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Transforming a harbour

Seaton Sluice

The harbour with village beyond

It is hard to imagine now, but Seaton Sluice was once the centre of greater commercial activity, for its size, than any other town on the North East coast. Large ships visited its tiny harbour and hundreds of seamen worked here, alongside miners, rope-makers, sail-makers, shipbuilders and more. It must have been a busy scene indeed.

Salt production was established here before the 16th century, and in the late 17th century the local landowner Sir Ralph Delaval built a sluice at the harbour mouth as both the salt and coal trades were increasing and the harbour was too shallow and small to cope with the higher demand. Another new entrance to the harbour was created in 1764, by blasting an opening out of solid rock – once again to facilitate the growing coal trade. This ‘Cut’ was one of the most important engineering feats of its day and can still be seen here.

There was also a glass-works here, established in 1763, as all the requirements for the manufacture of glass were on hand (sand, kelp, coal – and the improved harbour). Bottles from The Royal Hartley Bottleworks were transported all over the British Isles, and it is said that John Wesley preached from the steps of the old granary in Glassworks Square in 1744. The glass “cones” can no longer be seen, having been demolished in 1897.

The harbour with village beyond

Today the village makes a good destination for a sea-shore walk. You can explore the area around the Cut and walk along the banks of the Seaton Burn. The sandy beach is lined with dunes, great for ball games or (in warm weather) a dip in the sea. There are small fishing boats in the harbour to photograph, and several good pubs for lunch or just a refreshing pint.

I am stretching a point including it in my Northumberland blog, as in administrative terms it comes within North Tyneside council, but I am sure my readers will forgive me, if they care at all!

The Harbour and Cut

Another view of the harbour and village

Like many communities along this coast (and indeed any coast), Seaton Sluice grew up around a natural harbour (at the mouth of Seaton Burn), serving the neighbouring village of Hartley. In fact, it was originally regarded as part of that village, before development of the harbour led to the creation of a distinct community here. That development owes much to the influence of a local wealthy family, the Delavals (owners of nearby Seaton Delaval Hall, now in the hands of the National Trust). The first of them to see the potential of the small harbour here was Sir Ralph Delaval, in 1660. At that time it was known as Hartley Pans, and was as important for salt-production as for shipping, but with the growth of the coal industry the natural harbour became impractical, as its north-facing entrance was difficult to navigate and incoming tides regularly swept in silt that blocked the harbour entrance and left the harbour itself dry at low tide. Sir Ralph’s solution was to have sluice gates built. These closed against the incoming tide and dammed the flow of water into the burn. Once horse drawn ploughs had loosened the mud and silt the gates were opened and a surge of water swept into the harbour, keeping it clean and usable. It is thanks to this ingenious engineering solution that the port acquired its present-day name of Seaton Sluice.

The harbour at Seaton Sluice, looking north
(the sluice gates were installed at the point where it meets the sea, towards the top of the photo)

But despite the improvements to the harbour made by Sir Ralph Delaval, it still struggled to cope with the growing volume of shipping and also the growing size of the ships. The water was shallow and the ships could only be part-loaded in the harbour before being taken out into deeper water at its entrance to be fully loaded there by keel boats (a local north east vessel). This added to the cost and caused delays. So around the middle of the 18th century one of his successors, Sir John Hussey Delaval, decided on more improvement work. He drew up plans for a new harbour to be cut to the east, through solid rock. By 1764 work on this was completed – a major engineering achievement for its day. The new ‘cut’ (or ‘gut’ as it is locally known) was about 270 metres long, 9 metres wide and 15 metres deep. The first ship to sail out of the new harbour, on 22nd August 1764, was the ‘Warkworth’, carrying a cargo of 270 tonne of coal.

The Cut
( first image looking towards the harbour, the second to where it meets the sea)

Thanks to this new entrance the harbour thrived, and Seaton Sluice became a great centre of commerce and shipping – for its size, the busiest on the north east coast. Coal mined in the 30 odd pits around Hartley was exported from here, and a flourishing bottle works grew up, owned by the Delaval family and employing many local workers. Six glass furnaces produced, at the height of the industry here, as many as one million seven hundred and forty thousand bottles in a single year.

