8:30. The weather was again fine and fairly mild, under a blue sky crowded with interestingly patterned cloud formations. The going underfoot was soft but not too sticky.


The logjam work started with four, later five, volunteers and attacked the large log stuck in the cattle grille under the stone bridge. A ground anchor (stake driven into ground) had to be used to anchor the winch for this work. The log was too big to be moved in one piece and had to be sawed in half using the two-person cross-saw by volunteers in waders. After this was accomplished, the pivots of the cattle grille were oiled to keep it swinging freely. The bridge is now clear of detritus – for now.


Meanwhile the five other volunteers were semi-coppicing the hazels in the meadow upstream of the stone bridge. This needs to be done to keep the hazels from becoming too tall and out-competing the oaks and other trees that are developing more slowly, and also for aesthetic reasons in this semi-parkland area. The job is not quite as easy as it sounds: cutting out the taller hazel stems at the base can be difficult when using a bow-saw – the other stems often prevent easy access – so pruning saws were found to be more useful. The cut material was broken up and formed into linear piles along the boundary hedge to serve as mammalian refuges – “hedgehog houses”.

Photograph 1. Hazel coppicing


While this was going on, the first group moved down the river a short distance to just beyond the bend below the bridge to remove yet another major logjam, complete with logs, branches, twigs, leaves and litter. Waders were worn by several of the group. The winch was again deployed to get the larger timber out of the water. (Unfortunately, the extendable hook fell in deep water and eluded all attempts to retrieve it. Perhaps when the water level has gone down a bit this will be possible.)

Photograph 2. Sorting out logjam (and last sighting of extendable hook, possibly)

Photograph 3. Satisfyingly clear burn


The brunch-bar lady made a welcome appearance at the first tea-break, with her litter-picker and canine assistant. Speaking of which, our familiar avian assistant helped with the hazel coppicing: robin redbreast, looking for insects and grubs exposed by the disturbance.


The birds were quite vocal today – perhaps an early sign of spring – with bluetit, goldfinch and many others heard, and kestrel (mobbed by jackdaws) and cormorant seen. The kestrel must have made a killing recently, because there was a spread of feathers by the roadside where the Friends’ car was parked.


We got nearly, but not all, of the hazels pruned, and there is always more river clearance work to be done at this time of the year – for example the big log across the burn near the upstream footbridge. Nevertheless as we dispersed at the end of the session, we again felt we had accomplished a lot – even in the absence of our leader, no doubt thinking of us from a piste somewhere in Austria.

 


17-Jan-17

The tasks for the 10-person work party today were log-jam clearance and path maintenance, accessing the Dene from the entrance to Crow Hall Farm, under a leader fresh from the ski-slopes of St Anton. This was not one of nature’s most life-affirming days: dull, damp and muddy underfoot, but blessedly mild.


The river clearance squad of five persons headed for the first log-jam between the upper and lower footbridges and worked their way downstream from there towards the Hartley West Farm stone bridge. They tackled four log-jams in all, using the familiar kit of winch and chainsaw. Perhaps the most daunting one was the large log stuck at right angles across the burn, between the lower footbridge and the stone bridge. The river must now be pretty well clear, in readiness for the next flood event! I can report that there were, fortunately, no untoward events such as volunteer-dunkings or lost tools.

Photograph 1. Log being removed from burn near lower footbridge


The path maintenance squad of five started just upstream of the stone bridge on the south bank and started clearing the various small flights of steps on the riverside path. The steps get covered in wet leaves at this time of year, not to mention soil off people’s feet and weeds. This gunk needs to be removed for the safety and convenience of visitors. We worked up to the lower footbridge, cleared right up the long flight of stairs to Dene-top, and then proceeded to the high-level footbridge over a side burn on the south bank.

Photograph 2. Team cleaning the long flight of steps


At this point, well after half-time, the path team set to reinstating the high path that runs from that bridge to the viewing seat and beyond. This turned out to be a kind of archaeological dig, because a well-made two-foot-wide aggregate path emerged from under the turf that was encroaching on both sides. A good start was made; more work will be required.

