Branch Line

19th. July, 2021

Abandoned, reclaimed, renamed, the path I’m walking on was, until relatively recently, the Riverside Branch Line servicing industry below Byker and Walker, on the River Tyne. The passenger service was withdrawn in 1973, goods trains stopped in 1988. I walk a path that retains traces of industry and its decline on the Tyne.
A recent Newcastle City Council report on contaminated former industrial land states succinctly, The riverside industries of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly the Tyneside Chemical industry, were overlain by shipyards, repair yards and engineering works which themselves have now been superseded by service industries.
A legacy we’re still dealing with in all sorts of ways.

In the intervening years Alder, Larch, Oak, Sycamore, Whitebeam, have colonised, within and outside the original railway boundary wall, densely in places.
Collared Doves on the path, blackbirds, Dunnock, two wood pigeons resting on the branch of a Swedish Whitebeam. I can hear, rather than see, a Chaffinch. But I won’t stop, the canopy is dense here.
Cross the old railway bridge over Walker Road and the path opens out. Bramble and bindweed, Rosebay Willow herb and Cleavers dominate, but as the path winds its way down towards Glasshouse Street, Bramble and Briar Rose thin out a little. White Campion on the verge, Wild Carrot and Yarrow, Common Knapweed and Creeping Thistle, Tufted Vetch and Lady’s Bedstraw compete for space on the banks. Oxeye Daisy is still flowering.

Depending on the time of day the path is often quiet, sometimes cyclists pass, dog walkers, runners, but often as not it’s a solitary slow walk. Time to observe, indulge a developing interest in botany, wonder at the speed with which plants colonise even contaminated land, and with that a curiosity about the recent industrial past; it sometimes feels as though I’m walking with ghosts.

Some Problems with Water

We must have had a month’s rain at the beginning of last week. It’s been warm and sunny today, with one intense shower that didn’t last long. The forecast’s for unsettled weather for a few more days, which is wonderful for the allotment after such a dry Spring.

Water is precious. There is no mains supply here. No hoses snaking along the main path, no grumblings or muttering about other people hogging the taps. Still, we have the Ouseburn flowing along by the edge of the site, down towards the River Tyne, there for when we’ve exhausted rain water collected over winter. This year the tank and barrels have emptied sooner than expected.

The walk isn’t such a problem; we have access to running water after all, and we learn the value of water in a very physical way, in the time and energy expended carrying buckets. Three trips, collecting twelve buckets. Ten is enough to fill the metal dustbin, leaving two to top up as we feed thirsty plants. Twenty four buckets fills our blue barrel. The main water tank will be left to collect water as and when it rains.

Open composting and collecting seaweed, to cover beds that don’t have over wintering plants, has improved the soil but it’s still dry, powdery in places. Silt on top of clay. It’ll take longer than the year we’ve been on the current plot to significantly improve soil structure.

Still, we have the river, but that presents its own hazards. Images of a foaming Ouseburn appeared on social media, and in the local press, during the middle of April, with more sightings towards the end of the month. At the beginning of May a major incident was declared by the Enviroment Agency. The results of analysis haven’t been made public, but the cause was: it entered the Ouseburn through surface water drainage. Someone had poured something noxious down the drain. Notices appeared in Jesmond Dene telling people not to enter the water, or allow their dogs to play in the river.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. In October 2011 the Ouseburn was polluted by what the Environment Agency said could have been industrial detergents. The source was traced to a pipe near Salters Bridge.
In 2014 there were reports of the river turning, a murky green colour. […] Northumbrian Water used a vacuum tank to remove a pollutant that had been dumped into a sewer.
These incidents are visually dramatic, they attract the attention of social media, television, local newspapers. They give us cause for concern in a very direct physical way. They might also been seen as local incidents, soon forgotten, until the next time.

Research conducted in 1995describes the area the Ouseburn runs through as a part-urban and part rural catchment of varied land-use and includes a tributary which drains the Newcastle International Airport. The tributary contributes only 3–5% of the river’s average flow, yet it had a disproportionately adverse impact upon the river. […] linked to the airport’s winter application of urea salt de-icers. […] During cold weather, higher levels of ammonia were recorded in the tributary and downstream, and concentrations peaked during runoff events.
A water quality survey published in 2012 which focused on pollution in the Ouseburn, particularly faecal contamination, concluded that, contamination levels are unacceptable but generally pollution is heavily localised. […] The pollution faced by the Ouseburn is believed to be under threat by further urbanisation in combination with an ever-changing climate in the future. There is a risk that identified under-performing infrastructure will become overwhelmed and deteriorate further. Jesmond Dene, not far from our allotment site, was an area of particular interest, because of the implications of upstream pollution. While the Dene was, and is, popular with children bathing during the summer months, the survey pointed out that, The EA does not recognise it as a bathing water and the relevant standards are not enforced. Bathing waters are monitored weekly by the agency to detect the presence of pollution from sewage or livestock. Precisely those pollutants identified as causes for concern in the report.