The Cut from the harbour

In the harbour

But the harbour, and the bottle works, relied on the coal mined at Hartley, and in January 1862 disaster struck at one of the pits there, the Hester Pit. The beam of the pit's pumping engine (used to keep out sea water as the tunnels ran out under the sea) broke and fell down the shaft. This trapped the men working below, and 204 died. This accident, which became known as the Hartley Colliery Disaster, led to a change in the law to stipulate that all collieries must have at least two independent routes to escape. This pit never reopened, and although others in the area kept working, and indeed new ones opened, Hartley had been badly hit by the disaster. Local coal mining declined, the bottle works closed (in 1870) and major improvements to harbours at Blyth to the north and on the Tyne to the south saw shipping move away from Seaton Sluice.

Today the harbour is still in use, but only by pleasure craft and a few small fishing boats. The Cut though has silted up and the route in and out of the harbour is once again along the natural flow of the burn to the north. Landlubbers can enjoy a stroll on the grassy banks either side of the water, or relax on one of the many benches to take in the views.

The Watch House and Rocky Island

When Sir John Hussey Delaval commissioned the opening of a new entrance to the harbour here, the Cut, a small piece of land became separated from the mainland (literally cut off by the Cut) and was transformed into an island, Rocky Island. This is accessible by footbridge from near the Kings Arms pub and is a great place for a short stroll. Today there are only a few buildings on the island although until the 1960s it was a thriving community, with the 1901 Census showing 16 properties here - two blocks of three, one block of six, and a cottage down by the harbour. All were owned, like most of the village, by the Delaval Estate. The Seaton Sluice community website has some great descriptions of early 20th century life on Rocky Island.

Rocky Island, formed by the Cut

It’s hard to imagine that thriving community when you visit the island today however. Just two houses remain, former coastguard cottages, plus the Watch House. The volunteer life-saving movement had started on the north east coast at nearby Tynemouth, where the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade was set up in 1864 and a Watch House opened in 1887. Meanwhile other coastal communities had followed Tynemouth’s lead and here in Seaton Sluice, in 1876, a small group of volunteers was enrolled to assist the local Coastguard, becoming the Seaton Sluice Volunteer Life-Saving Company.

The Watch House at Seaton Sluice

The Watch House

A few years later, in 1880, this Watch House was built to provide a look-out point, storage, and somewhere for the men of the brigade to congregate when the maroons fired to alert them to a ship in distress on the rocks. They would also meet here regularly for training exercises, practising firing the rockets that carried ropes onto the ships in order to rescue those stranded by means of a breeches-buoy harness. There were regular competitions between the different north east brigades, and social events such as dinners, concerts and of course drinking in the local pubs.

The Watch House is nowadays owned by Northumberland County Council and is a Grade II listed building. It is open to the public on Sunday afternoons in the summer only – unfortunately we were here on a week day so couldn’t visit but will try to do so some time in the future.

Be careful at the cliff edge

Warning sign by the steps

If taking a walk on Rocky Island you need to take some care, as the low cliffs are not fenced in places and are crumbling away. It used to be possible to walk right around the perimeter but on our most recent visit (August 2016) part of the footpath on the north side was fenced off and warning signs posted, at a spot where there had been some slippage of the cliffs into the sea. We had to retrace our steps and take the path across the centre of the island instead.

You also need to take care if you want to explore the rocks that give the island its name. A flight of stone steps leads down on the northern side but both these and the rocks themselves are covered at high tide and slippery with seaweed when the waters recede. Do explore, by all means, but watch your step and be especially careful if you have children with you – in fact, if you have small children I would recommend avoiding this area and heading instead for the sandy beach and dunes just to the north.

Cliff view, and rocks below

The King's Arms

The King's Arms

The Kings Arms is nicely situated near the Cut, and with a few tables on the grassy area at its front. It is a traditional pub dating back to the late 18th century. It prides itself on offering quality beers and good food in a cosy atmosphere – with no TV sports, no fruit machines, no music. In winter there are apparently log fires, but when we visited recently on a pleasant August day the fire places were burning only candles which gave a nice effect. It’s a cosy spot in which to enjoy one of this coast’s best dishes, traditional fish and chips, but there are plenty of other choices too as well as a good selection of real ales.

Shanti Arts

Shanti Arts

Tucked behind the Kings Arms pub is a real treasure trove for anyone in search of the quirky or eccentric. A local man, Tom Newstead, has returned to Seaton Sluice after travelling the world and set up a wood-carving studio in an old shed. His creations may not be to everyone’s taste but in the right setting (out of doors, informal) they have a certain appeal. Indeed, Tom’s creations are dotted all over this part of Seaton Sluice so do keep your eyes open – have another, closer, look at my photo of the Cut above and you should spot one!

