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The first working party session of the new year was a bit of a subdued affair: eight volunteers doing maintenance on the path on the west side of the estuary from 10 o’clock to about noon.

As so often, the task work consisted of two parts. The first part was simply clearance of the gutters and gullies of the west-side footpath. The side-gutters were cleared out with spades, cross-gullies were cleared with drain-cleaning rods, a new length of side-gutter was dug, and several notches were made in the path edging to let water flow off.

Quite a lot of time as expended trying to open up a gully that had been blocked off when the path was upgraded by the Council a few years ago, until it was finally decided that there simply was no passage through the new path foundations.

Photograph A. Clearing gutters and gullies

The second part of the task consisted of reinstating the hand-rail at a section of the path where it rises steeply over a hump. This had been taken down by some unauthorised person or persons and used as part of the fabric of a den in the woods some time ago.

We have no great objection to people making dens, but can they please just use fallen timber and not demolish our handiwork? We are volunteers, not “the powers that be”, and we only have limited time – Tuesday mornings – to maintain three miles of Holywell Dene, with its five miles or so of footpath.

We found the handrail woodwork earlier this year and retrieved it. Today, we put it up again in its original place. This time, we used concrete in the post holes, so that it will be difficult to vandalise in future.

Photograph B. Reinstating hand-rail

Photograph C. End result

The wildlife was unusually quiet in the estuary today. The usual suspects – black-headed gulls and redshanks – were again missing. Even the egret was absent. We think we spotted a dipper in flight, but it was moving too fast to be sure. Nevertheless, the estuary is one of the most picturesque parts of the dene, and now a little bit easier to use thanks to the efforts of Friends of Holywell Dene volunteers!


A working party of six volunteers was all we could muster this morning, on a dull, cold day. (Several of our regulars are either on holiday or have health issues at present.)

Rain was expected, and sure enough it arrived around 10:40. Before then we managed to get a couple of logjams out of the Seaton Burn upstream of the Holywell road bridge.

The first was at the point where a double sewer pipe crosses the burn (55.062667, -1.505604). The piping rests on a stanchion in the middle of the river, and this serves as a catcher for any large branch that comes floating downstream. The result, from time to time, is a logjam. So, two of us put on waders and clambered down the bank into the burn to sort it out.

Photograph A. Clearing logjam 1

Now we aren’t allowed to use our chainsaw these days, for reasons explained below, so we hacked away at the branches with bowsaws before untangling them and throwing them out for the other volunteers to place on higher ground. Several of the branches were too heavy to lift out, so the old hand-winch came into use again to pull them up the slope.

Photograph B. Using hand-winch

With that completed, we moved a short distance upstream to where an old hawthorn draped in ivy had collapsed into the water. Again, this was removed using bowsaws and the winch. Part of the trunk of the hawthorn had to be left jutting out of the bank, being too thick to cut through with bowsaws.

Photograph C. Clearing logjam 2

At this point, the weather changed and wintry rain set in. We had hoped to have enough time to sort out a congested culvert, but instead it was decided to call it a day. We got back to our vehicles at about 11:00, happy enough to be out of the cold and rain.

Now, we have been told by Northumberland County Council, that chainsaws are banned for our kind of work. This is a big blow because we use our chainsaw frequently and have always been responsible chainsaw users. I think there must have been an incident that caused the Council to impose this ban. Our two chainsaw operators might have to go on retraining courses, but that will be expensive and can’t happen overnight. Watch this space for further developments.


On a frosty but dimly bright day, eight volunteers turned out at the farm gate on the Hartley West Farm road to do some river maintenance and drain clearing. The working party split in two as follows.

A party of five volunteers headed down to the stone bridge to remove a blockage at the cow gate under the bridge. Two very brave people pulled on waders and entered the icy water! They started to pull the tree branches that had been caught in the gate and drag them to the bank side for the other three people to remove from the river bank. The cow gate is designed to prevent the cows grazing in the field from wading up under the bridge and escaping into the Dene.

Photograph A. Freeing the cow-gate

This task didn’t take long but it was that cold for the couple in the water that we had to have an early break for them to try and warm up. This took longer than expected as they were frozen to the bone, but off we went about 100 yards upstream to remove a second blockage. This required us to break out the hand winch as there were a couple of branches too big to manage by hand. Meanwhile the smaller stuff were taken away from the river bank by hand.

Photograph B. Winching branch out of river

The second party, of three volunteers, worked their way down the gully that runs down from the road to the burn near the dipping pond. This needed its annual clear-out. Dead vegetation, twigs and silt were removed. Two culvert pipes were cleared of debris. A lot of litter was picked up.

Photograph C. A collection of litter!

This having been accomplished, they moved on to the outlet pipe of the dipping pond, which had become bunged up with silt. We used the spit to remove as much of that as we could, and the result is a decent rate of flow, but more work is needed.

Incidentally, the pond-dipping platform was removed from the pond last year in the expectation that Northumberland County Council would be desilting the pond in that year. It never rose to the top of their priority list, however, so it is looking a bit abandoned at present. Hopefully it will be dug out this year.

The birds are getting more active and vocal these days. They must sense that spring is on the way. Here are some of the things we saw while we were at work:

wild geese, probably pink-footed, were up in the air and calling to each other

great tits, blue tits and coal tits were heard

a grey wagtail was darting about near the river

rooks were flying around and calling

a moorhen was spotted by the river

snowdrops are beginning to open

We went home an hour early today – nothing more to do, and two of us were very cold. We’ll be back next week.


