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After last weeks respite from our regular summer occupation of strimming, normal service was resumed today when a team of seven volunteers met at the Hartley West Farm gate. The task ahead was to complete the clearing of the Old Hartley meadow which was begun briefly at the end of the morning two weeks ago. The weather was perfect, mild but cloudy, which meant we were not bothered by swarms of flies which descend immediately on days when we are all hot and bothered.

At the start the bank of the burn was checked for Himalayan balsam and two small clumps were found and removed. The rest of the morning went smoothly so there’s nothing untoward or out of the ordinary to report which makes summer strimming days difficult to write up with any kind of variety.

The workers on raking duty had a busy time watching for and removing a number of amphibians and a couple of field voles who seemed to think it was great fun playing chicken by running in circles within a few feet of the strimmer. Judging by the number of holes in the meadow the field vole population is thriving.

At tea break we had our regular visit from the FoHD committee’s chairperson and her champion pooch. Her lovely biscuits were not required this week as one of the group had brought shortbread to celebrate his birthday. It was remarked that it didn’t seem possible that it is five years since he brought cakes and pointed party hats to celebrate his ‘big special birthday’. However it was also pointed out that at our ages every birthday is a special one.

On that note I will sign off for this week and look forward to more of the same in seven days.


After last week’s session was cancelled due to inclement weather, otherwise known as ‘summer’ ten volunteers, champing at the bit, met at Crow Hall Farm for what will probably be a final mornings strimming for this year.

The group split into two at the start with seven workers beginning the joyous task of strimming the meadow adjacent to the bird feeder bridge. The remaining three went to remove a tree branch which had fallen into the water across the waterfall. It was not a particularly huge branch so was cut up with a standard bow saw and disposed of on the bank and left for the wildlife to do their thing. It was a relatively speedy task and they soon re-joined the rest of the group. Work in the meadow was completed without the sacrifice of any trees and shrubs planted there in recent years and it’s good to report most of them are doing really well. We have three surviving service trees, unusual in this area, one of which is growing at a rate of knots, whilst the other two are still with us but seem to be struggling a little.

After clearing the meadow we moved onto the north bank and strimmed up and down- stream from the bridge. Blocked gullies were noted for working on in the next few weeks.

At this point nine of the group re-crossed the burn and strimming the odd patch as they went made their way back to their vehicles.

The tenth worker set off home through the dene intending to pull out the small clump of Himalayan balsam spotted on their way to work. It was inaccessible from the bank it was growing on but luckily the water level was very low so only a short paddle was necessary. Whilst removing the clump two others were spotted and removed, it was thought that that was that. However the journey home continued over the stone bridge, across the stile and along the burn behind the pond at Old Hartley where several very large clumps were found. Whilst scaling the fence part of a boiler suit was left behind but the balsam was removed, bagged and disposed of.

Another member of the working party has been fighting an on-going battle with the balsam for quite a while and earlier this week he spent almost 4 hours working upstream from Concord House and in the vicinity of the Holywell road bridge. He estimates that the number of plants he has found and removed this year is in excess of 660. Last year it was around 190 so you can appreciate we have a battle on our hands if we are to keep on top of this invasive plant and prevent it taking over. We would appreciate any sightings being reported to us. The flowers are all shades of pink through to white and obviously pictures for easy identification can be found easily on-line. It is crucial to remove the plants before they start to disperse their seed which they are already doing so please keep your eyes peeled.


A work party of 7 met up at the gas pumping station at the end of Wallridge Drive in Holywell today, to complete some area-strimming and clear a blockage of the river caused by a big fallen tree.

Two groups of two went to finish the strimming of the Dale Top path, while the other three went to tackle the blockage.

Photograph A. Path before strimming

Photograph B. Path after strimming

After booting up into waders, two brave souls immersed themselves in the burn, which came as a rude wake-up call until the body got used to the temperature! One volunteer soon found out that his waders had two holes, one in each leg.

The blockage consisted of branches and twigs that had been washed downstream and got stuck against a long-fallen beech tree. Clearing this blockage took till mid-morning.

Photograph C. River blockage before work

Photograph D. Work in progress

Photograph E. River blockage after work

A well-deserved hot drink and a gold biscuit bar followed, delivered by the lady chair of Friends of Holywell Dene and her dog, to celebrate our being given a Gold award in the Conservation Projects category (Northumbria, 2017) by the Britain in Bloom organisation (Royal Horticultural Society).