Tom at work

On a recent visit to Seaton Sluice we were fortunate enough to meet Tom who was at work just outside his shed, and enjoyed chatting with him for a while. An interesting man, he was born here in Seaton Sluice and trained as a boat builder, before joining the Merchant Navy as a carpenter. The enabled him to travel the world, finding inspiration for his art, and after leaving the navy he continued to travel, working in various places – building boats in Bermuda, teaching yoga in India.

Examples of Tom's work

Back home he took up violin lessons and, unable to pay his teacher, instead made him a violin and case from silver birch wood. In doing this he rediscovered his love of art and now spends his time here carving his idiosyncratic creations. He welcomed us to take photos and in return we put a donation into the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) that sat in one corner. Do check out Tom’s studio (Shanti Arts) and say hi if he’s around.

Tom's shed/studio

The beach

Blyth from Seaton Sluice

To the north of the harbour in Seaton Sluice a long sandy beach stretches away towards the next town on the coast, Blyth. Typical of many in Northumberland, the beach is of soft yellow sand and is fringed by sand dunes. Even though you aren’t far from bustling Newcastle and the power station of Blyth (you can see the wind turbines clearly – see photo), you still get some sense of being away from it all, especially if you visit on a bracing day in winter – the twenty-year-old photos below are from a December trip to the coast! Even in summer the North Sea will seem chilly to all but the hardiest swimmers, but it’s fine for small children to paddle in and the sands are perfect for family fun.

On the dunes in winter

The beach seen from the rocks

Posted by ToonSarah 02:26 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged beaches art boats harbour coast history views village pubs seas Comments (6)

Quintessential English villages

Ford and Etal

Northumberland’s only thatched roof pub, Etal

Nestled in the valley of the River Till in rural Northumberland, only a few miles from the border with Scotland, are two quintessential English villages. Ford was built as a model village by Lady Louisa Waterford while neighbouring Etal is a pretty village with Northumberland’s only thatched roof pub.

There is plenty in these few small miles to keep you occupied for several days – two ancient castles (though only one open to the public), rides on a light-gauge railway, an old corn mill, nature reserves and even (though we haven’t yet been there) a prehistoric stone circle.

Ford model village

Typical Ford houses

There have been people living in Ford since the time of the Norman Conquest and probably long before – Bronze Age carvings near here suggest that there may have been a settlement here even back in those days. But the village as we see it today is the brainchild of one woman, Lady Louisa Waterford, the widow of the 3rd Marquis of Beresford who owned the Ford Estate. Lady Waterford was committed to the welfare of the tenants on the estate. She rebuilt the village and also built a new school (which today is known as Lady Waterford Hall – see below).

Typical Ford houses

The houses have a pleasant uniformity although in some ways they look more suburban than rural, perhaps because of that same uniformity. Certainly when built they must have been far pleasanter and more salubrious to live in than the run-down cottages and hovels that were here before. Today many of the houses are still occupied by workers on the estate, and the village also has a few tourist-focused shops such as a second-hand bookshop and an antique shop in the old forge.

The Ford Estate was bought by the Joicey family in 1907. The same family purchased Etal a year later and thus the joint estate of Ford and Etal came into being. The Joicey family still own all of this area today.

Lady Waterford Hall

Mural in Lady Waterford Hall

When Lady Louisa Waterford remodelled Ford village to improve the lives of workers on the estate, she also had a new school built for their children to attend. That school, opened in 1860, is now the village hall and is known as Lady Waterford Hall in her honour. The village hall in most villages would not be on the tourist route, but this one is exceptional because of the legacy Lady Louisa left inside. A talented artist who was associated with John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphelite movement, she spent 21 years decorating the interior walls with stunning murals depicting Bible scenes as a teaching aid for the pupils.


More of the murals

In Lady Waterford Hall

Many of the figures who appear in these were modelled on local people and displays in the hall point these out. Some of her other works and her sketchbooks are also on display but it is the murals that are her most impressive legacy, and reason alone to come to Ford.

Another mural, and the exterior of the hall

Waterford Memorial Fountain

The Waterford Memorial Fountain

At the western end of the village street stands this ornamental fountain, erected by Lady Louisa Waterford in the autumn of 1864. It consists of a granite column rising from a stone basin. At the top of the column is the figure of an angel with a down-turned sword and a shield. This angel is almost certainly the Archangel Michael, to whom the village church is dedicated. It faces west towards Ford Castle, its back to the village.

