2-Jan-18

A work party of seven turned out for a “warm up” session for the new year which started at 9:00 and was rained off at 11:00. The weather was uninviting: dull and cold, with the ground partly frozen.


We were divided into two groups. The first was tasked with clearing out the gulley below Hartley West Farm and filling in a couple of “doggie dips”. One of the problems we have is that, with the Dene being a great favourite with dog-walkers, and with dogs having a tendency to rush into the river at the first opportunity, the river bank gets eroded in the places where dogs habitually rush into the water. Where the path runs close to the river, these “doggie dips” can eat back into the path.


What we do is (1) install a horizontal length of timber across the breadth of the slope, and (2) fill in the space behind with earth to build it up again. This was done in two places: downstream of the lower wooden footbridge, and at the upstream end of the meadow area near the stone bridge that carries the access road to Hartley West farm.

Photograph A. A doggie dip

Photograph B. How to fill one in

Photograph C. Completed job


The other group was asked to continue refurbishing the meadow path. Work started on this on 19th December. The idea is to counteract the encroachment of weeds and grass from either side of the path. Spades, mattocks and a rake are the requisite tools for this. We managed to clear all the rest of the path as it passes across the meadow. We will no doubt be returning to this work elsewhere during the winter.

Photograph D. Working on the path (and doggie dip)

Photograph E. Improved path


Wildlife notes:

A cormorant was spotted on Sunday (31st December) on a stone in the river at the outlet of the tunnel under the old railway. They are normally sea birds, but sometimes come up the Dene to dive for fish in the Seaton Burn.

A heron took off from the river by the meadow as we arrived this morning.

There was a strange absence of rooks from the tall trees on the south bank above the meadow, but some arrived later in the morning to make a noise.

A flock of about 70 wild geese flew overhead at 9:20, apparently heading for the fields west of Old Hartley. They were making quite high-pitched calls, so possibly pink-footed geese.

A woodpecker was heard drumming near the stepping stones by out chairlady whilst walking her dog this morning.

Photograph F. Cormorant in the Dene


With first drizzle then rain adding to the dark and cold conditions and the icy ground, we departed early, having worked off a bit of the Christmas / New Year flab and having got ourselves up to speed with work again. Hopefully conditions will be a bit more welcoming next time out.

 

 


9-Jan-18

A work party of nine volunteers assembled at the metal gate on the Hartley West Farm road at 8:30 for another session of winter footpath maintenance. The conditions were far from inspiring, with an unbroken blanket of cloud overhead and very damp conditions underfoot – albeit that temperatures had risen above zero after frost in the night.

 

The main theme of the day was a familiar one: keeping the footpaths in reasonable condition despite their tendency to degenerate into mudbaths at this time of year. Two special tasks were embarked on at first however, as follows.


First, a group of two set off to replace the plastic guards on some shrubs that had been planted on the north side of the river between the stone bridge and the lower wooden bridge. Here it was a simple case of removing spiral guards, which are cheap but tend to harbour mould and impair growth, with cylindrical guards, which protect just as well whilst letting more air in. This task was completed in about half an hour.


Second, a group of three went up to the vicinity of the waterfall to block off a couple of dog-slides that were eating back into the path. This was done by installing timberwork structures, as shown in the photos. This was completed by mid-morning, and from that time onward all hands were to the spades, mattocks and rakes to get the north-bank path cleared of mud and leaves.

Photograph A. Repairing dog-slide

Photograph B. Completed job


About the best that can be said of this work is that it is good exercise. The objective is to remove encroaching grass and soil from the edges of the path, and to remove surface mud generally. The mud – which was particularly sticky today after recent rains – tends to be a mix of dead leaves and muddy slime that has oozed up between the grains of the hardcore path. The original hardcore surface was there underneath – it just needed a lot of back-breaking work to uncover it. New hard-core was applied to the surface in places where water collects. Soak-aways were cleared out. Puddle-draining channels were dug out or deepened.