The party of three then went upstream to clear some more branches from the burn. With one hour to go and all jobs completed the whole group met up to clear ivy on some of the trees.

We were too busy to do much wildlife-watching, but the more observant of the party spotted a couple types of butterflies: a speckled wood and a painted lady.


On a true autumn morning of heavy mist and the occasional sighting of a watery sun, nine volunteers met at an area of the dene the current working party has not worked in before. We were at what I believe is known locally as the Seghill Stone Bridge (apologies to any locals who know it as something different). We had been asked by the Coastal Warden for Northumberland County council to dismantle a large blockage in the river a few yards downstream from the bridge. We set off with wheelbarrows full of winches, saws of various types and sizes and a good supply of black bags for the removal of copious amounts of rubbish river blockages usually contain. It proved to be a relatively short walk and on arrival there were many comments on what an attractive area it is. Waders and wellingtons were the footwear of the day and soon everyone was hard at work dismantling tangles of branches and small logs that had become fast around large tree trunks wedged across from bank to bank. By our first tea break we had made excellent progress and only the large trunks remained in place. These were cut into manageable pieces by our ‘chainsaw expert’, winched out of the water and positioned on the bank, hopefully high up enough for them not to get washed back in when the water rises. The amount of rubbish amongst the blockage was remarkably little and barely half filled one bag.

During our break we had discussed the size of the sycamores in the area and how they cut out a great deal of light so, whilst the winching was going on, 2 of the team set about removing the lower branches that were growing over and adjacent to the bridge. The improvement was commented on positively by several passing dog walkers.

On the opposite side of the bridge from the first blockage a number of large dead tree branches were in the water. These were cut up and removed, resulting in one team member having several inches of water in his wellingtons and another, attacked by a whipping branch, suffered a cut face. Isn’t it strange how small cuts bleed so much?

Before we packed up for the day, a check was made for any other problem areas and - would you believe it, another blockage was discovered a little further downstream. This proved to be considerably larger than the one we were asked to clear. It was decided that we were obviously going to have to do something about it at some point so we might as well make a start. Many of the small branches and rubbish were shifted and a gap was cleared for the water to go round at the normal level. What was left was substantial both in the size and amount of it and will have to be tackled at another time.  In this area a slight mishap occurred when a chunk of wood was thrown up the bank. The volunteer fell forward at speed and narrowly avoided ending up with upper torso in the water by extending their arms out in front. Luckily nothing broken, just very muddy knees and a bit of hurt pride. Having fallen face down towards the water with feet trapped in tree roots they were untangled and hauled unceremoniously up the bank, like a large landed trout!

Balsam hunting took place at the end of the morning. Not expecting to find any, it was disappointing to discover about a dozen small to medium sized plants within a few feet of where we were working. These were removed and bagged but unfortunately some of them had already set seed and exploded as they were approached. So that’s another area we will have to keep a check on next year.

We made our way back to the vehicles to strip off muddy gear and empty our wellies, knowing we had had a successful and fulfilling morning.


A big work party of twelve turned out for a morning of path maintenance on the west side of the Seaton Burn estuary today, on a sunny and blustery day. A laser-like sun compensated, in the more sheltered places at least, for a strong chilly wind.

A couple of redshanks (long-legged birds of moor and shore) took off and complained at being disturbed by making the piping alarm call familiar to everyone who walks regularly in the Seaton Sluice estuary area.

The job for the day broke down into three parts: (1) mending the path at the place where a tree fell recently, (2) strimming vegetation on path verges, and (3) gully clearance.

If you have been following these reports, you will remember that a fallen tree had to be sorted out on 22nd August. Well, that tree destabilised the kerb-stones along the edge of the path at that point. Today that problem was rectified: the kerb-stones were buttressed with timber stakes and some tread stones were put in place to make the path more usable at that point.

Photograph A. Path restoration

Photograph B. Repaired path

As for the strimming – well, we keep saying “this is the last strimming day of the year” but the verges of the estuary path really needed a good “back and sides” before the winter.

