Tag Archives: Northumberland

Rocking the region’s history

DAVID SIMPSON investigates, in a hopefully not-too-technical way, how geology has influenced our region’s history and heritage in profound and spectacular ways.

Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh Castle. sits upon a rocky outcrop of the Great Whin Sill © David Simpson 2018

GEOLOGY can sometimes seem a bit of a dry subject but it’s very much a part of our history and in the North East has had a profound impact in shaping our history, heritage and economic development.

This impact upon the landscape and history of North East England is apparent in so many ways. Many of the major themes of our history: industrial, border history, maritime links and several of the region’s most visually spectacular heritage sites have all been shaped by our region’s geological legacy.

Milecastle 39 Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall on the Great Whin Sill. Photo © 2018 David Simpson

Coal

Coal of course is the most obvious geological factor to have shaped our history but how many of us have heard the term ‘Carboniferous Westphalian Rocks’? Very few, I would guess, yet these rocks, more commonly known by geologists in our region as the ‘coal measures’ stretch from the Druridge Bay area of Northumberland to just north of Hartlepool.

From the exploitation of the natural resource of coal within these rocks, wealth, growth and cultural identities were created within our region. Across the North East, coal accounted for the emergence of countless colliery villages and paid for the construction of mansions and stately homes for wealthy coal owners. Ports such as Newcastle, Blyth, Shields, Seaham and Sunderland and even ports outside the coalfield like Hartlepool ultimately owed their growth and prosperity to the geological processes that created coal.

The coal deposits in those Westphalian rocks spurred on the birth of the railways in our region which had such a profound impact on the emergence of our modern world, especially when coupled with the iron stone deposits of Consett and the Cleveland Hills which helped the region develop into a major centre for steelmaking and engineering.

Coal in our region was of course created from the sediments formed by dead plant matter in the Carboniferous period around 310 million years ago. Those deposits came about when much of what was now England formed a vast marine delta within which plant matter originating in the Caledonian land mass to the north was deposited in our region over vast swathes of time.

The overlaying of new rocks and strata occurred over unimaginable epochs of time under enormous physical pressures and intense heat that compressed the decayed plant matter into coal over millions of years. Later, in some areas subsequent erosion exposed the coal near the surface and here it was first exploited by man. This became particularly important in the vicinity of the Tyne from medieval times where the river became an important means of transporting coal for shipment by sea, gradually creating a significant maritime trade.

North East geology. A simplified map
North East geology. A simplified map © David Simpson 2020

Magnesian Limestone Country

The collieries, of which there were once hundreds, have now gone but in recent memory we may think of the colliery landscape of Billy Elliot, a film set in east Durham.  This is an area which geologically encompasses Sunderland and might be considered as once being the predominant area of coal mining in the North East. In fact this area, where the coal measures stretch far out to sea, was one of the last areas of our region to be exploited for its coal.

Until the 1820s there was some doubt that coal even existed in eastern Durham as this is a landscape with a surface dominated by a very deep layer of Permian rock called Magnesian Limestone (sometimes broadly known as ‘Dolomite’) which overlays the coal to considerable depth.

The Magnesian Limestone was deposited during the hot, Sahara-like climate of the Permian age some 250 million years ago when the area lay on the margins of the shallow ‘Zechstein Sea’ that covered much of what is now Europe. When sea levels began to rise, the desert sands were inundated and overlain with calcium magnesium carbonates which included fossilized coral reefs that together formed the Magnesian Limestone over eons of time. Interestingly, quarrying at Sherburn Hill near Durham has exposed the sands of the original desert that was overlain by the magnesian limestone.

 A view of Newcastle and the distant Cheviot Hills from Sherburn Hill in County Durham
Telephoto view looking towards Newcastle and the distant Cheviot Hills from Sherburn Hill in County Durham ©David Simpson 2020

There is a limited outcrop of Magnesian Limestone rock just north of the Tyne, forming the cliffs at Tynemouth but in the main this creamy coloured rock is a south of the Tyne phenomenon, stretching down the coast from South Shields all the way to Hartlepool. It stretches a little way inland too. Take a glance at a satellite map and you will see vast quarries south and east of Durham City which look at first glance like enormous sandpits in the proximity of West Cornforth, Kelloe, Quarrington Hill and Sherburn Hill. On closer inspection they resemble broad moonscapes where trucks and diggers look like tiny toys.

