By Neville and Margaret Davies
We start our trail of a little over 3 miles at the harbour in front of one of the oldest buildings in Seaton Sluice, the Kings Arms built in 1764.
Seaton Sluice is a coastal village about half way between Whitley Bay and Blyth, at the mouth of the Seaton Burn. The village is centred on the harbour area which has had previous names including Hartley Pans and Hartley Haven. The south end of the village, on the brow of the hill, is called Hartley, or Old Hartley.
Large tracts of land in this area were gifted in the 11th century to relatives of William the Conqueror, the De La Val family from north-western France. Over generations the name was anglicised to Delaval. From the early 18th century the family residence was the magnificent Delaval Hall, now a National Trust property. This is located on the road from Seaton Sluice to Seaton Delaval - not part of this trail but well worth a visit.
The village is now essentially a residential area but it has a major industrial past due entirely to the entrepreneurial and engineering skills of generations of the Delaval family. In the 18th and 19th centuries its industries included coal mining, glass and bottle manufacturing, salt making and ship building. As a consequence it was an important port from which these products were transported, primarily to London.
Before setting off on our trail take a look at the excellent illustrated information board in front of the pub describing 19th century Seaton Sluice. Adjacent to the pub is a narrow footbridge, originally a swing bridge. This is the best position from which to appreciate the layout of the harbour. Standing on the bridge with your back to the sea you can see the right angled bend in the Seaton Burn just before it enters the sea.
SEATON SLUICE HARBOUR
Looking upstream towards the modern road bridge you can see the original quay on the left hand side. To the right are the quays at the mouth of the burn. Below you is ‘The Cut’, a channel blasted through the rocky headland in the 1760s to provide a new quay and direct eastward access to the sea from the old quay. The Cut was provided with booms at each end to maintain water levels enabling loading and unloading of ships to take place at all states of the tide. An effect of The Cut was to make part of the headland into an island, called Rocky Island, which can be accessed only via the bridge you are now standing on. The island was once a salt making area and home to more than 70 people but now there are just two houses and the Watch House Museum.
Our trail continues with a walk around this island. Cross the bridge and turn right immediately, following the path along the north side of The Cut and around the rocky shore to the mouth of the Seaton Burn. Before The Cut was created, this, like now, was the only entrance to the harbour. Fallen rocks have long-since blocked The Cut. Looking northwards you can see 3 miles of sandy beach backed by natural sand dunes. Sandy Hill, directly in front of you across the harbour entrance, looks like part of the sand dunes but in fact it is man-made. When the coal sloops left the port they were laden with cargo. For the return journey they carried sand and gravel as ballast for stability. When this was unloaded it created Sandy Hill.
Taking sand to Seaton Sluice was a bit like ‘Taking Coals to Newcastle’.
Complete your tour of the island by returning to the footbridge. As you cross the bridge again look out for the mermaid basking on the rocks below. She spends most of her time there. She was created, as were other artworks such as Neptune on the pub wall, by local artist Tom Newstead in his workshop beside the Kings Arms.
Continuing our trail take the steps down to the old quay area and walk along the quayside to the footbridge just before the modern road bridge. Standing on this bridge you can see below some of the stonework and fixing slots of a sluice gate. Now you know how the village got its name! This sluice gate was an ingenious way of removing the silt which built up in the harbour. At high tide the gate was closed to block the flow of water in the burn. Then at low tide when the harbour had no water the silt was loosened by horse-drawn ploughs. When the gate was opened again the rush of water swept the silt out to sea.
Cross the bridge and turn left along the narrow path beneath the road bridge, leading you into the lower reaches of Holywell Dene, usually pronounced as though it was spelt ‘Hollywell’. It is named after a supposedly holy well much further up the dene near the village of Holywell. Above you to your right is the Melton Constable pub with its commanding view over the dene. The original pub of that name was near the old quay on the other side of the dene and on the other side of the main road. It was named after the village of Melton Constable in Norfolk when a Delaval grandson, Sir Jacob Astley, who lived there inherited the Delaval estate in 1814.
This tidal area is prettiest when the tide is in but botanically more interesting when the tide is out.
Follow the path through the dene with the burn on your left and a steep wooded bank on your right for about half a mile. Just before you reach the clearly visible Northumbria Water pipe, high over the dene, fork right onto a smaller path which will take you on a short diversion to see a Delaval folly. Go up the steep flight of steps and at the top continue along the path in front of you. This is taking you back along the dene but at a much higher level. In a few hundred yards you will reach the few remains of Starlight Castle.
REMAINS OF STARLIGHT CASTLE
This was never a castle in any meaningful sense of the word. Although there are variations in the details of the story historians agree that it was built in 1750 by Sir Francis Delaval.
A man who liked a wager, he responded to a challenge that he couldn’t build a castle fit for lady in a day. One version of the story is that it’s called Starlight Castle because he started work during the night under starlight. Another version is that it was never completed to the point where it had a roof so it was only illuminated by starlight.
Whatever the truth, now after over 270 years, it is just a small piece of the structure together with dressed stones randomly strewn on the hillside.
From here return to the top of the steps but before going down walk about 30 yards to your right. From this point you have a distant view of an obelisk, about 60 feet tall, located in a field behind Delaval Hall. This was constructed as a memorial to Admiral George Delaval who died in a riding accident in 1723. Its original location was at the point where the accident occurred, now the junction of The Avenue and the road to New Hartley. The plinth on which the obelisk was mounted is still in place about 30 yards from The Avenue on the right hand side of the New Hartley road. The obelisk was moved to its present location in 1923 to save it from mining subsidence.
Now go back down the steps to re-join the path you were on in the dene. This will take you over a footbridge after which turn right and follow the path until you reach a small car park. Turn left along the road heading towards Old Hartley. You will soon reach an unusually detailed road sign indicating that you are re-entering the civil parish of Seaton Valley.
WELCOME TO SEATON VALLEY
The sign lists the five villages which make up the parish and has graphical representations of significant features in the area. Along the bottom is the Seaton Burn. In the centre is the ornate clock which stands on the roundabout in the centre of Seaton Delaval. To the left of the clock is Delaval Hall and to its right a reference to the Hartley Colliery disaster of 1862 which killed 204 men and boys. Further right are the spoon and shroud, items of Public Art near Seghill. These are pictured between gates which were the entrance to the Delaval Estate at the Seaton Delaval end of The Avenue. The Avenue is now the public road between Seaton Sluice and Seaton Delaval but was formerly a tree-lined private driveway.
Continuing along the road you reach Old Hartley in a few hundred yards. Go straight on at the roundabout onto the lane towards the sea. On the way down this lane you get a fine view of St Mary’s Lighthouse, one of the iconic landmarks of Whitley Bay. The light house, built in 1898, stands on a tidal rocky island on the site of an 11th century monastic chapel. When you reach the car park at the bottom take the path in the left hand corner. This will take you along a cliff-top path back to Seaton Sluice. When the path meets the road turn right. You will soon see the Kings Arms in front of you. Before reaching it, bear right onto the grass area opposite The Castaway Café, keeping close to the fence along the right hand side. This brings you to another short cliff-top path, with fine coastal views, and along the south side of The Cut back to our starting point.