Photograph C. Strimming and raking

Gully clearance was the most labour-intensive task of the day. The estuary is essentially a salt marsh, and the western side is subject to flooding because of water running down the steep dene-side bank. So, we have a system of artificial channels, just 6” wide, to carry excess water away from the path and into the Seaton Burn channel. These naturally clog up with leaves, weeds, etc, and need to be cleared out in preparation for the winter. There is not much sophistication involved: spades are used to scrape out the gunk, leaves and weeds from the gullies.

Photograph D. Gully maintenance

Actually, it’s quite a satisfying job, because you get the pleasure of seeing the water flowing freely where before it had been hanging about in congested channels.

It was quite a good day for wildlife spotting, with the autumn sun bringing out the birds and colourful insects. Here’s a sample:

A kingfisher flashed down the channel like a turquoise-and-orange jewel in the sunlight as we stopped for tea and coffee around 9:45. These are being seen frequently in the Dene nowadays, and are always a talking point among visitors.

A coal tit and some long-tailed tits were calling in the sunlit trees overlapping the path.

Rooks and woodpigeons were overflying the estuary all the time, and there were the usual black-headed gulls squawking away around the harbour end of the estuary.

Michaelmas daisies are in seed all over the estuary area – a non-native invasive, but not forming a continuous mat so not a problem.

A big dragonfly darted about making a rattling noise, moving too quickly for us to determine whether it was a common hawker or a southern hawker.

Butterflies: three speckled wood and one red admiral were seen in “bluebell wood” (the side dene) around 9:30.

A pied wagtail flitted about in the channel.

There was a robin singing, of course – the only bird that does so at this time of year.

Your correspondent wandered off to do some squirrel monitoring work and lost touch with the others because of the discovery of yet more Himalayan balsam plants which had to be pulled out as invasive aliens. By the time that was done everyone had gone home, leaving the estuary path in a much better state for walkers..


A work party of eleven converged on a non-standard venue today – the far SW corner of Holywell – for a morning’s river-clearance, litter-picking and balsam-bashing. The weather was not very encouraging: dull, damp and mildish but thankfully without any rain, and the underfoot conditions were wet but not too slippery. The task leader was away in the Lake District today, so the leadership job fell to his deputy, the “winch-master-in-chief”.

We have tended to leave the part of Holywell Dene near Newburgh Avenue, Holywell, to its own devices, just because of its “remote” location. But it is attractive and well-used by walkers, so a good tidy-up seemed overdue. You can see from photograph A how entangled the river was with fallen willows – and that was not the only river blockage that needed clearing. This was a big job, in fact a two-broken-saws job: a bow-saw and the large two-person saw both succumbed to excessive enthusiasm by volunteers cutting up the fallen willows. The winch was also deployed, to drag logs out of the Burn. If you venture down that way, near the stone footbridge, you will see the results: several large piles of logs and branches removed from the river.

Photograph A. removing a major blockage of the burn

Litter always comes readily to hand when working in the burn – it gets washed downstream and snags in any blockage. I counted eight bin-liners full of litter at the end of the morning. The prize item was a child’s scooter. As usual, we have no idea how it got lost or ended up in the stream.

Next: Himalayan balsam. This is the invasive weed that is launching a determined assault on the riverbanks of the Dene. Have a look at our website if you want to find out how to identify and deal with it. We have been wondering how it got into the Dene. Until now, I had thought that the point of origin was between the Concord House footbridge and the railway culvert upstream of it. Today we have come across a major new clue: there is a large infestation on open land called the “Seghill Nature Reserve”, which is near a filtration pond on a side-burn that seems to drain the old Seghill landfill site. The balsam plants are seeding like crazy, even in October! We think the tip may be the original source of our balsam problem, since it is close to the Seaton Burn. We will definitely have to do something about this next year.

Photograph B. Balsam-bashing near old Seghill tip

Wildlife notes:

Nothing to report, I’m afraid – such a contrast with last week, when the sun was shining.

We got a bit of a mixed reception from local people: some provided encouragement while we were working, some joked about how we spend all our time drinking tea (its actually only 90% of the time) and some complained about the “disruption” we cause! Perhaps the latter would be happier if we left the Dene unmaintained!

Anyway, the results of a productive morning’s work were: (1) several large piles of timber removed from the burn, (2) several bags full of litter, and (3) a big step forward in understanding how Himalayan balsam is getting into Holywell Dene.