Blast Beach, Seaham
Blast Beach on the Durham coast at Seaham Photo © David Simpson 2018

There are signs of this rock being quarried at Marsden near South Shields too and at Fulwell near Sunderland though the second of these is now greened over and forms a nature reserve. In fact the grasslands associated with this particular rock often attract unusual and sometimes unique fauna and flora, most notably in the form of butterflies. It is one of the prime reasons that East Durham is designated a ‘heritage coast’.

The coastal cliffs along the shore from Tyne to Tees are formed by the rolling magnesian limestone hills of what is called the East Durham Escarpment meeting the sea, forming in world terms, a unique coastal region.

Marsden Rock near South Shields, the coastal cliffs of Blast Beach near Seaham and the Hartlepool headland on which the former medieval port of Old Hartlepool is situated are just some of the coastal features formed by this rock, as are the cliffs along the gorge of the River Wear in Sunderland.

Marsden Rock near South Shields
Marsden Rock near South Shields, Formed from Magnesian limestone. Photo © 2018 David Simpson

Magnesian limestone has been extensively quarried since medieval times, even giving its name to an early medieval shire called Querningdonshire (Quarringtonshire) near Durham where it was seemingly used in the making of quern stones for grinding corn. In more recent ages it has found use as a flux in the chemical industry of Teesside and is of course most familiarly used in the making of roads beneath the tarmac.

Inland you can clearly see the steeply inclined boundary of the magnesian limestone escarpment where it meets the vale of Durham, most notably forming Houghton Cut near Houghton-le-Spring where a quarry was used in the 19th century as an overspill graveyard during the cholera epidemic of the early nineteenth century.

Near Durham City the villages of Sherburn and Sherburn Hill lie respectively at the foot and top of the magnesian limestone escarpment and at nearby Quarrington Hill ‘the heugh’ near Bowburn on the edge of the escarpment is quite apparent. The top of this hill offered a great vantage point and in 1747 was occupied as a camp site for several weeks by the Duke of Cumberland and his army following his brutal Culloden campaign in Scotland. A century earlier in 1644, a Scottish army under the Earl of Leven had camped here for seven days before heading to Marston Moor.

Quarrington Hill
The Heugh at Quarrington Hill pictured from Sherburn Hill  on the edge of Durham’s magnesian limestone escarpment. ©David Simpson 2020

Before the 1820s most geologists were convinced that there was no coal beneath the deep layer of Magnesian Limestone in eastern Durham though many speculators were keen to take the risk of expensive trial borings in the hope of finding rich rewards. They were unsuccessful until coal was finally discovered at great depth at Hetton in 1822. This marked the beginning of a new coal mining age – the deep mining era – in County Durham which exposed rich and extensive seams of coal and even saw George Stephenson develop his very first railway, the Hetton Railway, at Hetton Colliery.

Hetton Colliery
An early 19th century illustration of Hetton Colliery

The mines in this eastern area, that opened over time, would include Easington, Westoe and Monkwearmouth (where the Sunderland football stadium stands today) and were amongst the region’s biggest coal mines in terms of the number of miners they employed.

A glance at the map shows, however, that on the surface at least, the collieries in this area were quite sparsely distributed, reflecting the costs involved in deep mining compared to more westerly areas where there is denser distribution of collieries. Of course deep down the coal seams were extensively worked in east Durham, even extending out to sea.

Iron and lead

In the Pennines to the far west lead mining was of course another big industrial exploit resulting from the abundance of this particular ore. In the nineteenth century Britain was the leading producer of lead and the North Pennines of Durham and Northumberland were the most important lead producing area in the country. Lead mining has left behind important industrial relics such as Killhope Wheel and Rookhope Chimney in Weardale or the Stublick chimney in South Tynedale.