Photograph C. Path-cleaning


Oh, by the way, while we were passing the major gully descending to the burn below Hartley West Farm, we gave it a good clear out, to keep the water moving and not flooding the path.


Wildlife notes:

A cormorant (see photo) was spotted by the waterfall – probably the one seen last week. Later in the day it flew downstream, keeping very low to avoid being seen.

A nuthatch, a jay, a greater spotted woodpecker and a bullfinch were heard and in some cases seen, as well as a smattering of the more commonplace small birds on the feeders and elsewhere.

Otherwise, it has to said that the Dene presents a very austere picture at this time of year; no signs of spring are evident yet.

Photograph D. Cormorant


As we returned to our cars, the sky was as overcast as it had been at the start. So, not the most exciting morning’s work, but it is satisfying to know that users of the footpaths, although not conscious of it, will be having a much better experience as a result of our work.

 


16-Jan-18

A party of ten hardy volunteers converged on Holywell for the usual Tuesday morning work session. This was a classic volunteering day in winter: sleet blowing on an icy wind, but with a sun shining obliquely out of an open sky for the first half of the morning. And of course it was muddy, in fact slimey, under foot.


The main task of the day was a job we have been anticipating for a long time: the removal of a big fallen beech tree from the burn below the Wallridge Drive gas pumping station, Holywell. The preparation work had been done yesterday by the task leader with the chainsaw, accompanied by another volunteer. Today, the main job was winching the branches and sections of trunk out of the burn.


Rather than describing the task in detail, I think I will let the photos speak for themselves; here’s seven pictures – more than the usual quota.

Photograph A. Preparation done

Photograph B. Winching out

Photograph C. More winching

Photograph D. More winching

Photograph E. More winching

Photograph F. Pulling the trunk in to the bank

Photograph G. Completed job


A major job, that has been outstanding for a long time, satisfactorily completed!


The other task, which only involved three volunteers, was to clean leaves and mud off the steps below Dale Top, the slope under the pumping station and the steps below Concord House – spade, rake and broom being used.


Nature was keeping her head down today, in the wintry conditions, so the wildlife notes are somewhat slim:

a nuthatch was calling nearby

hazels are showing catkins in various places

a robin was inspecting our work, as usual


Another couple of useful jobs done!

 


23-Jan-18

Today the work party of eleven was split into two groups even before the work started: a fence demolition squad and the main party – see below. The weather was a big improvement on recent days: mild; a bit drizzly initially but getting fairly bright at about 10 o’clock. It was muddy underfoot as usual.


The demolition squad of four volunteers were tasked with taking down a suburban fence so that the wood could be recycled for footpath improvements in the Dene, and that task was completed by mid-morning. The timber is now in storage ready for future use.

 

Meanwhile, the main party conveyed tools and timber to a point between the Hartley Lane carpark and the estuary, and got stuck into the job of shoring up the path with timber. We used four long planks of recycled timber kindly donated by someone who had been replacing his patio. This is treated timber and should last quite a few years.


The surface of the path tends to slide away into the burn in places, so we install planks, dug in and restrained by strong wooden pegs, to form an edging for the path on the downslope side. The path is then levelled by digging out soil from one side and laying it on the other, packing it in behind the plank. A layer of hardcore is then applied and tamped down. Note that the hardcore has to be transported from a pile some distance from the work, and this job is no small part of the task.

Photograph A. Working on the path

Photograph B. Getting gravel for the path

Photograph C. Completed path section 1


Around mid-morning, this job was satisfactorily completed, and we were joined by the aforementioned demolition squad to install a fifth plank along the path edge nearer the carpark.

Photograph D. Completed path section 2


A game of “Poppy tennis” was played at tea break time: throwing our chairlady’s dog (Poppy) a tennis ball, which she fetches then proceeds to chew. There wasn’t much left of it by the end of the game. One doesn’t get this at Wimbledon!