Photograph 3. Reinstated footpath along top of Dene


Litter note: we did the Council’s job for them by clearing the frankly disgraceful mess of litter at the roadside by the Hartley Lane lay-by, one of us taking away the big items, and our favourite litter lady finishing off the rest.


The birds in the Dene are starting to get vocal in readiness for the spring sing-song, and the following birds were heard and/or seen: blue tit, great tit, robin, blackbird, song thrush, mistle thrush, chaffinch, nuthatch, etc. A kestrel gave its unmistakable call and flew across the field at the entrance to Crow Hall Farm late in the morning.


While loading away the tools into the Friends’ car, we took advantage of the big puddle in the road at the farm entrance to clean our boots. And away we went, somewhat exhausted, to recover ready for the next week’s session – all part of our mission to keep Holywell Dene the best urban-fringe nature reserve in the universe!

 


21-Jan-17  Holywell Dene History Walk

Two weeks prior to this member’s only event taking place only one person had added their name to the attendance list, you know who you are Alan! After a quick e-mail to members we were virtually inundated with requests to attend, and ended up with a full quota of participants, and a reserve list of disappointed people hoping to take their place if someone dropped out on the day. As it turned out only one person could not attend, so maybe we can twist Russell’s arm to lead another walk in the future?

Twelve hardy souls met at Old Hartley car park on an overcast, cool Saturday lunchtime for a 2-3 mile walk exploring the history of locations in and around Holywell Dene, quite a few being adjacent to normal footpaths, while others were located in areas that some of the members who have lived here for decades had never visited before.

After heading upstream along the Northern path to the waterfall, the leader of the walk explained that Holywell Dene was once called Merkel Dene, and that the earliest settlement there was Gouldens Hole, dating from Saxon times. More recently, a watermill was erected here, and it’s still possible to see a wall from one of the ten houses associated with it, as well as the mill race for water flow. Photographs were shown of paintings depicting the old mill, and how the water was dammed. These photos stimulated a lot of interest, and members were surprised at how much can still be seen of Gouldens Hole.

Further into the walk, near Crow Hall farm, it is still possible to see the ridge and furrow fields used by peasant farmers. The walk then crossed over the Beehive Road to the remains of several bell pits, from our vantage point nearly half a dozen pits could be seen. A copy of a google map proved to be very interesting, as the old pits can be easily spotted, and also the route of the old wagonway was shown.

Back into the Dene, to the location that Old Engine was built in 1760 to draw coal from the mine, where earlier men had climbed ladders with the coal in baskets on their backs. The engine was dismantled twenty years later, but the associated 6 houses remained occupied for a further 150 years. In the 1840’s these houses were home to 32 people, where one family (Potts) were making and selling boots and shoes. One of the walking party members was an ancestor of this family, and her father can remember visiting his grandmother at these cottages.

Later in the walk, closer to Hartley West farm on Windmill hill (or Silverhill) were found the remains of several cottages, another very informative photo was shown so that participants could understand how the cottages were constructed at this location. Another member of the group discovered that she was possibly related to one of the families who lived in these cottages.

Many of the walkers could remember the mill near the stepping stones, as the building was still in use in the 1960’s. We concluded this very interesting walk near what is now known as Old Hartley pond, at the remains of Grove farm. All that can be seen of the farm today are a few stones, and the hole for the midden.

We were left with a final thought from the walk leader, in 1841 there were 198 people living in Holywell Dene, and even as late as 1911 there were still 77 residents, but now there are none.

I think I can speak for everyone who attended the history walk that it was two and a half hours very well spent, from the comments I heard expressed at the end it certainly was.

On behalf of FoHD I would like to thank Russell for leading such an informative and interesting walk.

 


24-Jan-17

A work party of nine assembled today at 8:30 on a frosty morning at the entrance-gate to Crow Hall Farm to do path maintenance and ivy control. A blood-red sun rose over the horizon as we made our way into the Dene. The sky was initially clear, but filled with thin cloud as the morning progressed. The paths were muddy but the grass was not too wet.