Killhope Wheel lead mining museum, Weardale © David Simpson 2020

In the Cleveland Hills around Eston, iron ore deposits played an enormous role in the success and growth of Teesside. Middlesbrough, a completely ‘new town’ in the 1830s initially began as a coal port but morphed into the heartland of an iron and steel making region. Items made from Teesside’s iron and steel soon found their way across the world.  A nineteenth century writer remarked:

“The iron of Eston has diffused itself all over the world. It furnishes the railways of the world; it runs by Neapolitan and papal dungeons; it startles the bandit in his haunt in Cicilia; it crosses over the plains of Africa; it stretches over the plains of India. It has crept out of the Cleveland Hills where it has slept since Roman days, and now like a strong and invincible serpent, coils itself around the world.” Sir H.G Reid.

In addition to this legacy Middlesbrough and Darlington would of course become famous for the construction of bridges found across the world from Newcastle to Sydney Harbour.

Tyne Bridge
The Tyne Bridge built by Dorman Long of Middlesbrough. The firm also constructed the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia : Photo © David Simpson 2015

Geology has contributed in a massive way to our region’s visual and natural heritage too. It has close links to the themes of our earlier history, whether it be Christian sites of international importance or defensive strongholds associated with the Border wars.

Consider the beautiful sandstone bluff around which the River Wear twists and turns to form the ‘dun-holm’ (Durham) or ‘hill island’ on which Durham Cathedral and castle stand in great splendour. They utilise a splendid naturally defended site. In Sir Walter Scott’s words it beautifully forms the “half church of God half castle ‘gainst the Scot”.

Durham City sits upon a sandstone bluff surrounded by the River Wear. Photo: David Simpson

The Great Whin Sill

Indeed the region’s most spectacularly dramatic defensive sites owe their beauty to geology and this is no more apparent than in the role played by the Great Whin Sill. This volcanic intrusion was formed by a layer of molten rock that expanded due to crustal tensions caused by tectonic plate movements some 295 million years ago. The molten rock or magma penetrated between layers of softer neighbouring rock. The volcanic rock is exposed in a distinct ribbon-like band across the region as a sloping sill of solid grey-coloured igneous stone.

The igneous stone of the whin sill is some of the toughest stone you will find in the region. It is also called whinstone or ‘Dolerite’ so must not be confused with the very different permeable ‘Dolomite’ that we have already mentioned.

Exclusive to our region, the Great Whin Sill first appears in the south in Teesdale where it forms impressive rocky escarpments such as Cronkley Scar and Falcon Clints but most notably forms waterfalls such as Cauldron Snout, Low Force and of course High Force. Here the River Tees empties its flowing waters with an impressive roar over the distinct whinstone, cutting its way through the layers of softer rocks beneath the dolerite to create a gorge downstream over vast periods of time.

High Force
High Force waterfall, Teesdale and the rocks of the Great Whin Sill © David Simpson 2018

The Great Whin Sill can be traced in a long band north into Weardale (a notable section near Stanhope is called the ‘Little Whin Sill’) and can be traced west of Cross Fell. Further north, where it runs parallel to the Tyne Gap just north of the Tyne, we find the Great Whin Sill put to its most impressive defensive use courtesy of a certain Roman Emperor called Hadrian.

Here the steeply impenetrable slopes of the Great Whin Sill coupled with its proximity to the Tyne gap and the relatively short natural east to west route from the North Sea to Irish Sea provide an obvious site for a line of defence and demarcation. The Great Roman wall that tops the whin sill crags marked the natural northern frontier of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known.

Hadrian's Wall Whin Sill
The crags of the Great Whin Sill were utilised as part of Hadrian’s Walls defences Photo ©2018 David Simpson

The Great Whin Sill doesn’t end there of course. From the spectacular central sections of Hadrian’s Wall the sill crops up again and again across Northumberland to the north east, contributing to the craggy country in the wilds of ‘the Wannies’ near Sweethope Loughs before finally emerging on the coast near Craster, forming impressive rocky settings for the wonderful medieval edifices of Dunstanburgh Castle and Bamburgh Castle.

Dunstanburgh Castle from Embleton
Dunstanburgh Castle on the Great Whin Sill. Pictured from Embleton © David Simpson 2020

Like Hadrian’s Wall these great castles utilise the natural defensive features of the Great Whin Sill with stupendous splendour. Even out to sea, the Great Whin Sill has one last statement to make, forming the rocky weather-beaten outposts of the numerous stubborn little pieces of land called the Farne Islands, while to the north, Lindisfarne Castle nestles grandly on Beblowe crag, a rock of similar igneous foundation.

