3-Apr-18

A select party of nine volunteers met up at Hartley today for a litter-picking task. Guess what the weather was like? – yes: rainy and very, very muddy.


Not a lot of people know this, but litter-picking can be an extreme sport! Try scrambling up a steep, slippery slope to retrieve a crisp packet, for example. Or try plucking an empty beer can from the midst of a bramble ticket. Or try pulling a carrier bag out of the high branches of a tree! Add a bit of climbing over fences and jumping across streams and you are looking at an extreme sport indeed. James Bond would hesitate to take on some of the challenges our dedicated volunteers have confronted in the line of duty today – maybe!


We were all clad in boots and hi-viz jackets today, and working in pairs, much of the time, to make it easier to look out for each other. Long-stemmed litter-pickers and black plastic bags were the tools of the trade.


We managed to pretty-well clear the Dene from the metal bridge at the head of the estuary right up to the footbridge above the waterfall. This was actually more than we were expecting to accomplish, and must be a tribute to those who have been doing litter-picking on a regular basis; also to people who have helped us by removing litter they have spotted whilst walking in the Dene – and finally to those who have managed to prevent themselves from dropping litter in the first place, of course. I think the five-pence carrier-bag charge has helped: it was noticeable that there were not many carrier bags to pick up.


Photograph A. An intrepid litter-picker

Photograph B. A major discovery: an old carpet


Examples of the trove of goodies that we found? Well, first the big items: carpets, materials discarded during a house upgrade, etc. Oddities: a bathroom mat, an interesting cylindrical object thought to be a spice dispenser, etc. Nasties: doggie-poo bags, condoms, a nappie, cannabis-production related stuff, etc. And of course the old standbys: aluminium cans, plastic bottles, glass bottles and crisp packets by the hundred, not to mention bits of polystyrene, aluminium foil, plastic and card packaging, etc etc.


Photograph C. The final haul, ready for collection


Nature notes:

The springtime blooming of the woodland flowers is delayed because of the horrible weather, and there have been few celandines and no wild anemones seen. Just one cowslip has been spotted in bloom.

However the native daffodils are showing well in the meadow by the stone bridge on the Hartley West Farm access road, and the 400 we planted in the waterfall meadow are coming up, shyly, and will be putting on a good show soon, we hope.

Birds spotted by volunteers today: a dipper, a grey wagtail and a jay; a nuthatch was heard and thought I heard a whitethroat (a little warbler that migrates in from Africa).

Familiar “usual suspect” birds: robins, blue tits, great tits, chaffinches, goldfinches, blackbirds, etc were all seen.


The war on litter continues! I think we are winning, and we need your help: any help with litter removal will ease the work of those of us that litter-pick regularly. And if you are the person that dumps cannabis-growing materials in the Dene, please STOP IT!


17-Apr-18

A work party of nine met in two locations near Hartley today to refurbish the downstream wooden footbridge. The weather was dull with bright spells, and it was still very muddy underfoot.


Three volunteers met at the Hartley Lane lay-by to unload the material required to repair the bridge, and the other six met at the metal gate near Hartley Lane car park to carry the tools for today’s work.


Three people out of the group went initially to the stone bridge to repair the wire designed to stop cattle getting through. The other six converged on the footbridge to start the renovation. On closer inspection the wooden structure was in a worse state than first thought so stripping the wooden treads was a bit easier, most of the wood being rotten.


The top treads (the part which you walk across on) had to be removed with a crowbar and brute force. When they were removed, the wooden rails which were connected to the metal girders by nuts and bolts had to be tackled, and they were fitted in a time when things were made to last! We didn’t have a spanner to fit this type of nut, so we had to cut the wood with a saw and then remove the bolts by cutting them with a hacksaw. It was noted that we looked like a tribe of Mohawk Indians building a skyscraper in Manhattan the way we were moving around on the bridge when we were confident of our footing!


Once we were in a rhythm and everybody knew what was required, we soon got the old wood up and started to replace it with fresh wood that had been donated by a neighbour of a couple in the work party. Apart from a few cut-outs to go round the posts of the handrail the new decking was soon put in place and screwed into position.


Photograph A. Bridge before

Photograph B. Work in progress

Photograph C. Bridge after


When the smaller group had finished the repairs to the wire, they caught up with us and said they had seen a couple of deer in the field beside where they were working. Their next task was to finish the repairs to the path that were started on the 27th March.


So to summarise, if you descend the long flight of steps below the Hartley Lane lay-by you will see a nicely refurbished bridge to carry you across the burn, thanks to the volunteers of Friends of Holywell Dene.

