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Mon 18th February 2013

Coast and country around Seaton Sluice: After King Coal

Coast and country around Seaton Sluice: After King Coal

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  


Mon 4th February 2013

Countryside Skills Day

Countryside Skills Day

The view from the "office" was certainly crisp and clear this morning as participants gathered for the first Shepherd's Walks Boundary Skills Course. The day started with a very informative introduction from Gary our guide for the day, and it wasn't long before we were out in the courtyard practising the skills that looked as easy as the diagram on a flip-chart!

After a while we did wonder as a group whether we would actually be able to build a wall above the height of about 5cm - It was like participating in a giant game of Jenga! We learned very quickly that dry-stonewalling is very much an art, and not as easy as it looks. Shaping, levelling and building are very different skills and to combine them all is very challenging! Photographic evidence proves that we succeeded in our venture, though it may be some time before we have a feature slot on "Country-file".

After a break for lunch we spent the afternoon discussing hedgerows and some techniques that can be employed for hedgerow regeneration. The group were able to employ some of these techniques in the field (literally!) and it seems that many participants may also apply these techniques at home too!

Please also enjoy the YouTube film.

Mon 28th January 2013

Both Sides of the Tyne Walk

Both Sides of the Tyne Walk

Guided Walk date - Sunday 27th January 2013

We met at the Low Lights car park adjacent to the site of the former Clifford’s Fort which was completed n 1672 to defend the entrance to the River Tyne during the Anglo-Dutch Wars.  It was a bright, windy and cool day but a joy to be out and about following the grey overcast, snow and ice of the previous week.  The thaw that had continued overnight and conditions underfoot were excellent.  It was almost low tide as we walked along North Shields Fish Quay with the aim of catching the first ferry of the day to South Shields.  The mastheads of fishing boats tied up alongside the refurbished quay between The Gut and the Ice House were level with our feet.  The short walk to the Ferry Landing demonstrated the tremendous amount of redevelopment, regeneration, modernisation, conservation and even gentrification that has taken place all along the waterfront on all categories of buildings in recent years.  The steep slopes now devoid of sub-standard housing and the remnant sets of steps, or chares, contrasted with the new riverside apartments and the converted residential accommodation above the quayside shops.  The conversion of some of the old fishing related buildings to the catering and hospitality trade was particularly noticeable.  We reached the Ferry Landing just before the first ferry from South Shields arrived.  A few minutes later and we were “abroad” in South Shields and greeted by Ian who acted as Passport Control – he lives “South of the Tyne” and had a lie-in, and probably a second breakfast too.

The keen wind whipped along the Tyne as we turned north to follow the riverside past the newish residential developments towards Wapping Street.  The way that old slipways and docks had been retained in the landscape design, integrated with the modern housing was impressive.  Some were really unexpected such as the armada of seven stainless steel galleons in one of the former docks at Captain’s Wharf.  Both new and old were integrated together in ways that created a new residential area and all very convenient for the town centre.  The riverbank walkways provided impressive views of the Tyne and towards North Shields.  The river traffic was interesting with one of Nissan’s car ferry’s being tugged towards their European export terminal which is only seven miles from their factory.  Passing the merchant navy fire training school and South Tyneside College’s specialist offshore training facilities we climbed the steps towards Lawe Top to get even better views along the Tyne.   North Shields Fish Quay was opposite and towards the mouth of the Tyne it was easy to appreciate the advantages of the original site of Tynemouth Castle and Priory and the former Coastguard Station in the grounds which closed in 2001.  We passed the site of the Roman Fort of Arbeia and its impressive reconstruction of the main gate and wall en-route to the coast via North Marine Park, the hilltop providing clear views of the Tyne Piers and southwards along the coast towards our lunch destination at Marsden Grotto.  On towards the South Pier and time for elevenses adjacent to South Marine Park – most of us had tea or coffee from a flask but someone who shall be nameless, called Ian purchased chips.  This comfort stop also included a trip to the toilets in the park, the “boys” excuse to see the narrow gauge railway in operation. 

Our next stop was to be lunch at Marsden Grotto via The Leas path passing through disused quarries and following the cliff-top path from Trows Point via Frenchman’s Bay to Marsden Bay.  Lots of interesting geology and botany, ornithology etc but after “only” a brief twenty minute orientation lecture, seats provided, with the assembled audience presenting their backs to the wind and sun (note the excellent customer care) at Trows Point I was really disappointed that follow-up questions were not forthcoming.  Even more surprisingly no-one offered to submit a paper on “The Significance of the Magnesian Limestone in the Economy of South Shields Extractive Industries” – perhaps everyone was getting hungry having seen Ian eat his chips at the previous stop?  We arrived at Marsden Grotto for 1.00 pm with the choice of a pub lunch or a picnic on the beach; I don’t think Ian had both?  I wandered along the beach taking photographs of sea stacks, natural arches, wave-cut platforms, cliff-face exposures of the dip and strike of the Permian strata etc while everyone else kept their distance, can’t think why?   It was time to start the return journey and climb the numerous steps back up to the top of Marsden Bay cliff for the return journey.  Reassembling outside the entrance to the Grotto the beer and coffee on offer was judged to be OK and two of our number, one an employee of the company, announced that they were staying for more beer and not accompanying us back thus demonstrating a certain lack of team spirit.  The fact that they lived relatively locally seems hardly the point.

The return journey was relaxed and light-hearted.  We included things we didn’t see on the outward route but mostly had a good laugh along the way.  Considerately everyone left me to my own devices; they must have thought I was tired from watching Ian eating or something.  Back in Wapping Street the door to Fred Crowell’s boat-building workshop was open; he was in the process of restoring an old RNLI lifeboat and keen to explain the process.  We couldn’t stay long, we were aiming for the next ferry but it was a joy to listen to a real craftsman - enthusiast for a few minutes before the final dash to the ferry.  You will have to ask Fred about his collection of rubber ducks, all collected from the Tyne, another time.  The fish quay on the North Shields side was really busy with families at the various eateries and pubs’; parking was at a premium, a bustling scene for late on a Sunday afternoon.  Thanks to everyone for attending what was a different style of walk to our usual rural ones.  My special thanks go to Ian (coupled of course with profuse apologies) and Andrea for their help and good humour.  It was lovely to see some of the old team reassembling – Marion, Conrad, Christine, Julie and Martin.  We now also have budding regulars with Gwen and Chris and it was nice to meet John and Stephen for the first time, I hope everyone enjoyed the day.  Oh, and don’t worry, I have a cunning plan to improve our collective “ologies” over the next series of walks!  Not really, just kidding, I hope to see you again soon.  Best wishes. 

Sunday, 27 January 2013