Outcrop of the Great Whin Sill near Craster
Outcrop of the Great Whin Sill near Craster © David Simpson 2020

Of course geology and the landscape features it has formed have not only shaped the region’s heritage but have defined its boundaries too. For nearly a thousand years the great igneous volcanic massif of the Cheviot Hills has formed the northern boundary of our region, separating it from the nation of Scotland, while the carboniferous limestone hills of the Pennines form the boundaries of our region to the west and south west.

The Cheviots viewed from Ford.
The Cheviots viewed from Ford in north Northumberland. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Across the Tees to the south east, the Jurassic Cleveland Hills and North York Moors have to some extent isolated the Teesside region from the remainder of Yorkshire, forming yet another natural border for the North East.

It is only in the central south of our region where the Vale of the Tees merges to the south of Darlington with the Vales of Mowbray and York that we have a permanently accessible, if sometimes distant link to the heartlands of England. So geology has defined our region with its permanent legacy and set apart our landscape and heritage. It is not just a part of our story but forms the very letters, margins and structure of our region’s narrative.

Collieries of North East England. Poster Print map (A2 only)

 

Get Busy Outdoors this Spring

With ever-increasing signs of springtime emerging ANDREA SCOTT explores the worthwhile work of countryside volunteering through local wildlife trusts. It’s a great way to keep fit and contribute to improving the local environment.

Castle Eden Dene
Beautiful natural environment. Castle Eden Dene Photo © David Simpson 2018

As the first signs of Spring emerge, our local countryside becomes greener and more beautiful. One way to enjoy the thawing outdoors is to do some worthwhile volunteer work in your region. Volunteers can develop their interest in wildlife, improve local countryside, get fitter and meet like-minded people. They can look back on a project knowing that they’ve helped to make a positive difference.

The Wildlife Trust has around 43,000 volunteers in the United Kingdom. Northumberland Wildlife Trust (NWT) owns and manages 62 nature reserves with the help of over 250 volunteers. Their Community Conservation Project engages the public through its local nature reserves. These support a wide range of species, monitored by regular surveys. Task volunteers help with habitat management and maintenance of infrastructure.

Heart of Durham volunteers at Thornley Woods

Lou Chapman has been organising volunteers since 2009. “We have so many opportunities. Practical conservation out on nature reserves is our biggest role, however, people can help out in our cafes, information assistance to visitors on reserves, community engagement events, education programme, reception assistance, helping in the office environment. You name it, we probably do it!”

Volunteers are not held to a set timetable. “Time commitments vary depending upon the role you choose to do. For example, to do a practical conservation day, it’s a full day from 9:15am until 4pm or for helping on reception or in the café it can be a couple of hours on a given day. You don’t even have to do a weekly commitment, it’s very flexible… some people come once per month or even less. It’s fun and flexible and not a ‘job’. We want our volunteers to enjoy their time here and essentially want to come back.”

Lou wants to encourage potential new recruits. “Go for it, you won’t know if you like it if you don’t try. Whatever your skills and experience or background you are welcome. Even if you feel you don’t have any, we will train you up. At NWT we offer a ‘trial go’ so you can see what’s it’s like before fully registering. We know volunteering is not for everyone but we offer so many different opportunities… to get involved in both inside and outside that it’s worth giving it a try. Everyone is very friendly and open to new people coming in. It’s great for your mental health too!”

Durham Wildlife Trust volunteers, Rainton Meadows

Margaret Brabbon has been volunteering for Durham Wildlife Trust (DWT) for over 9 years. “Initially I was looking for something when I retired from a teaching profession. I am a practical person and enjoy being with people. I had never been involved with any conservation work before and thoroughly enjoy it. The advantage of volunteering here is that people can drop in and drop out when it suits them. I spend one day a week doing the conservation work and another two days helping with admin. The most enjoyable aspect about volunteering for me is being with completely new people from different walks of life and learning new skills. At all times of the year there are a variety of tasks and we get to see many different sites across the county…reclaimed quarries, meadows and coastal areas.”