The fountain is a memorial to her husband, the third Marquis of Waterford, who died in a hunting accident in 1859. On the west face of the base of the column is an inscription to him:

‘This fountain is placed by
Louisa Marchioness of Waterford,
in grateful and affectionate remembrance of her husband,
3rd Marquis of Waterford K.P.; born April 26th, 1811; died March 29th, 1859’

On the north and south faces are inscribed quotations from the Bible. The ones on the south side are clearly linked to the idea of the fountain:

‘“With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.”
Isaiah Chap.3, Verse 3
“Drink ye, drink abundantly, O beloved”
Song of Solomon Chap. V, Verse 1’

While on the north side (although illegible now because of age and lichen) is a quotation from the passage Lady Waterford is said to have been reading with her husband on the morning of his death:

'Now Absalom in his life time had taken and reared up for himself a pillar, which is in the king's dale: for he said, I have no son to keep my name in remembrance: and he called the pillar after his own name: and it is called unto this day, Absalom's place.’

Ford Church and Castle

The church with castle beyond

Ford's two oldest buildings, situated on the outskirts of the village, are Ford Castle and the Church of St. Michael and all Angels. Parts of each date back to the 12th century. As we were with my elderly mother-in-law and needed to minimise walking we didn’t visit either, but we did stop to get some photos as they looked lovely on this beautiful July day.

The castle has been largely rebuilt since its 12th century origins, several times – by Sir John Hussey Delaval between 1761 and 1764 and by Lady Louisa Waterford between 1861 and 1863. It must have been in need of this regular attention as being so close to the Scottish border made it vulnerable to frequent attacks. Its most significant claim to fame is that King James IV of Scotland spent his last night here before his fatal battle on nearby Flodden Field in 1513.

During WW2 the castle was used by the Red Cross as a convalescent hospital. It is now used as a residential centre for school trips, and for weddings and conferences, so it’s not possible to go inside, but you can get reasonably close if you want to get some photos.

View from the church's graveyard

The parish church, dedicated to St. Michael was originally built in the 13th century. The west wall and parts of the south aisle are part of that original structure but most of the building dates from 1853 when it was remodelled by the well-known Newcastle architect John Dobson (who was responsible for that city’s Central Station among many other projects). It is a Grade II listed building. Lady Waterford is buried in the churchyard and there is apparently an unusual grave slab with bagpipes on it by the west wall close to the entrance door. As I said, we didn’t go close enough to see it properly, but that sounds worth hunting for.

Heatherslaw Light Railway

A view from the train

A ride on this little train will be the highlight of a visit to this area for children I am sure, and is good fun whatever your age, as well as being a relaxing way to enjoy the pretty countryside. It runs from Heatherslaw to Etal and back, a distance of 6.4 kilometres. The journey there and back takes 50 minutes, or you can alight in Etal to explore the village and castle before returning later, which is what we did.

Heatherslaw Light Railway - arriving in Heatherslaw, and riding the train

This 15 inch gauge railway is the most northerly steam railway in England. It has two steam locomotives, ‘Bunty’ and ‘Lady Augusta’, and one diesel, ‘Binky’. The coaches are all covered, and some have open sides while others are glazed. The route follows the River Till and winds through its meadows, with views largely of agricultural land. In Etal the locomotive is detached, turned around on a turntable and reattached to what was the rear of the train for the journey back to Heatherslaw – another fun thing for the kids to watch!

The turntable at Etal

Heatherslaw station is built on the site of the old Ford and Etal sawmill which burned down in the mid 1980s. The railway has been operating here since 1989, the vision of one railway enthusiast, Neville Smith, who achieved his ambition to create his own 15 inch gauge passenger carrying railway in partnership with the late Lord Joicey who had been looking for just such a project to enhance tourism on Ford and Etal Estates. Today it is operated by Neville’s son Paul and has become one of the main attractions in the area.


Slate-roofed cottages and pub sign, Etal

In contrast to the stone of Ford’s houses, in Etal most buildings are whitewashed. Several of the cottages are thatched, the others have the more typical Northumbrian slate roofs. The village pub, the Black Bull, claims to the only thatched pub in the county (see photo at the top of the page). There is also a small tea room, but the main reason to come here is Etal Castle.


