Coast and country around Seaton Sluice: After King Coal
Mon 18th February 2013
Guided Walk date - Saturday 16th February 2013
Good weather all day for the second time in a row, we’re not used to this! Having said that it was a “little damp” underfoot – remember the walk along to Lysdon Farm just after we’d met the lady with the horse who told us about the resident little owl and the dog fox? Or the flooded ridge and furrow near Briar Dene Farm? Alternatively you will recall the “mudpath” alongside Whitley Bay golf course where we came upon the unfortunate lady with the ankle injury waiting for the ambulance? She was less than 300 metres from the A193, a reminder of just how quickly and easily things can go awry.
The focus of this walk was to illustrate the key landscape features associated with the area. The “rurban” fringe of the Tyneside conurbation is an unusual location for Shepherds Walks but the area contains plenty of evidence to demonstrate the unique characteristics of the south-east Northumberland coast plain. From the car park alone we could see the edgeland conjunction of urban and rural land uses backed by the narrow coastal strip with its port, tourism and recreational associations. Inland, across the mixed arable and pastoral farmland was evidence of the landscaped tip heaps of the former deep coal mines of the Northumberland Coalfield often covered by coniferous plantations. The large country houses found elsewhere on the coast plain were represented by the distinctive silhouette of Seaton Delaval Hall to our south on the slightly higher ground. The broad-leaved woodlands located in the estate parklands were also visible on the same skyline and were also to be found later in the steeper valley sides of Holywell Dene. There was abundant evidence too of open water and wetlands resulting from mining subsidence which can only have been exacerbated by the wet weather of recent months.
The reinforced concrete remains of the Second World War Gloucester Battery adjacent to the busy A193 was an obvious landmark less than half a mile from the start of the walk, hidden in plain view. This was one of three separate sites constructed to defend the port of Blyth and its associated submarine base. Additionally the broad sandy beaches, backed by dunes, and extensive flat coast plain flanking it were considered to have considerable potential for both airborne and marine landings. What we noticed was the predominance of horses in the fields for the first quarter of the walk. Gloucester Lodge Farm, Lysdon Farm and Seaton Red House Farm all being associated with riding and livery, as evidenced by the number of fields subdivided by electric fences and the horse boxes and trailers behind farm buildings; a classic urban fringe service activity and good example of farm diversification.
Emerging onto the road and footpath at the right-angled bend near to the railway crossing into New Hartley we could appreciate the layout of the newly planned roads following the enclosure movement of the 18th century. They followed the newly created field edges often resulting in right angled bends. On reaching the junction with the A190, we crossed an avenue of planted hardwoods that marked the original approach to Seaton Delaval Hall from the village of the same name (company town) just two kilometres to the south west. Taking the bridleway past Harbord Terrace we meandered through fields towards out lunch stop. We by-passed, just off our route, the largest mining subsidence pond, or flash, in the form of Holywell Pond now a nature reserve managed by Northumberland Wildlife Trust. Lunch was taken in the shelter of a decommissioned former colliery air shaft in welcome sunshine. We had a view towards the obelisk commemorating the Hartley Pit Disaster of 1862 in which 204 men and boys lost their lives. After that it was time for more “clarty bits” and mud-skating on the way to Hollywell Dene to follow the old dismantled railway to Brier Dene Farm and its bright red water pump. Then the real mud walking and bog snorkelling began, all within sight, sound and smell of the northern edge of Whitley Bay. It wasn’t hard to see how the party with the lady who had slipped and fallen had come to grief even on perfectly flat terrain.
The coastal strip was much easier underfoot being mostly on dry and prepared surfaces. The cliff coast from the St Mary’s Island Nature Reserve up past the communication masts to Hartley were good for seeing the cliffs and wave-cut platform of the upland coast and associated coal seams and coastal erosion. The abandoned former military rifle range shooting butts adjacent to the masts go largely unnoticed by the hundreds of people walking this popular stretch of coast daily. Towards Crag Point the site of the First World War Robert’s Battery was less obvious in the fields occupied by yet more horses and alpacas until you looked closely at the regular limps and bumps of grassed-over buildings. The only identifiable remnant of the formerly extensive site is in the form of Fort House close to the caravan site. This house is was formerly the officer accommodation and is a Grade II listed building with modern extensions. In the Second World War a Chain Home Low radar station was also located close by. The view into Collywell Bay revealed most of the features we had already seen on the cliff coastline including the sea stack of Charley’s Garden sitting on a distinct wave-cut platform. Modern cliff defences protected the houses along Collywell Bay Road which in places are only a road’s width from disaster.
Seaton Sluice is a popular recreational destination for Tynesiders and it is hard to believe that its harbour was a considerable industrial centre between the mid 1600’s and the late 1800’s based variously on on the export of coal, glass and salt. The tax on salt led to the demise of that industry by 1820. The six glass cones (kilns) eventually closed altogether. At its zenith the port exported 145,000 dozen bottles a year. Coal exports were assisted by the blasting of The Cut in 1761 to enable bigger ships to access the port forming the area now known as Rocky Island, the original location of the salt pans. Crossing the modern road bridge we could see upstream to the location of the original sluice gates after which the settlement (prior to this it was known as Hartley Pans) was named.
Less than two kilometres back to the start past the ballast hill on the north side of the Seaton Burn which just looks like a big sand dune. A pleasant walk back to the cars in the lee of the dunes, it’s surprising how the dunes act as a sound-break, we could hardly hear the vehicles on the main road one side of us nor the sea on our other side, but the tide was out. The variety along the way was surprising with lots of contrasts between town and country, industry and agriculture, employment and recreation. A lovely mix of people as ever, some old friends who constantly reminded me of my shortcomings (thank you; I think?) and some welcome new ones who soon got into the swing of things – slipping, sliding, wading, trying to stay upright, dignified and enjoy the experience. Fortunately that was only in short sections and conditions improved as we progressed. We saw the whole range of industrial power from King Coal that powered the industrial revolution to both the off-shore and on-shore wind farms associated with Blyth, from bell-pits to alternative energy. I logged a total distance of 14.3 km (8.86 ml) with a maximum height of only 34 meters (113 ft) above sea level and a total ascent of 93 metres (305 ft). We are unlikely ever to have such a gentle relief profile as that again. I hope everyone enjoyed the day and a special thank you to Ian and Margaret for their assistance and good humour.
Monday, 18 February 2013