Task force volunteer, Faye Butler attended a volunteer recruitment day and signed up. “I have been volunteering for DWT for over 3 years, having been a member of the trust for several years. I had a 35-year nursing career in the NHS and retired from my position as a matron in surgery prior to starting volunteering. I have a keen lifelong interest in nature and the outdoors and when thinking about my plan for retirement I knew I wanted to be involved in conservation and protecting the environment. I also wanted something that would help me keep fit in mind and body and as a nurse I am aware of the beneficial and therapeutic effects of being outdoors and working in green spaces.”

Kepier Wood Durham
Woodland at Kepier, Durham. Photo © David Simpson 2017

Faye says, “There are many aspects of volunteering with DWT which I enjoy: being part of a team and having new colleagues, having a hard day’s graft, learning new skills. Each week a programme of tasks to be undertaken are emailed out to the volunteer workforce. This could be anything from path repairs, building a boardwalk, felling trees, clearing out ponds or cutting back undergrowth. The task could be on any one of the many and diverse reserves managed by DWT. It is often hard physical work but you feel great at the end of the day with a real sense of achievement. I like the idea of lifelong learning and DWT is excellent at providing training opportunities. So far, I’ve been on a dry stone walling course, strimmer training and using pesticides training. I’ve also attended courses on identifying ferns, trees in winter, amphibians and reptiles. I like to think I am giving something back and helping DWT to protect and preserve wonderful environments for future generations.”

Forestry Commission England organise volunteers in practical conservation, vegetation management, maintenance of trails and wildlife surveys. Their Kielder Water and Forest Park hold special trail-building days to improve the forest’s vast network of walking, cycling and horse-riding trails. Volunteers are also needed for their Osprey Project, to watch nests and engage with the public at viewing sites. If that doesn’t appeal, there are jobs indoors, such as visitor centre work or help with reception or events.

At Hamsterley Forest, rangers lead volunteers on the first and third Thursday of every month to undertake trail checks and maintenance of facilities. Hamsterley Trailblazers focus on developing the forest’s full potential as a mountain bike centre. They organise monthly trail-building sessions to maintain existing cycle trails and develop new ones.

Local voluntary groups include the Gateshead-based, Friends of Chopwell Wood (FoCW) a practical maintenance group that meet in the woods (on second and fourth Wednesdays of the month). The group is more than ten years old and was formed by the FoCW committee to care for this very special woodland. Have a search locally, email a few groups to find out what they do and come along to try it out. The FoCW volunteers can take part in a wide range of projects, help run events like bat watching, pond dipping, fungal foraging, green wood-crafting, or help with litter picking and general maintenance. Regular volunteers help at least once a month but there are several one-off volunteering events where extra hands are needed such as the spring clean or the Woodfest event which require a couple of hours a year. Help is always required at their biggest annual event, the Christmas Experience and tree sales.

Cambois beach looking south towards Blyth
Cambois beach looking south towards Blyth. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Why not help to improve our coastal areas for wildlife as well as people? Beachwatch, a programme organised by the Martine Conservation Society, organise regular beach clean ups. All you need to do is sign up as a volunteer and turn up. Nic Emery, organiser of the Cambois beach cleans near Blyth recommends it. “Joining an organised event is great because likeminded folk are getting together and leave with an enormous sense of accomplishment after they helped remove hundreds of kilos of trash from the beach. Some of our volunteers aren’t even local – they come from all over the country!”

Volunteer Sharon Lashley has recently organised an event at Roker, as part of the 2018 Great British Beach Clean. “Our beach cleans are a great way of getting people involved locally and it’s important that we involve as many people as possible – they are also a great way of encouraging people to enjoy activities in the fresh air, socialise and network with others whilst, most importantly, tidying up the beaches and stopping litter and rubbish making its way back out to sea.”

Volunteers at Roker Beach. Photo: Media Borne mediaborne.co.uk

If gardening is your passion, why not get involved with the National Trust or English Heritage? Horticultural volunteers are needed all year round to help gardens thrive. As well as basic tasks, you can learn about planting schemes, supervise the gardens, give tours and demonstrations or interact with visitors. National Trust offer opportunities to help with their Coast and Countryside conservation project. Opportunities include dry stone walling, woodland work, maintenance of fencing and pathways, conducting bio-surveys of species and leading guided walks.