24-Apr-18

A work party of twelve assembled for a litter-pick at Hartley Lane carpark this morning. Good working conditions prevailed for once: brightish with a chilly wind, and drier underfoot than it has been for months.


The main task today was to clear the eastern side of the estuary of litter. That includes the flat salt-marsh area, which often gets sea-litter brought in on high tides. There is a something of a strand line, in fact, where litter tends to be concentrated, much of it small stuff. Larger items, including a wooden frame and a piece of linoleum, were found.


The worst area for litter, however, is the steep slope below the allotments and gardens of Seaton Sluice. A lot of this material is old and dates from the “just chuck it over the fence” era. Some of it is new, though, and it is above our pay grade, as volunteers, to struggle up such a steep slope to take away large amounts of heavy-duty litter. We stick mainly to the stuff that is readily accessible and visible from the footpaths, although we often have to clamber through brambles and up steep slopes to get our prey.


The final litter tally included two old lobster pots, a quantity of old carpet and an old pram, as well as the usual pile of black bags full of litter.


While all this was going on, two of other tasks were being attended to. Firstly, fallen branches were removed from the mid-dene site where the goldilocks buttercups grow. We like to encourage these because they are an uncommon species. Encroaching vegetation was trimmed back.


Secondly, sycamore removal was being done in the area between the Hartley Lane carpark and the estuary. Sycamore trees are not native to Britain, and anyway are very invasive – they will take over any woodland given time. So, we cut down the smaller ones and trim the lower branches off the larger ones.


Photograph A. Controlling sycamore


Wildlife interest:

Loud croaking noises were heard from the heronry on the other side of the burn from the path leading from the carpark to the estuary – it must be the herons’ breeding season.

There was plenty of bird-song today: two or more willow warblers in the estuary area, blackcaps, chaffinches, blue tits, great tits, blackbirds, wrens, robins, etc as well as woodpigeons, rooks and jackdaws calling.

Four redshanks flew up from the downstream end of the estuary, and a kingfisher flashed past at the same place.

Two greater spotted woodpeckers were seen on a feeder in mid-dene.

5 or 6 snakes-head fritillaries are blooming in the meadow.

Finally, we have some colour by the footpaths, with lesser celandines, wood sorrel, wood anemones, cowslips, primroses and bluebells all blooming, along with native daffodils in the meadow and cultivated daffs and narcissuses in the estuary area.


Photograph B. Marsh marigolds

Photograph C. Primroses


So, get out and have a walk in the Dene, enjoy the flowers and the bird-song, and if you feel really keen, help us with the ongoing chore of picking up other people’s litter.

1-May-18

It’s not going to be an easy report to write this week as the nine volunteers were split into three groups, working nowhere near each other. Sadly, despite wonderful advances in modern technology, I can only be in one place at a time so detail in places will be sparse.

Group one, two chaps, set off to complete the path on the high point of the North Tyneside bank. We had been widening, erecting a safety fence and stoning on a previous session and the stoning needed to be finished. They removed litter from the Old Hartley car park and cut back grass and weeds going down from there on their way to the metal entry gate below Hartley West farm. The screw eye on the gate post had been removed by persons unknown and needed to be replaced so the gate could be held closed. Although they stated that they were working so hard most wildlife passed them by they did notice blue tits building their nest in a heart shaped hole in a tree branch. Also overhead a buzzard was being attacked by a pair of rooks when it flew too close to their nesting area.

Group two, two maidens and a chap, began litter picking at the access gate to Crowhall Farm on the Waggonway, working their way along to the stone bridge where the skylark was heard singing then following the path past the electricity sub-station and on to Holywell village. Two notable items recovered were a sizeable tent and a pink dressing gown. The main road was crossed and then the fun began. It’s a shame that the litter thrown from cars does not blow back into vehicles as I am sure that is the source of the many coffee cups and food wrappers that accumulate below the Holywell road bridge and the dangerously steep bank heading down into the dene on one side of it. We were not outdone though and two intrepid volunteers leapt, mountain goat like, up the bank to remove the majority of the offending items. They took bags with them but eventually ‘stuff’ was thrown down for the third person to pick up. A minor river blockage was noted for a future session. They continued eastward to the stream feeding into the burn and after a coffee break made their way up said stream to find a huge blockage made up of furniture, bottle crates, sheets of lino, buckets and just about anything else you could find in any household suppliers. It was far too much to move with one wheelbarrow so as much as possible was taken from the stream and left in a depression in the ground, well away from the bank, to be collected at a future date. Continuing on and passing the Oxbow lake it was a pleasure to see the marsh marigolds in full bloom and the spears of many flag iris making an appearance. The next area worth a mention was the mountain bike trails where some of the cans and plastic bottles had been collected into a carrier bag, tied up and left for someone else to remove. I think that is called progress, of a sort. The final tally was eight full black bin bags and a number of unbaggable large items.