These are not just local problems, the result of our industrial history. The latest data published by the Environment Agency last autumn (2020) shows that all English water bodies failed to meet pollution tests due to sewage discharges as well as agricultural and industrial chemicals entering the water system. We are part of a much larger problem, in need of local solutions.

We’re fine at the moment. The torrential rain during the early part of last week has thoroughly soaked the soil, the barrel and bin are full, and the main tank has rain water in it, but the ground will soon dry, and plants are thirsty. We’ll have to resume water collection soon, as we have no alternative at the moment. And we water the plants sparingly anyway.

Spring Ground

A Wren is busy amongst the wood chip on one of the paths. It’s a beautiful little bird, constantly moving, watching, feeding, taking flight, then returning to feed again. It seems to live it’s life at a frantic pace. In the introduction to The Oxford Book of British Bird Names, W. B. Lockwood states that, the vast majority of our bird names are folk names, arising anonymously. He locates the origins of Wren’s name in the older Germanic languages, stating that, the basic sense is little tail, a reference to the perky, cocked-up tail, unique among our birds and thus calculated to inspire a name. Instantly recognisable, the tail tells the bird. It disappears into the Hebe growing on the border of the plot next to ours.

We’ve collected the apple trees together, and now have an orchard. They’d been given temporary homes while we set about reorganising the plot, and now they’ve a permanent home. The Cox Self Fertile, Worcestershire Russett, Golden Reinette, and Green Costard we brought with us from Brighton. The Lord Derby, Jupiter, and Blenheim Orange, we grafted at a workshop in Whitley Bay three years ago. All are doing well. It’s a young orchard and one we’re excited, and anxious, to watch grow. 

We’re slowly reorganising the plot. Fruit & flowers on one side, vegetables on the other, although there’s always a mingling. Courgettes will be planted near the cherry tree, wigwams for beans between the Apple trees. Herbs planted in one bed will spill over into others. They already have, marjoram and oregano have been planted around the apple trees. One of our neighbours has given us clumps of chives, some of which are to be used, but we’ll also let the chives flower, food for bees.

An old strawberry bed is now slowly becoming a herb bed. Motherwort, sage, chives, camomile, mint and lemon balm have been planted so far. Oregano and Marjoram too, but then they’re growing all over the plot so it’s more a case of trying to contain them in particular places. Bay cuttings are now in the ground, temporarily, until their roots have developed and then we’ll need to find them a permanent home. Elecampane is beginning to poke through on the border of the bed. Mullein and artichoke might have found permanent homes, but let’s see how they grow and then decide during the autumn. The artichoke was left for the bees last year, and will be left to flower this year.

So this is our allotment, so far. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we’re slowly changing, rearranging beds, establishing a structure that will eventually make sense to us.

And today the first earlies are in the ground, planted in two new beds that will eventually be contained in a poly tunnel, but that’s for later in the year when we can afford one. 

Walking on the Downs

We’ve been spring cleaning and found this post languishing in draft form, forgotten in the move back to Newcastle.
It was towards the end of september, 2017. A morning walk on the Downs above Moulsecoomb and Bevendean, with the local Labour Party Environment Group. Political polemic collided with observation; downland flowers, migrating birds, land access and ownership. Walking on the edge of the city across open country, rarely out of sight, or sound, of the A27.

At the time we’d been working on a pond on the allotment, I’d been posting about dew ponds and referenced Edward Martin. In Life in a Sussex Windmill (1920) he describes summers, from 1908 -1910, when he lived in the New Mill at Clayton (Jack, of the Jack and Jill windmills) while he conducted research into the formation of dew ponds. The book is alive to a sense of place; to weather; to the experience of walking an open downland.
In a second book, Sussex Geology (1932), he describes a more confined landscape. The war followed four years after I ceased to occupy the mill-the war and all that it entailed. With the encouragement given to farmers to rear cattle and sheep the Downs became enclosed on all hands. Wire fences stretched for mile after mile and public access […] was cut off. Trackways that were left open where there were undoubted rights-of-way were narrowed almost to an inconvenient extent. […] For all that there are and always have been lengthy tracks over the Downs which are undoubtedly rights-of-way and it is important that these be constantly patrolled and kept open.