The Red Squirrels United group works to protect red squirrel strongholds through a robust grey squirrel management programme. It is a huge partnership, uniting more than thirty UK organisations. Why not join the 1200 community based rapid response team of volunteers? They assist in reporting grey sightings, monitoring feeders, setting up cameras and educating the public. Northeast Red Squirrels is a charity working with existing volunteer groups to engage with local communities to help conserve red squirrels. Their Red Squirrels Newcastle Project aims to boost the red population to the west of the city. ‘Adopt a Wood’ volunteers are currently needed to monitor feeders in the area. “Our strategy is ambitious, but with dedication from local volunteers and landowners is totally achievable.”

There are so many reasons to get involved. Personal benefits, mental, physical and social as well as helping to improve our natural environment and local wildlife. It could change your life. Why not contact one of your local organisations today?

Durham Wildlife Trust: 0191 5843112; email volunteer@durhamwt.co.uk

Northumberland Wildlife Trust: 0191 2846884; email volunteer@northwt.org.uk

Hamsterley Forest (Forestry Commission): Tel. 01388 488312; email laura.turtle@forestry.gsi.gov.uk

Kielder Water and Forest Park (Forestry Commission) www.visitkielder.com/outdoor-event/kielder-volunteers; Tel. 01434 250209;

Friends of Chopwell Wood friendsofchopwellwood.org.uk : Tel. 01207 542495

English Heritage: www.english-heritage.org.uk

National Trust: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/volunteer

Marine Conservation Society: www.mcsuk.org/how-you-can-help

Northeast Red Squirrels: 07779 577485; email info@northeastredsquirrels.co.uk

Red Squirrels United: www.redsquirrelsunited.org.uk

Explore the magic of sculpture at Cheeseburn

Looking for somewhere a bit different to visit in the North East? You could try out Cheeseburn Sculpture Gardens near Stamfordham in Northumberland about 10 miles west of Newcastle.

Cheeseburn Grange Hall © Colin Davison @ Rosella Studios
Cheeseburn Grange Hall © Colin Davison @ Rosella Studios

Along narrow and winding country roads, you will find Cheeseburn. For those unaware, Cheeseburn encompasses Cheeseburn Grange Hall, a sprawling home with a rich and diverse history dating back to the 1200s; the magnificent sculpture gardens, which have been painstakingly restored to their former glory; the Chapel, which plays host to a range of artistic events, and the Stables Gallery, with its ever-changing programme of curated exhibitions.

Founded by Joanna Riddell in 2014, Cheeseburn is open for six weekends a year, Cheeseburn is somewhat of a special occasion; tangible yet intangible, a visit to this magical venue is a memory to treasure. Each open weekend features a carefully-selected exhibition, alongside some sixty other sculptures situated within ten acres of landscaped gardens.

Add to this the annual Gillian Dickinson North East Young Sculptor of the Year (GDNEYS) – an annual competition for emerging artists and sculptors to receive mentoring and career guidance, with one selected to deliver a £6,500 commission – and Cheeseburn makes for a wonderful day out in Northumberland.

From talking to Cheeseburn’s curator, Matthew Jarratt, it’s clear that they are passionate about arts and culture. “At Cheeseburn, we love to offer sculptors at all stages of their career the opportunity to exhibit their work, as well as allowing them to experiment with new ideas,” Matthew notes, adding, “We hope to delight visitors, and challenge perceptions of what sculpture can be.” Past exhibitions at Cheeseburn are testament to that: from the spectacular stainless-steel sculptures of Chinese artist, Qi Yafeng to Joseph Hillier’s marrying of traditional techniques with modern technology.
Stay in the loop about Cheeseburn’s 2019 season by visiting www.cheeseburn.com

Cheeseburn on Twitter: @Cheeseburn

Cheeseburn is situated on the B6324 (Stamfordham Road) 10 miles west of Newcastle at:
Cheeseburn Grange, Stamfordham, Northumberland NE18 0PT