The Garden

A blog by Marijn van Hoorn

A jaunt around Holywell Dene

Marijn van Hoorn

I recently had urgent family business to attend to in the sleepy working-class village of Holy­well, and decided to take the opportunity to have a short wander around the nearby dene.α Here are some photos i took.

Two deer wander on a plain behind tangled tree branches.
There were at least four of these roe deer hanging about. Beautiful, beautiful creatures.
A tree with obscured letters carved upon its bark.
Some people have clearly gone and hacked some words into this poor tree’s bark, but time hasn’t been kind to their inscriptions. I think i can make out the word ‘traitors’ — what can you read in the tea tree leaves?

While i was heading back, i heard a teenage boy slag off his mate by saying ‘Did you just piss in a cup? That is so 2016 of you’. I couldn’t agree more. Pissing in a cup is a very 2016 (CE) thing to do.

And finally, i took Roman Mars’s advice to always read the plaque.

An informational plaque about the Holy­well dene.
The contents of the plaque

Holy­well Dene

History of the Land

Originally named Merkel Dene, the land known today as Holy­well Dene was first recorded circa 800 AD. An ancient ravine woodland that stretches from the mouth of the Seaton Burn at Season Sluice, over six kilometres, through Holy­well to Seghill. The outline of today’s Holy­well Dene has changed little since 800 AD.

Local Nature Reserve

Designated as a Local Nature Reserve in 2003, Holy­well Dene houses a rich and varied selection of flora and fauna from native species trees and shrubs such as Oak, Ash, and Hazel, to delicate woodland species such as Hya­cinth­oid­es non-scripta (Blue­bell), Ra­nun­cu­lus auri­coma (Goldi­locks Butter­cup) and Viola ri­vi­nia­na (Dog Violet). Birds and animals native to Holy­well Dene include the King­fisher (Illustrated below), Great Spotted Wood­pecker, Bull­finch, Badger, and Red Squirrel.

A colourful bird, decked in blue and gold feathers, rests peacefully on a tree branch.

The Holy Well

A sepia-toned antique picture shows a now-long-gone stone well by a tree.
The Holy Well

The Holy Well (illustrated above), from whence Holy­well Dene takes its name, was one of several chemical or healing springs within the Dene and housed a bubbling well dedicated to St Mary. It is situated on private land originally known as The Park, near the Holy­well Bridge. This vitreolin spring apparently had an atra­ment­ous (inky) and irony taste and it was said that the water rose in ‘predictable bubbles’. Today, only a few stones of the original well remain.

Holy­well Village

Records show that Holy­well was in existence in 1161. The Newcastle Weekly Chronicle of 1873 stated that: ‘Holy­well Village is not by any means a clean place; there seems a want of drainage, and a deficiency of sanitary arrangements.’

The Delavals

Currently owned by descendants of the Delaval family, Holy­well Dene was conferred to one, Hubert de la Val, who came to Britain with the army of William the Conqueror in 1066. The Delaval family were colourful additions to the North East of England and the ancestors of the Dene’s current owner, Lord Hastings, were politicians, courtiers, farmers, industrialists, soldiers, academics and entertainers. The family were key to the development of Holy­well Dene over centuries.

The Church of Our Lady

Hubert de la Val celebrated his newly acquired Northumbrian estates by building the Church of our Lady in 1100. This Norman church remains practically unchanged since the 1100s.

Industry and Pleasure

Holy­well Dene has been used for both business and pleasure over the centuries. Industry within the Dene’s boundaries included farming, coal mining, milling, charcoal making and quarrying, while at its junction with the sea at Seaton Sluice, industry included glassmaking, brewing, brick making and salt production. And from the Victorian era to the current day, the Dene has been used for walking and enjoying the wildlife and flora native to Northumberland.

The waters of Seaton Burn rush down earthen steps in a tree-covered valley.
Holy­well Dene

Seaton Delaval Hall

An imposing 18th-century building adorned with classical columns faces a kemptly mown lawn of grass.
Seaton Delaval Hall

The earliest known reference of Seaton Delaval Hall is 1415; Tudor and Jacobean houses stood until the house was built by Sir John Vanbrugh for Admiral George Delaval. Vanbrugh was instructed to design a great mansion a short distance inland, just far enough away from the dirt and smells of the harbour, at the edge of Holy­well Dene. Work started in 1718 and continued for 10 years. The hall can still be seen from the northern edge of Holy­well Dene and is open to the public Wednesdays & Sundays from June to September, as well as May and August Bank Holidays 2–6pm.

[Special thanks and map]

A map of Holywell Dene, marking the locations of all of the aforementioned places, as well as Grove Farm, Sterling or Starlight Castle, the Watermill and Windmill, the Bottleworks, Seaton Sluice Harbour, and the Old Engine.

Holy­well Dene has benefited from the involvement of a number of individuals and organisations interested in maintaining the Dene as wonderful wildlife haven and recreation area.

The following have been actively involved in the restoration of the woodland areas and the designation of the Holy­well Dene Local Nature Reserve:

  • Friends of Holy­well Dene
  • Merck Sharp & Dohme Limited
  • Seaton Delaval Estate
  • Horton Estate
  • Blyth Valley Borough Council
  • North Tyneside Council
  • Northumberland County Council
  • Holy­well First School
  • Seaton Sluice First School

Special thanks go to David Anderson who provided historical information for these panels.

This board was funded by Merck Sharp & Dohme.