The party divided into two groups. The first group, of five volunteers, re-commenced the path maintenance work started last time out – clearing away the turf encroaching from either side. We cleared from the south-bank path between the dene-top stile near the Crow Hall Farm entrance all the way upstream (and down the dene side) to the upper footbridge. A good, wide, gravel-hardened path is now apparent right along this length.

Photograph 1. Path after maintenance work


The other group, of four, went up to the disused railway crossing and worked around that area removing ivy from trees. This is done by cutting out a one-foot or more length of ivy stem at the base of each affected tree. Why do we do this? Well, we don’t want trees collapsing on the paths because they are overburdened with ivy, nor do we want the unpleasant aesthetic of too many ivy-cluttered trees.

Photograph 2. Tree being freed of ivy


Common ivy (Hedera helix) has small, greenish-yellow flowers which come in bunches from late summer to late autumn. They are very rich in nectar, and are an important late-autumn food source for bees etc. The berries, which ripen in late winter, are purple-black to orange-yellow and are a useful food supplement for birds. Don’t eat them, though – poisonous!


When controlling ivy, for practical reasons we tend to avoid trees on steep slopes and prefer to work on trees close to paths. So that probably works out about right – clearing some, but not all, of the ivy-clad trees. We would probably never be able to get rid of all the ivy anyway, even if we wanted to, as it is actually quite hard work cutting through sometimes dozens of stems on each trunk. We find that it prefers sycamores (non-native) and avoids beeches (native), which is good.


An exceptionally good haul of litter was had around the bench close to the wagonway bridge over the disused railway line. Drug-user’s kit was a particular highlight. And there was even an abandoned car at the farm gate, which I suppose might be classed as litter!


We departed, tired and hungry as usual, around 12:00 for a well-deserved lunch, with the still-low sun now shining dimly, wondering what work is in store for us next Tuesday.

 


31-Jan-17

Weather-wise the morning began and remained, dull and dismal throughout but we managed to get through it without any rain. Eleven of us met at Crow Hall Farm including our new volunteer who began the day full of wit and raring to go.

There were a number of different task to complete, mostly in the area around the old stone railway bridge across the Waggonway at Holywell, so initially we split into two groups. Group one began the job of replacing the risers on the steps to the north side of the bridge, which takes walkers down from the cycle path/bridleway onto the Waggonway, and then resurfacing the whole when that was completed. The highlight of their morning was spotting a lone deer in the field adjacent to where they were working. Group two began by completely dismantling the portion of fence adjacent to the style. This had been demolished at some point over the weekend by person or persons unknown, obviously to gain access to the bank down onto the lower path without having to lift their bikes over the style, all this despite the lower path being well signed as a ‘no cycling ‘route.

Although we had taken some fence posts and rails with us more were needed so three volunteers went down into the dene to where we knew there was an obsolete broken down fence, the rails of which had been removed. Although the posts had been cemented in, the number needed were persuaded to come out of the ground with a little cajolery from the pinch bar and more than a little perspiration from the workers. The rails were sorted through and the best taken for recycling. On the way back with the wood a large plastic barrel was removed from the river and taken back to be put with the rest of the rubbish collected during the morning. The job of getting the fence posts into the ground was no easy task as the fence is very close to large trees the roots of which were unavoidable wherever we tried to dig. However with much determination and not a little brute force the posts were sunk and the rails which had been cut to the required length were attached.

Due to the restricted area the fence group were working in it meant that two workers were surplus to requirements so after coffee break they took off with spades and pruners in hand to shovel the mud and turf from the surface of the cycle path/bridleway and to cut back the brambles and shrubs.  All went well until a shovelful of mud hurled with gusto was misdirected and ended up in the bait bag of the co-worker, nothing spoiled as coffee break was over. Eventually upon completion of the tasks by the bridge the rest of the team joined in path clearing and the morning ended with a weary but satisfied team taking the long walk back to the farm yard. How is it that the tools gain weight during the morning?  