Group three, three chaps and a chapess, made their way to the steps at Dale Top in Holywell where they began a litter-pick, removing amongst other things a bicycle from the tunnel area, however this soon turned into a secondary activity when they discovered a large sycamore had fallen at some time leaving a substantial open glade. An ideal place for hundreds, if not thousands, of sycamore seeds to set. Work to remove the majority of them began in earnest as it is spring, yes I am assured it is, so if left they would very quickly become saplings and more troublesome to remove.  The worrying discovery of the morning was two areas of Japanese knotweed on the south side of the burn over the Concord House bridge. The first Himalayan balsam of the season has also been found at Old Hartley in the burn behind the pond so let battle commence.

Aren’t you glad I could only write a sparse report.


8-May-18

This morning’s work party of nine volunteers converged on the middle Dene to renew the decking of the upper wooden footbridge. The weather was glorious – hot and sunny – too hot to work comfortably in fact (until after 10 o'clock, when the sun swung into the trees to the south). The ground was nice and dry.


The main (but not only) task was replacing the decking boards and timber rails of the footbridge upstream of the waterfall. This involved the following activities:


1. Tearing old decking up – easy because of the rusty state of the nails; the old boards were dumped safely nearby.

2. Taking up the heavy rails that had been supporting the boards, and were attached by bolts to the metal H-beams that are the mainstays of the bridge.

3. Removing protruding bolts. (This had been accomplished by the 9:15 tea/coffee break.)

4. Bolting new rails on, using the original holes in the H-beams.

5. Screwing down new decking boards – actually not new but recycled boards made available by a neighbour of one of the Friends who wanted rid of a two-year-old patio.

6. Cutting boards to fit around the handrail verticals.

7. Finishing off the ends of the bridge deck where it meets the concrete stairs either side of the river.


Photograph A. Footbridge undergoing overhaul

Photograph B. Completed job


This was hot work, and the ice-cold lollipops provided midway through the task by our lady chairperson were much appreciated!


Since the number of people that can work on a small bridge at any given time is limited, the others busied themselves with other tasks – there are always plenty of those in the Dene. Some nearby young sycamores were pulled out. The ditch that runs into the burn by the bridge was further improved (after having been dug out by a volunteer a few days ago). A major litter-pick of the moonscape area near the tunnel used by bikers was undertaken, yielding bottles, cans, plastic litter, barbecue trays, a large plastic pipe, etc.


Wildlife sightings:

several orange-tip butterflies and a peacock butterfly; three orange-tips flitted around the bridge as we were working

a dipper (a black, brown and white river bird) was spotted at the tunnel entrance; also a grey wagtail nearby

several fish, thought to be brown trout of various sizes, were readily visible in the clear waters of the river down from the bridge

the tick-tick call of a greater spotted woodpecker was heard

flowers open at the moment include lesser celandines (yellow), sorrel (white), wood anemones, (white/mauve), bluebells (blue, of course), dandelions (yellow), dog violets (blue) and red campion (pink)

leaves are coming out on the trees and there is plenty of bird-song, including warblers such as chiffchaff and blackcap


Passers-by were unable to get over the bridge while we were working on it, of course, so those that wanted to get back to the lay-by were having to ascend the steep flight of steps rather than the gentler slope via the meadow on the south side. However, the necessary work was finished by 12 noon, and the bridge is now open for use. One final thing that needs to be done is to install two intermediate steps, as the uppermost steps are a bit too tall; please bear with us until this is completed.


15-May-18

The work party numbered ten today, and in fine weather it set out from the metal gate on Hartley West Farm Lane work at two sites upstream. It had been decided to install some steps at the southern end of the meadow path, and to reset the stepping stones below Hartley West Farm. Some willows planting was done also, further upstream. The conditions were perfect: sunny and warm, and would have been too hot for physical work had we not been working in dappled shade most of the time.


Task 1 was to improve the path at the southern end of the meadow by installing steps in what was previously a steep and often muddy little slope. This work consisted of digging out the old slope, laying and securing timber edging boards, filling with stones and rubble and topping off the steps with gravel. One or two boulders had to be removed from the pathway in the process. The outcome is a major improvement on the difficult little slope up from the stile.