Etal Castle

This castle was first built as a manor house by the Manners family in the late 12th century, and fortified by Robert Manners in the mid 14th century, creating a castle to serve as a defence against Scottish raiders. It fell to King James IV of Scotland's invading army in 1513 on their way to defeat at nearby Flodden, although it had already by this time been abandoned as a residence.

Today it is largely in ruins, although the chapel houses an award-winning exhibition about the Battle of Flodden and Anglo-Scottish warfare. We didn’t visit this but were content instead to wander round the ruins for a while, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the late afternoon sunlight on these old stones.

Etal Castle

Although sleepy today (and never large) Etal was in the past a more substantial village, home to a number of pitmen and to businesses such as a carter, blacksmith, grocer, post office, dress maker, stone mason, butcher, joiner and cartwright. By the end of the 19th century there was a ferry across the River Till, operated by a Mary Sutherland, and a mixed Infants school in the village. Today its main focus is tourism, but not on a large scale, and a few minutes will suffice for a stroll along its main street – unless of course you are tempted into the tearoom or pub!


This page, like most of my Northumberland pages, is based on material I wrote on Virtual Tourist. Usually I would write about places I visited as soon as I could after the trip, but this one was an exception. At the end of our day spent exploring these two villages, things took a tragic turn. My lovely mother-in-law Teresa, who accompanied us, was taken ill in the night, rushed to hospital and never recovered. We lost her six weeks later.

For a while all memories of what had been a wonderful summer’s day were tainted by those of how it had ended, and it took me three years to feel able to write about our day out on VT. When I did, that page was dedicated to Teresa, a dedication I am happy to repeat here. Not all women get on with their mother-in-law, but I struck lucky. Teresa welcomed me into the family with open arms 38 years ago, treating me as the daughter she never had, and for that I will always be grateful.

Chris and Teresa at a coffee stop on the way to Ford

Posted by ToonSarah 03:36 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged art people trains castles monument history church village houses Comments (13)

Is it art or is it nature?


Northumberlandia - lake around the sculpture

At first glance the land formations of this small country park look quite natural, if a little manicured – some small hillocks with ponds at their base. They are anything but, however! This is not nature, but art – art on a very large scale.

Northumberlandia, also known as the ‘Lady of the North’, is in fact a sculpture in earth, created from the waste produced by open cast mining in this area. It depicts a woman, lying on her back, about a quarter of a mile from head to toe. You can only really appreciate that this is the case by looking at aerial photos, but you do get some sense of it as you walk the many footpaths that wind between and across her features.

Northumberlandia - view down the body from the head

View from left arm

Looking up her nose!

Northumberlandia is the work of American artist Charles Jencks who specialises in these landform sculptures (there are several more in Scotland, for instance). She was born when the Banks Group mining company applied in 2004 to dig for coal on land belonging to Blagdon Estates. They and the estate owners recognised that, while the mining would scar the local landscape, there was also an opportunity to enhance it. Part of the land next to the planned mine was donated by Blagdon Estates and the project jointly funded by them and the mining company. This has resulted in the art form being developed alongside the mining operation although it is intended to remain here long after the mine will have been exhausted and work ceased.

Work began in 2010, with 1.5 million tonnes of surplus soil and clay being transported from the mine to the site and carefully shaped according to Jencks’ design. Once the major landscape works were complete the sculpture was planted, transforming it into a living landscape. Her face, paths and viewing platforms were constructed with a hard stone surface with every feature surveyed and checked against the carefully designed plans.

People on her face

Chris on one of his favourite two mounds!

The result is a sculpture that is 100 feet high and a quarter of a mile long. Four miles of footpaths wind across the site, some around the base of the features and others allowing you to climb to the high points of her face, knees – and yes, points between these! These vary in steepness – a map at the site helpfully categorises them as level, moderate or steep. From the top of the features you get good views of the mining work still in progress nearby (best from the face) and of the surrounding area, including distant views of Newcastle city centre and the local shrine to football, St James’ Park!

View towards Newcastle

View of opencast mining

Bulrush by the lake

The park is now administered jointly by the Land Trust, who look after the open spaces and the art work itself, and the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, who are responsible for the visitor centre and café. The intention is not to keep it ‘groomed’ but to let nature takes its course, so the forms will evolve over time.

Bulrushes by the lake

Posted by ToonSarah 06:43 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged landscapes art views sculpture Comments (12)

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