Set within a spectacular incised valley, Holywell Dene is the only area of ancient semi-natural woodland remaining within North Tyneside. Straddling North Tyneside Council’s boundary into Blyth, the Dene is jointly managed with Blyth Valley Borough Council.
The first reference to Holywell Dene occurs in 800 AD, when it was known as Merkel Dene and established as part of the Manor of Hartley.
It was shortly after 1066 that Holywell Dene was conferred to Hubert de Laval, who came to Britain with the army of William the Conqueror. In 1219 the Manor of Hartley was conferred to Gilbert de Laval and became part of the Delaval Estate, as it is today.
It is thought that the earliest settlement in the Dene was called Goulden’s Hole and dated from Saxon times. At the time of the first census in 1841 this small settlement consisted of ten houses with 53 residents but it had been abandoned by 1861.
In 1628 the Delaval Estate granted the first lease for a water and wind mill to grind corn, both of which operated for around 150 years. The water mill buildings remained occupied until 1870 and the two houses associated with the windmill were in occupation until around 1960. In 1760 the Estate granted a new lease for a water and windmill but only the former Hartley Mill was situated in the Dene. It operated until about 1920 and the linked house was occupied until 1970.
Coal had been dug here since earliest times and it is recorded that around 1600, Ralph Delaval began to lease land to wealthy coal mining entrepreneurs. A wooden railed wagonway was built to transport the coal to Seaton Sluice harbour for export, thereby using many of the oak trees that once grew in the Dene.
In 1760, there were six occupied houses in the Dene associated with mining, and they remained so for a further 150 years. In 1841 they were home to 32 people, with one family making and selling boots and shoes.
The ‘ridge and furrow’ fields adjacent to Holywell Dene are evident to this day, and indicate that families living in the Dene during the Middle Ages were farming. From 1574 farms developed and became known as Crowhall Farm, Hartley West Farm, Grove Farm and Brier Dene Farm. By 1860 Grove Farm ceased, although the buildings were occupied until the 1930s. In 1911, records indicate there were still 15 people in residence.
It is interesting to note that in 1841, the Holywell Dene area was home to a total of 198 people, and even as late as 1911 a total of 77 residents were recorded there.
Holywell Dene now stretches from the village of Seghill to the west, passes close to Holywell Village and Old Hartley and terminates at Seaton Sluice in the east, a distance of almost four miles. It is a steep sided ancient semi-natural woodland traversed by a small river called the Seaton Burn. Between Old Hartley and Seaton Sluice, the valley gradually widens out into a tidal flood plain before the river enters the sea.
Much of the Dene remains part of the Delaval Estate, designated as a Local Nature Reserve since 2003.
by Charlie Steel © 2014
Further reading for many of Charlie’s articles can be found in his books: ‘Monkseaton Village’ (Vol. 1 & 2), North Shields Public Houses, Inns & Taverns’ (Part 1 & 2) and ‘Tynemouth Remembered’ all published by Summerhill Books.