The walk ended on Bevendean Down, overlooking the estate where we lived.

It was easy to pick up tracks, we were living on the Downs. One regular route was along Drove Avenue until it joins the South Downs Way, sometimes leaving the track to wander through Castle Hill nature reserve and then towards Kingston, picking up the long distance path again. During all the time we lived in Brighton the track over Newmarket Hill was open downland. The last time I walked there two men were sinking posts, putting up barbed wire fencing. Why? ‘For the sheep’. I wondered where the sheep might be. Hiding? There was little evidence of their presence in any direction. Wondered if this was to confine sheep, or restrict walkers and cyclists. The younger of the two grinned, ‘Maybe. Think it’s a bit of both’.
Old paths made narrow by new barbed wire. 

After the walk, home for a cup of tea, and then off to the beach at Saltdean to collect seaweed. Some activities are difficult to stop. We were leaving the allotment, and Brighton, but thought the next occupants might appreciate the gesture.

It’s curious to be reminded that this was one of our last walks on the Downs.

26. 02. 21

This is where the beach ends, the sea wall begins, and carries on around Curry’s Point to end at a ramp to the causeway across to St. Mary’s (Bates) Island.
The lower steps from the beach are hidden under seaweed, my concerns last night unfounded. There seems to be more seaweed this morning, but perhaps it’s only piled higher against the sea wall, stacked up by the early morning tide.
A poodle, following it’s owner, launches itself from the lower step onto the seaweed. Rolling on its back, this action is repeated several times before it responds to calls from its owner. 
The beach is busy with dog walkers, people strolling, but mainly dog walkers. I can’t imagine a time, from first light until after sunset when there wouldn’t be dogs and their humans on this beach. It’s a mild sunny morning and the tide is out. Seems reason enough to walk on a sandy beach. 
We usually collect seaweed together but today it’s just me, and I collected six large garden sacks, mainly the finer, feathery algae; Green Hairweed, Hen Pen, Maiden Hair, and Bootlace Weed, were among the handfuls I stuffed into bin bags. And there was Oarweed too, the holdfasts will be cut up and go into the compost bins.
People are often curious about what we’re doing; is it edible, “Is that your dinner?” And when they’re told it’s for the allotment, how do we wash it? We don’t. Rain and early spring temperatures will sort the algae out. But not beyond, we made that mistake once. Mulched our potatoes one year and the seaweed dried to a solid, brittle crust, under which the potatoes tried to grow.
The tides turned, gently edging up the beach, making its way around and over rocks. Red shank and Oyster Catcher feed among the rock pools. Sanderling scurry along the water edge, drilling into sand, moving on. Something disturbs them, they’re in the air shimmering, turning, returning to where they were feeding. Busy again they suddenly take fright, flight and return. And yet, I can walk to within a few metres of where they’re feeding and not disturb them.
Tomorrow we’ll start to move the Apple trees.

25. 02. 21

Waves breaking, dogs barking, sticks stones and balls thrown. A frantic game played against the incoming waves. But the dogs are having a wonderful time.
Sanderling and Turnstone feed amongst seaweed heaped at the north end of the beach. On my way back along the cliff top path this evening its good to see that the seaweed hasn’t been washed out to sea again by the retreating tide. With any luck the drift will still be deep tomorrow morning. Low tide is at 9am. and mornings are always a good time to be on the beach. The problem is that the 2:49am high tide is 4.6m., high enough to wash over and disperse at least some of the seaweed lying on the shore this evening.
Let’s see. I’ll find out tomorrow morning.
We’re moving apple trees this weekend and will use whatever seaweed I can gather as mulch. We’d intended to do this a couple of weeks ago, but we’ve been delayed by snow and freezing weather.