7-Feb-17

River-bank repair day – nine (later ten) volunteers assembled at the Hartley West Farm road gate to sort out the damage to the river defences caused by the November flood. There had been a lot of rain overnight, but it was easing off as we started. There were threatening skies and above a lot of mud underfoot – a very muddy experience in fact, which someone likened to the Somme – and with very few signs of spring yet, unfortunately.


The river-bank in question is on the north side of a straight section upstream of the stepping stones and downstream of the lower footbridge. There is a willow stump sticking out into the river, and this seems to direct the force of the water, in spate, to the other bank slightly downstream. This section has been repaired in the past by the Friends with willow basket-work and willow (or osier?) plantings. This has worked very well, on the whole, but the willow roots have not yet fully stabilised the bank. At this particular place, the bank has been undermined and the willow defences have partially slumped into the river, so they need pulling back and reinstating.


The main group set to the job of digging out the slumped river-bank soil preparatory to pulling the willow breastwork back. Meanwhile smaller groups went off at various times to forage for wood, especially willows, that could be coppiced to provide material for a new, improved river-bank. Several willows were coppiced, but – fear not – they will regenerate and flourish!

Photograph 1. Digging out river-bank defences


With preparations at the river-bank for next week’s pulling-in work more-or-less complete, we all trooped off upstream to where an unwanted smallish sycamore had been felled, and brought the trunk down to serve as edging. I say “smallish sycamore” – it was nearly beyond the strength of ten people to get it shifted, but we succeeded in the end.

Photograph 2. Moving tree-trunk


Little to report on the wildlife front this time, apart from a woodpecker and a bullfinch spotted by observant eyes. As usual, the little robin attended our labours; we thought we were mending a river-bank, but he knew better: we were providing him with fantastic feeding opportunities. He (or she) perched close to us on the wicker-work, looking for wriggly food items and darting down to pick them up.

Photograph 3. Robin redbreast, the inspector of works


We will be returning to this task next week, in all probability, with the expectation of completing the task and shoring up the river bank ready for the next storm. So we returned along the riverside path, muddy, sweaty, tired but unbowed – and looking forward to a hot lunch and a restful afternoon.

 


14-Feb-17

A work party of ten volunteers gathered at the metal gate (Hartley West farm road) at 8:30 to spend the morning repairing the river-bank. The conditions were good for the time of year: dull but milder and less windy than preceding days, with muddy but not soggy underfoot conditions. The sun peeped out a couple of times during the morning.


This is our third attempt, over the years, at consolidating the north-side river-bank under Hartley West Farm, so we are making a special effort to get it right this time. We know we are on the right track, because most of the bank along there withstood the November flood very well, but not the section opposite and downstream of the willow stump, where the basketwork and willows were partly eroded out.


The work proceeded as follows:

1. Long willow poles (obtained by coppicing some nearby willows) were laid along the river side of the basketwork, two winches were attached and the structure was winched back upright and into its original position.

2. Sections of metal scaffolding pole were hammered into the earth by the river-bank path edge, and these were wired to the willow poles to keep the structure in place.

3. Willow posts were hammered into the space between basketwork and bank, and wired in place. Some heavy-duty fence wire was recycled, from an old fence upstream, for the purpose.

4. Recycled rubble was thrown into the gap between basketwork and bank to partially fill it in.

Photograph 1. Willow basketwork being winched back in place

Photograph 2. Steel poles being hammered in

Photograph 3. Basketwork being wired to poles, and willow posts being hammered home

Photograph 4. State of play at end of day – work still to be done


More work is needed: we need to fill in the gap with more rubble and soil, and plant willows to root in and stabilise the river-bank – but that is for next week.


A couple of us had to don waders and get into the river to help with step 1, but, boringly, there are no immersions to report!


A number of passers-by expressed interest in our work, some with dogs that were slightly fazed by the winch wires across the path – a hazard that we made sure to warn about. The eminent litter-lady came for a chat at tea-break with biscuits and Poppy the ever-hungry dog.