Wildlife notes:

plenty of birdsong today (robin, goldfinches, etc)

long-tailed tits were heard calling, at one point

the burn was fast-flowing and silty today, so no kingfishers or dippers were seen – I'm not sure what they do when river conditions make it difficult to feed

a robin was singing but not coming down to feed on the worms we were turning up, so it must be getting enough food from the many feeders in the Dene


Note that work has started today on the digging of two shallow scrapes in the estuary area, one on either side of the river. Northumberland Rivers Trust, with the approval of all the necessary parties, are supervising this work which is being done by contractors with diggers. The aim is to concentrate the unsightly mine water and the run-off from the Millfield area into these scrapes. Reeds (Phragmites, common reed) will be planted there to hopefully absorb heavy-metal pollution.

Photograph E. Digging filtration pond


30-Jan-18

A work party of 9 or more volunteers plus a star guest (the retired work party leader) assembled at the Hartley Lane carpark today for a classic conservation event: shovelling mud (see below) plus footpath repair. This all happened under a mainly grey sky but in conditions that felt as though spring was on the way (fingers crossed).


If you have a look round the estuary at Seaton Sluice, you will see that a couple of big shallow ponds have been dug towards the top end. Local residents have expressed concern that bombs have been dropped or someone has been digging for gold but, no, this project is designed to: (1) tackle the toxic minewater that seeps out of the ground on both sides of the burn, and (2) creating a couple bits of wetland habitat that, when they have settled in, should encourage dragonflies, amphibians, waterfowl and wading birds.


The problem: there used to be a coal mine where the street called Millfield is now; there have been mines all around Old Hartley in fact. There used to be a stagnant (and probably toxic) pond at the foot of the slope below Millfield. That has been filled in. A much larger, but shallow, pond has been dug on the other side of the footpath. We will be planting this up with reeds, and it will serve as a filter – a well-known conservation technique: the reeds should absorb the heavy metals in the minewater, leaving clear water to trickle out of the pond and into the burn. The digging work has been done by a contractor for the Northumberland Rivers Trust, in consultation with all relevant parties.

Photograph A. Toxic minewater

Photograph B. One of the two new ponds


Another similar pond has been constructed on the other side of the burn, this time to capture and filter the toxic minewater that oozes out of the ground near what we call the Pipe Pond. These excavations look a bit unsightly at the moment, but after a summer’s growth of vegetation, they should blend in nicely and create opportunities for wildlife to flourish.


So what were we doing today? First, I should mention that part of the team devoted their efforts to repairing two sections of eroded footpath between the carpark and the metal bridge. The technique used was similar to that employed last week. The photograph shows the results.

Photograph C. Path repair


The other sub-team was under the direction of our ex-leader and it was tasked with tidying up the work done by the digger last week. This consisted of two parts: (1) shifting loose earth from one side to the other of the spot where minewater emerges from the ground on the western side of the head of the estuary, and (2) moving more loose earth near the old stagnant pond to ensure that there is unimpeded flow of water from the site of the old pond to the filtration pond.

Photograph D. Starting work

Photograph E. Adjusting first pond

Photograph F. Adjusting second pond


It has to be said that this was messy work, and smelly too! The “earth” in question was really pond-mud. We all got well muddied, and the washing machines will be in use in several households in the afternoon.


As for wildlife, well not much to report, except that there was a good deal of birdsong, which is always a good sign at this time of year. Some snippets:

mallard and moorhens seen on the channel upstream of the estuary

wild geese calling, but only one was seen in the sky

the resident little egret seems to have departed from the estuary, but I’m sure it will be back

a frog was uncovered when excavating near the Pipe Pond.

three heron were spotted by the “path party” in the trees on the opposite bank to where we were working


We are now looking forward to two things: the development of plant, insect and bird life around the two ponds, and secondly the coming of spring, which will be a welcome relief when it comes.