Bird Food

Snow turns to slush on the pavements, then freezes. Still lying crisp and glistening beneath the trees in the park, but the main paths are just as treacherous. Following a track through the trees around the edge of the park I disturbed a flock of Redwing rummaging in leaf litter. They scattered, settling further off among the trees.
This has become a regular route to the allotment, sometimes just to fill the bird feeders. I’m sure I’ll find the fat ball feeders we’ve hung from the cherry tree, empty. I think the Magpies will have seen to that. There were three on the cherry tree a couple of days ago.
It was busy today. Three Long-tailed Tits chased each other through the bare branches of the sycamores at the back of the allotment. Blue Tits on the Apple tree, on the Holly. Gone, then back again. A Dunnock perching on a post on the next door plot, Robin on the Hawthorn, Wood Pigeons clattering through the trees. And the Magpies, heard rather than seen, at least for the moment.
There were still the remnants of two fat balls in the feeder on the Apple tree, the seed feeder was quite full. The two on the cherry tree empty.
Having replenished the fat ball and seed feeders, I stood quietly by the shed, but there was no need. Dunnock and Blue Tits had barely waited for me to finish before they were at the fat balls. The Long Tailed Tits were at the other feeders soon enough too. Robin hovered, landed on one fat ball feeder, dropped to the ground below to rummage through the fallen seeds. The Magpies haven’t visited, yet. At least not before I leave.
Following the same path through the park home, I disturbed the Redwings again.

Winter Days

…cloudy and wet, cold winds…continued outbreaks of rain, some heavy…further outbreaks persisting…turning increasingly to snow…

Rain, sleet and snow yesterday, rain today, and the forecast isn’t any better for the next few days. Wood smoke drifts across the path bordering the allotment site. Someone has a burner lit, made their shed cosy on a day like this.
Two long tailed tits on the bird feeders, a wren disappears over the fence bordering the plot. But no Robin, at least not visible at the moment. Often it’ll be on a branch of the old hawthorn tree on next door’s plot. We’ll hear Robin before we see it.
Today is no different. It appears, perches on the end of a branch singing.
We’ve watched each other from its first appearance in early autumn, just a small bird, merging with the soil. But definitely Robin, in the way it’s watched and waited, at first from a safe distance, but becoming bolder. Followed while I weeded, turned over soil, prepared areas to make beds. Waited until I moved away before rummaging in turned earth. At times I turned over patches of soil just to give it somewhere to feed. We’ve watched it grow, it’s ruddy breast feathers develop.
The bib seems to glow in this grey light.

The feeders need filling. A Dunnock, a couple of Blue Tits, and a Great Tit are hoovering up scattered seeds. Robin is busy too.

We have a small shed, which came with the plot. Its dry, but needs reproofing in the spring. We need to look for a larger shed and know there’s one waiting, no doubt in need of some attention. We just have to be patient and keep looking. There’s one waiting. And it will be large enough to install a wood burner, hopefully by next winter.

Our new plot

The first plot we took over on this site was tiny, but welcome ground for the plants and apple trees we’d brought with us. And just as important, space to get used to working different soil. Silt on top of clay rather than the chalk we’d been used to in Sussex. Claggy during the winter, a dry powdery crust in the summer. Different soil, same problems. We still need to collect seaweed and incorporate humus, build soil structure. And we have to work within a shorter growing season too. 

Seaweed isn’t generally a problem, the detritus washed ashore is. We had regular visits to the north end of Whitley Bay beach, near the lighthouse. There was usually enough seaweed at that end of the beach, and often too much waste washed in with it. It was sometimes a case of one bin bag for seaweed another for the detritus.

We’ve now transferred to a decent sized plot, and have begun to shape it, make it ours. It was a bit neglected, we’ve been weeding out couch grass and dandelion, clearing paths. Grubbing up old Gooseberry and Currant bushes. Where branches had dropped, touched the ground and rooted, a dense thicket had formed bearing very little fruit. All cleared now, and the area divided and planted out.

Beyond the boundary fence on one side of the site is an open area bordered by trees. Originally a council nursery, successive government cut backs have left the area neglected, the trees in poor condition. High autumn winds shattered a sycamore, which narrowly missed the shed, but destroyed a plum tree. That’s been grubbed up too. 

As we turn soil, dig out weeds, rearrange beds, we uncover fragments, reminders of other occupants. A doll’s head, rusted wrench, disintegrating carpet, an older practice frowned on now for the chemicals and pollutants that leach into the soil. And worked stone, slate paving, possibly remnants of the old village, near this site, that was eventually demolished in the 1960s. 

So this is our new plot, one to grow into, make ours. And we’re also planting hedging originally grown from seed we had collected during walks on the South Downs.