Nature notes:

The Dene looks bereft at this time of year: little vegetation and no leaves on the trees, but the birds are starting to get into the mood for breeding, and there was a lot more birdsong than in the deepest mid-winter. Robins, blue tits, goldfinches, long-tailed tits and others were heard and/or seen. A song thrush was singing well mid-morning.

The little robin helped out with the work, as usual – in fact getting lots of worms and grubs from the disturbed ground.

A cormorant came down-river on a fishing expedition. It submerged upstream of us, swam underwater past us, then re-emerged downstream and continued foraging. I don’t know how it finds fish when the water is a cloudy as it was today.

A great spotted woodpecker was drumming on a tree up the Dene-side.

The rooks and jackdaws were making a noise overhead, as usual, while wheeling about in the sky near the beeches by the stone bridge.

We will resume work on the river-bank next time out, in all probability, and it should be possible to complete the job, which will have been a very satisfying achievement provided nature does not wash it all away again in future winter floods.

21-Feb-17

A work party of eleven volunteers turned out at 8:30 today near Hartley West Farm to complete the riverbank repairs started two weeks ago. The conditions were mild, bright and reasonably dry – just the way we like it – spring-like even! If we weren't dancing with springtime joy, it was only because some of us (me, for example) have dodgy joints.


This was a task in two halves, with volunteers swapping between the two as needed.


Task One was the work of reinstating the river bank. Those of you who have been following this story will know that part of the north bank of the Seaton Burn below Hartley West Farm was badly damaged in the November spate, despite past attempts at protecting it with willow basketwork. In previous work days, the structure of willow basketwork and living willows had been reinforced and pulled back into place. Today it was mainly a case of filling in and finishing off: further repairs were made to the basketwork, wiring was added, the space between the basket defences and footpath was filled in with earth and rubble, turf was placed on top. Finally, willow twigs were planted in the reinstated banking so that their roots, when they grow, will bind the soil in a (hopefully) flood-proof mass.

Photograph 1. Strengthening defences with willow and wire

Photograph 2. Filling-in with rubble and soil

Photograph 3. Final impression – turf and willow wands in place


Maybe if the bank gets damaged again, we will have to abandon attempts to repair it and just let the river get wider at that point. Keep your fingers crossed, dear readers, about Storm Doris which is forecast to test the defences on Thursday 23rd.


Task Two today, was simply the job of supplying materials, earth and rubble, for the riverbank repairs. This was done by removing barrow-loads (and barrow-loads!) of material from the ruins of the old “goose house” (which I think was in fact a 20th century greenhouse as much as anything else) and transporting them to the site of the riverbank works. This was definitely the job to do if your priority was losing weight and getting fit – strenuous!


Wildlife interest:

Today was a two-robin job: one robin (with non-standard white mark on the flank or wing) picking up worms at the riverbank, and another cheeky one at the diggings, also looking to profit from the exposed earth.

This was the first time we noticed signs of spring: catkins, snowdrops, singing song-thrushes, etc.

Other birds: great spotted woodpecker calling, nuthatch calling; and also the usual blue tits, great tits, chaffinches, blackbirds, wrens, dunnocks, singing robins, etc.

A flock of wild geese flew overhead – probably some of the pink-footed geese (uncommon!) that have been seen in the fields over the winter.

A heron let out a shriek and flew off – quite a common experience in the Dene.


A warm glow of satisfaction was felt by all as we plodded homeward, having completed a major task – but laced with a twinge of uncertainty about the predicted forthcoming storm.

28-Feb-17

Blue skies greeted a work party of 11 volunteers do to a morning's work at the estuary end of the Dene: gate repair, path clearance and ivy control. There had been overnight rain, so the ground was softer than we like, but the weather conditions couldn’t have been better: “Russell weather”, as we still say. The sun was well up as we gathered, not just peeping over the horizon as it had been a month ago.