Photograph A. Working on the steps

Photograph B. Completed steps


Task 2 was to sort out the higgledy-piggledy stepping stones at the ford at the foot of the bank under Hartley West Farm. It was decided to remove the existing stepping stones entirely, level off the bed of the ford with cobbles from the stream, lay gravel on top and then re-install the stepping stones. This went very well. As usual, the labour of wheelbarrowing gravel from the heap to the work site was a significant part of the job.


The result is a great improvement – see photo. But please be aware, however, that the flow of the stream tends to undermine the stones; they were stable when we left them, but they might be wobbly by the time you use them. We will adjust them, if necessary, in the future.


Photograph C. Shifting the stepping-stones

Photograph D. Completed ford


Task 3 involved planting willows at the upstream end of the straight stretch of the river close to Hartley West Farm to (a) stop dogs from rushing down to the riverside and eroding the banks, and (b) reinforce the banks against future floods. Two methods were used: firstly, pre-existing willows were bent down and pegged to the ground; secondly, cut willow wands were pushed into the moist ground. Let’s hope they strike and grow; willow can usually be relied on to do so.


Wildlife notes. Not much to report today, other than to say that the Dene is buzzing with insects, songbirds and wildflowers at this time of the year – apart from a couple of omissions which may be due to the arctic spell in late February and early March: (1) fewer butterflies than usual at this time of year, although orange-tips are fairly abundant and a few small whites, speckled woods and peacocks have been seen; (2) the kingfishers seem to have suffered badly from the Beast from the East and have not been seen much this year – unless you know different! Dippers, however, are present and breeding on the river.


It is so much more fun doing volunteer work outdoors at this time of year than in midwinter – no mud, no sleet, no cold hands and feet! But the strimming season is nigh; we will soon have to start strimming the verges, and it will go on for months – and none of is looking forward to it.


If you look back through these reports for the winter period (i.e. the non-strimming season), I think you will agree that a lot of improvements have been made, particularly to paths, in the Dene.


22-May-18

A work party of twelve turned out at Holywell today to remove the remains of a tree from the river and to make a start on the annual pathside strimming effort. The weather was cold, damp and miserable at first, but improved later.

 

The tree removal task was a case of finishing off a long-running job (see reports above). A large beech fell across the river under Ridge Way, Holywell, some time ago and had been causing a blockage. Most of the branches had been removed but the trunk still remained, jutting out across the Burn. The protruding part had been partly sawed through the day before, and today’s task was to finish the job.

 Photograph A. Tree to be removed


This involved two winches – it’s a big tree! – and further cutting work with a chainsaw. Tensions in the timber caused the chainsaw to get stuck at one point. It had to be partly dismantled and as part of the retrieval operation the chain itself fell into the water. Don’t worry though: the chain was recovered, the chainsaw re-assembled and work continued.

Photograph B. The game is afoot


Meanwhile a sub-group of four volunteers strimmed the verges of the paths on the north side of the Dene from Dale Top to the Concord House footbridge. The pathside annual plants are growing at maybe a foot a week at present and, in places, they are already three or four feet tall. They fall across the path if not controlled, hence the need to strim. Things to watch out for when strimming: doggie poo, wasps’ nests, stones and lumps of timber. Of course, we wear all the necessary protective gear, including a helmet with visor and ear defenders. Volunteers-at-work signs are put out on the path either side of where the work is going on. The work is finished off by raking up the cut vegetation


Back at the tree-removal scene, the trunk section was finally persuaded to break off under the pressure of two winches, and was hauled out of the water. The ragged end of the trunk was tidied off and another lesser tree-trunk winched out of the water.

Photograph C. Completed job


Wildlife notes. Not much to report, again, other than to note that the woodland vegetation is going through its early-summer growth spurt as we speak.


Invasive plants. We have a problem with Japanese knotweed, a tall annual plant and perhaps the most pernicious weed in the country, in that end of Holywell Dene. It’s not out of control, but there are three substantial clumps that we know of, and some minor sprigs have been seen there in previous years. We report these clumps to the Council who come along and spray or inject them with herbicide – the only realistic control method. If you spot any, please report it to the Council via their website – it won’t do any harm if something is reported twice. If you live nearby it will be in your interests to do so because, seriously, you do not want that stuff spreading into your garden!