Seven of us assembled at the Holywell water pumping station today for a morning of logjam clearance and culvert unblocking – as you do, on a cold winter’s morning! (It was actually much warmer down in the Dene that it was in the cold wind “up top”.)

The tools van was driven down the lane to the pumping station and parked in the space provided for us by Northumbrian Water. Having loaded up the wheelbarrows with lots of tools etc, we all marched off over the old railway embankment, past the mountain-bike area to the oxbow, where there were a couple of logjams in the burn.

At this point a couple of us split off to tackle a blockage in the culvert pipe that conveys a side-burn into the Seaton Burn downstream of the Holywell road bridge. It was badly blocked, and the side burn was flowing over the footpath, causing people to have to jump across.

One quick dig with the spade at the inlet end of the pipe revealed the nature of the blockage: silt was backing up behind a bunch of twigs and small branches across the inlet. We cleared this out, widened the channel, removed loose twigs from the side burn upstream of the culvert and put some gravel on the path where it was muddy. Job done, we returned to the main group.

Photograph A. Culvert before

Photograph B. Culvert after

They had already by this time cleared the first of the two logjams in the burn near the oxbow. This involved two of us putting on waders and going into the river to pull stuff out – branches, twigs and litter. The trusty hand-winch was used to pull some heavy logs out of the jam.

The second jam was somewhat more serious. Again, with two volunteers wading in the burn, the winch was used to pull several heavy logs out. These were dumped by the riverside, hopefully well clear of any future flood waters. As usual, we bagged the litter we found – which included several rubber balls lost by dog owners – and took it away. Oh, and a bit of ivy removal was done by volunteers that were surplus to the numbers needed for logjam clearance.

Photograph C. Setting up the winch

Photograph D. Shifting a log

Photograph E. Logs removed from river

There was some interesting wildlife to report:

a single mute swan flew over while we were congregating by the tools van

seven roe deer in the field opposite the oxbow drifted away when we appeared; they’ll be back I’m sure

a pair of buzzards was spotted in the distance

a robin was hopping round the pile of retrieved logs looking for titbits

a long-tailed tits and some other small birds were heard calling

a grey wagtail made its distinctive call when flitting low along the burn

no snowdrops have been seen yet, however!

Don’t forget to take a look at the “Friends of Holywell Dene” Facebook page from time to time, to get the latest crack.


A party of eight volunteers turned up at the metal gate on Hartley West Farm road on a mild dry morning for a day of coppicing and gully work (which had been planned for last week but was rained off, as had the previous week also). We had a new volunteer today and after an introduction to the team we split into two groups of four.

One group headed to the cluster of trees near the stepping stones with a wheelbarrow of tools to begin coppicing the hazels there. Coppicing is where we cut back a tree or shrub to ground level periodically to stimulate growth of other plants in the area.

Photograph A. Coppicing hazels

We trim the trees where possible as far down as possible and gather all the cuttings and store them together, hopefully to provide a refuge for wildlife. This work kept that party going all morning.

Regular walkers in the vicinity of the stone bridge will, for the last few weeks, have noticed that the meadow area has frequently been flooded. We think this is being caused by the heavy rainfall recently running down the farm road and into the meadow, causing a lot of damage.

It was decided to dig a channel along the uphill edge of the farm road to divert the flow into the field on the other side of the road where it will do less damage. We also did some path repairs at the stile into the meadow with gravel from the nearby pile. We may have to do some more path repairs and improve the drainage in the meadow in the future.

Photograph B. Digging roadside channel

Photograph C. Completed work

Luckily both parties finished at the same time so we cleaned down the tools and wheelbarrows, loaded up the van and off we went home for a well-deserved lunch.


The working party met up on the West Hartley Farm road near the stone bridge this morning to sort out the meadow, which has been flooded. There were nine of us – just enough to do the job – and it was a brightish, dry day albeit very muddy underfoot.


Because of the rainy winter, the meadow has been partially under water and the path has been impassable for months. People have been walking round the lake of standing water and trampling the grass. We had been hoping the water would drain away of its own accord but it never has, with all the rain.

Photograph A. Original state of meadow

So, we set about draining away the water and reinstating the path. First, we dug a channel from the flooded area to the burn. This was quickly done in the first half hour, and immediately saw a rapid flow of water away from the flooded zone. This trench will have to be fitted with a drainage pipe (or some other solution) if it is to be a permanent feature, for safety reasons.

Photograph B. Digging drainage channel

Next, we started removing soil and mud from the path in preparation for resurfacing. Spades and mattocks were deployed. Encroaching turf was removed from the either side of the path and mud was scraped from the walking surface and placed to one side. By now the pool of standing water was rapidly receding, enabling us to clear the surface of the path as it passed through it.

It was now time to start applying new aggregate to the surface of the footpath. Fortunately there was a pile of gravel near the stile at the bridge end of the meadow, so that could easily be wheelbarrowed to the path. The aggregate was spread out using rakes and spades, and by now the job was looking nearly done.

Photograph C. Resurfacing path

Around about now we had our first “customer” – the first person brave enough to walk the restored footpath. She seemed to get along the path without getting her trainers too muddy, so we set about finishing off the work.

Photograph D. Completed job

There were a few birds around today:

chaffinch and greenfinch singing

pink-footed geese flying overhead and calling

a pair of mallard on the wing

It wasn’t clear why there were no rooks however; the tall trees on the other side of the burn should be a busy rookery at this time of the year.

If you want further information about things going on in the Dene, take a look at the Friends of Holywell Dene page on Facebook.