The work party divided into three groups. Group 1 did the technical stuff: repairing the gate at the entrance to the path close to Dene Cottage on the west side of the estuary. The old structure was partly dismantled, rotten timbers were removed and new woodwork installed. This involved hammering in a new upright. Normal service for walkers has been resumed.

Photograph 1. Gate being repaired

Photograph 2. Gate after repairs


Group 2 set about the familiar task of clearing back the encroaching turf from the edge of the west-side path; please note: “edge” not “edges”, as the path is edged by a downward wall on the river side. Spades and mattocks were in use. Good exercise, if a bit back-breaking!

Photograph 3. Reinstating path


Group 3 meanwhile tackled the numerous ivy-clad trees on the steep dene-side by the path, cutting through the ivy stems at the base of the tree to kill off the ivy, which will fall out of the tree bit-by-bit as it decays. Not easy work! – the dene-side is steep and, today, slippery with wet mud.

Photograph 4. Cutting ivy


We got halfway down the western side of the estuary with these tasks before calling it a day at noon.


Riverbank update:

Good news! The river bank, which we repaired over the last three sessions, was not hit by Storm Doris. She turned out to be a bit of a damp squib, and the river level didn’t come anywhere near what was seen on 22nd November.

Wildlife interest:

Surprisingly quiet, but geese were heard nearby – presumably the winter flock of pink-footed geese.

A pair of mallard on the river, looking as if they were thinking about nesting.

Black-headed gulls were heard and seen screeching overhead; also many small birds in among the trees.

No redshanks (usually seen in the estuary)!

No robins!

Poppy, the dog, was assisting one of our volunteers cutting ivy (but I suspect she was after a treat).

The tools were cleaned and stowed away in the car to be returned to storage. It is pleasing to reflect that the harsh winter conditions are retreating into the background, and that we will be able to do our task work in less bulky clothing soon (although that means the strimming season must be coming in due course!).


7-Mar-17

A work party of ten volunteers assembled at the metal gate on Hartley West Farm road today to dismantle fencing and prepare for removal of a large river-bank willow. The weather was perfect for the time of year: blue sky with a fluffy white clouds; cool but not too windy – and not too muddy underfoot despite recent rains.


The work took place along the straight stretch of river bank downstream of the lower footbridge, on the south side of the Burn. Getting there meant crossing the Burn – not an easy job when the river is high. Some of us took the longer route via the footbridge; the others found themselves braving the torrent surging over the stepping stones – but no casualties and no dunkings!


The fence that separates the “straight path” from the Burn no longer serves a useful purpose and anyway the fence-posts are getting rotten below ground level. So, we set to and removed a section of it, recycling timber and wire where possible. (Removing nails from timber rails turned out to be just about the most time-consuming part of the task.)

Photograph 1. Removing old fence

Photograph 2. Recycling timber


With this done, we started digging up the snowdrops close to the big willow stump, which we are hoping to remove soon. The snowdrops were replanted on the Dene bank nearby, to add to the already glorious swathes of snowdrops already flowering there.

Photograph 3. Replanting snowdrops (big willow stump on right)


All this work was leading up to something: an assault on a big willow stump that protrudes across the Burn. It is opposite and somewhat upstream of the willow basket-work defences that we have been repairing in February (see earlier work party reports). We think it is diverting the flow when the river is in spate and undermining the opposite bank. So, it’s got to go!


This will be a major operation – for another day – but today we prepared the way by shifting the nearby snowdrops (see above), clearing material from the adjacent bank, and removing branches that were sprouting out of the stump.


In a forthcoming work day, we will somehow cut away the stump with the chainsaw and remove it with the aid of a winch (or two). There is only one slight problem: the stump is 32” across but the chainsaw is only 14” long. Any suggestions, please? Don’t worry, we usually sort something out.


Robin update:

The robin with the white streak on its left flank – the one that was helping us shore up the willow river defences previously – was seen again at its usual place, full of curiosity at what we were doing, and managing to find food items in the soil we had disturbed. Look out for it as you go past: it looks as if it has established a territory and is going to breed – with its partner, of course.