Himalayan balsam is another invasive alien plant, also very tall, and very “spready” via seed. We found a major colony on the nature reserve alongside the old Seghill landfill site last year, and we are trying to get something done about it. If you are connected in any way with that site – Seghill Local Nature Reserve – please get in touch with us via the contact page on our website.


29-May-18

A work party of only seven volunteers assembled today at the Hartley Lane carpark for a morning’s strimming. The conditions were nice and cool; we don’t like hot, sticky weather for strimming work. Conditions were misty and the vegetation was damp, although, strangely, the ground was dry.


Our task today was to strim the path verges from the stone bridge on the Hartley West Farm road down to the estuary; also to strim around planted trees, and to do a bit of area strimming where there is bracken. We got most of that done, but not right the way down to the estuary. That will, I guess, be for next week.


As usual, each strimmer operator was accompanied by a person with a rake to clear up and to look out for pedestrians, cyclists, joggers, horse-riders, dog walkers and dogs. As usual, warning signs were put on the path either side of the working area, and full strimmer safety gear was worn.


Photograph A. Path before strimming

Photograph B. Strimming

Photograph C. Path after strimming


We collected some litter on our way, as usual, but maybe somebody else had had the same idea, because we noticed that the carpark bin was full after the bank-holiday Monday.


By the way, if you go past where we were working and it looks as if we have done a less than perfect job, there is a reason: we deliberately avoid strimming some of the path-side plants, particularly meadow cranesbill. It has attractive blue flowers in season, and attracts butterflies and other pollinators – so worth saving from the strimmer.


We have planted many trees in this area over recent years. They have tree-guards to protect them from deer and rabbits. The most common type that we have planted is oak. This is to correct the “oak deficiency” – I don’t know whether you have noticed, but there are lots of oaks upstream of the tunnel under the disused railway line, but hardly any (mature ones) downstream of it. There are several theories about this, but anyway, oaks support more species of insect and other wild species than any other tree, so we have planted quite a few in various suitable places. Many of these are still small, and would be shaded out by the nettles, bracken, etc if we were not to strim around them.


Finally, one of us spotted someone dumping garden waste in the Dene recently. Just to explain the reasons why we are not keen on this: (1) it might introduce invasive non-native species of plant into the Dene, and (2) Holywell Dene is a nature reserve and public amenity, not a tip!


5-Jun-18

Today’s work party, numbering only seven, converged on Seaton Sluice to continue strimming verges and bashing bracken in the estuary area. The sky was grey until about 9:30 when the sun came out and we enjoyed a bright and breezy day. The ground remains quite dry despite recent rain.


The party split into three groups. One person went to the Dene Cottage area to strim the paths on that side of the estuary. Another group, of two volunteers, tackled the paths southwards from St Paul’s Church. The third group, of four, worked upstream from the foot of the path leading down from Millfield.


This is the time of year when path-side weeds grow most rapidly. Brambles and briars are also in rampant growth. The paths would soon disappear under vegetation if strimming were not done. The third group tried to reach the point where we finished off last week, but failed – bracken-bashing took more time than expected.

Photograph A. Strimming and raking


There is a lot of bracken (a tall fern) alongside the path between the estuary and the Hartley Lane carpark. It is a native species, but it tends to take over, at the expense of all other plant life. It has no flowers, and is thus of no value to bees, butterflies, etc. So, we keep it down as much as we can using strimmers. The technique is to strim about 6 or 8 inches off the ground, so that the main stems of the bracken fronds are severed, whilst the other wild plants are only lightly damaged.


A cut main stem is a serious setback to a bracken plant, whereas most grasses and flowering plants recover quickly if their tops are nipped. At this time of year, the bracken is relatively easy to cut. These plants store energy in their roots over winter, then expend a lot of it pushing up shoots in the spring. Before the fronds unfurl, however, they will have had little return from photosynthesis. Thus if they are cut at this time, they should be badly set back. The result should be fewer of them – although it is almost impossible to wipe them out.

 Photograph B. Bracken-bashing


Wildlife interest:

a heron flew across the field towards the estuary

a pair of mallard has been seen on the Seaton Burn where it flows into the estuary, with variously ten or twelve fluffy chicks, according to two different reports

some northern marsh orchids, which are purple, are flowering near the Pipe Pond (see photo)

there were huge numbers of snails out today – mainly garden snails – presumably because of the damp recent weather

Photograph C. Northern marsh orchid


This is the holiday season, and our numbers will likely be down over the next couple of months. Meanwhile the vegetation is growing by leaps and bounds. At least we did not disturb any wasps’ nests today!