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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)

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