Other wildlife:

Kingfisher seen, not by us but by a Friend who was walking in the Dene this morning.

Kestrel flying overhead.

Lots of birdsong: song thrush, blue tit, great tit, robin, wren, etc.


It really was pleasant, as we returned to the car, to feel the vibes of early spring: snowdrops, birdsong and sunshine. Not much sign yet of buds sprouting or spring flowers, apart from snowdrops, but I’m sure they are on the way.

14-Mar-17

Today, a work party of ten volunteers again assembled at the Hartley West Farm metal gate to remove an old willow and plant some new ones. The weather was depressingly dull at first, but soon, and to everyone’s surprise, the sun came out and it was and warm – with a very spring-like feel – albeit with the tree-tops swaying in the wind.


Remember that old willow stump (see previous reports) that was impeding the flow of the river? Well, it’s gone now. You can examine the huge mass of it by the straight section of path opposite the “new mill” picnic area. Sorted!


The party split into two groups for this work, as the tree-stump job only needed four people. The first group attacked the willow stump with the large cross-saw (which proved not to be up to the job, surprisingly) and the chainsaw. If you read the last report, you will remember that the length of the chainsaw cutter was less than half the diameter of the stump. Well we weren’t going to let that small detail discourage us. We chainsawed wedges of wood out of the neck of the willow stump until it was was finally hacked through – a time-consuming procedure, but effective. Then came the job of hauling the bulk of it out of the river, which involved the use of two hand-winches attached to trees on the south bank.

Photograph 1. Cutting the stump

Photograph 2. Removing wedges of wood

Photograph 3. Sorted!


Meanwhile the other squad, of six people, planted alders and willows along the south bank from near the side-waterfall to the old ford near the lower footbridge. These were carefully planted with stakes and cylindrical protectors. The alders tended to be planted downstream and the willows upstream. For the record, the species were: goat willow (Salix caprea, aka great sallow or pussy willow) and common alder (Alnus glutinosa, aka black alder or European alder, which I just call alder). We were advised to plant these by the Northumberland Rivers Trust, which has been advising us on how to improve the riverside setting. Anyway, let’s just hope the vandals stay away!

Photograph 4. Planting alders and willows


Nature notes:

Major event: the first chiffchaff of the year in the Dene (heard by us, at least). These little insect-eating warblers fly in from Africa to officially announce the spring about this time each year, and they are a week or two early this year.

On the other hand, our regular companion, the robin with the white streak, was not seen – probably a bit dischuffed by the sound of the chainsaw.

A song thrush was heard singing near the car park. They have been in decline, and we always hope that they will take up nesting territories in the Dene. This year, several were singing in February, but seemed to have disappeared in March – we’ll see.

Frogs and toads are spawning in the ponds in the Dene.

The seasons move on and the Dene is visibly waking up to springtime growth and reproduction each week by degrees. The purring and croaking of spawning toads was heard in the Hartley-end pond as we returned to our cars and homes.

21-Mar-17

The work party this morning consisted of eleven volunteers ready to pick litter and clear ivy from the Dene south of Holywell. A bright sun smiled on the team although a strong wind tossed the tree-tops. Conditions were not too muddy underfoot after a couple of windy days.


A river has only two banks, so naturally we split into two groups, one for each bank. Both squads progressed from the footbridge below Concord House down-river to the foot of the Dale Top access path and beyond. The north bank group removed a couple of minor logjams from the river, waders being used – but not winches on this occasion. Apart from that, it was litter and ivy all the way – on both banks.


The essential equipment for litter removal is a litter-picking stick and a black plastic bag. Actually, the litter levels in the Dene are not too bad by comparison with earlier years. Nevertheless, there was a big pile of well-stuffed black bags to be removed at the end of the morning. Most of the litter was the usual boring stuff, but we came across what looked like pile of old farm refuse at one place, and in another place a pair of perfectly good golf balls high up the Dene-side – there’s always something that causes us puzzlement.

Photograph 1. Litter picking


For ivy removal, fold-away pruning saws were used, and occasionally a bow saw. The procedure is to cut the stem or stems at the base of the tree that the ivy is parasitising, and leave the rest of the plant to rot and eventually fall off, bit by bit. Heavily ivy-clad trees that were in danger of falling across the Burn were particularly targeted. Some of the ivy stems were quite thick.

Photograph 2. Ivy control


Around 10:50 a squall brought cloud, a furious wind thrashing the trees around, and a swirl of snowflakes. This calmed down after a short while, but the general trend of the morning was from windy to very windy, with a genuine danger of being caught by a falling tree – although that didn’t happen in practice.


Wildlife notes:

Drumming was heard from a great spotted woodpecker in the tall willows on the north bank.

A dead fox was found by the north-bank group – fresh, limp and without obvious signs of the cause of death.

Some upsides of ivy were noted: bird nests, three old ones in one ivy, and berries on another.


Glancing over the shoulder on the way out of the Dene and back to the waiting cars, it was apparent that a veil of green is draping the ground, and spring is slowly revealing itself. The trees may still be bare, but the flowers appear like gems on the woodland floor.


28-Mar-17

The joys of litter-picking awaited the work party of ten that met at the Crow Hall Farm entrance at 8:30 this morning under grey skies (but with a skylark singing nearby). The day was mild, dry (although still a bit muddy underfoot) and, part of the time, pleasantly sunny.


The party split into two groups. A four-person group cleared the “bikers’ area” (see below), then the Dene between the lower footbridge and the stone bridge, then tackled the Hartley Lane lay-by. The other group, of six volunteers cleared the entire length of the Dene from the tunnel down to the lower footbridge, including removal of litter from the river.

Photograph 1. Litter being picked


So, the whole middle section of the Dene from the bikers’ area to the stone bridge has been cleared. Many black plastic bags’ full of litter were collected and removed. You know the sort of stuff: sweetie wrappers, plastic and glass drinks bottles, drinks cans, tissues, poo-bags, bits of plastic of every sort – now no longer “decorating” Holywell Dene.


Special mention must be reserved for the following items: (1) a tent – yes, tent – found among the brambles near the embankment (probably blown across the fields on a windy day rather than accidentally dropped by a passer by), (2) a nice pair of wellie boots, left at the Hartley Lane lay-by, (3) a car tyre – no litter-pick would be complete without one – and (4) a folding aluminium-frame chair fished out of the Burn – presumably left by somebody to give us something to puzzle over.


The “bikers’ area” is that part of the Dene immediately upstream of the disused railway embankment traditionally frequented by mountain-bikers, who have transformed it into a moonscape of trails and jumps. We generally leave them to their own devices, but we have noticed that they still haven’t quite got their heads round the fact that there is no such thing as the “litter fairy”. But, bless them, they seem to be considerably more self-disciplined in the litter department than they were years ago, when the Friends of Holywell Dene was first formed.


Wildlife notes:

Mink have been reported in the Dene. They are not welcome, as alien invaders that prey on water birds and their nests, not to mention any water voles there may be (if any). We hope the otters will chase them out.

There have been several reports of a family of five roe deer in the fields in the Holywell-Hartley area, and indeed we saw three deer in a field near Crow Hall Farm today.

A great spotted woodpecker was heard drumming around 9:00 by the tunnel – almost a commonplace occurrence nowadays.

I spotted a pair of bullfinches around 11:00 in the woods near the Crow Hall Farm stile.

A gentleman walking his dog reported a puffin (yes, puffin) flying over Hartley Lane near the Beehive Inn several days ago. He was not drunk, so I must take what he said seriously (although attempts have occasionally been made to hoodwink me in the past).


Actually, everybody said that the Dene is less litter-infested that in earlier years, no doubt thanks to the efforts of dedicated amateur litter-pickers helping out at all times of the year – not just in spring, the classic time for litter-picking, when the vegetation has not grown up to conceal the litter.


Finally, it would be really, really appreciated if the people who drop litter would make an extra-special effort this year not to drop the litter in the first place, although I know this is a big ask!