A lovely walk along the top of Hawthorn Dene to the Durham coast at the weekend reminded me how much I like snowdrops, en masse. They may be naturalised rather than native but I think five hundred years of residence should count for something!
Common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, line the path through the ‘Old Plantation’ at Hawthorn Dene
I was more puzzled by the clumps of hellebores growing amongst the snowdrops. Clearly these are not ‘wild’, however you define that, and it seemed unlikely that Durham Wildlife Trust, who own the site, encourage ‘guerrilla gardening’.
It turns out, however, that this area above the dene was previously the site of a stately home and its landscaped grounds. The first building on the site, known as Sailor’s Hall, was built as a summer retreat by one Admiral Milbanke in 1787. It was abandoned and demolished after his death and a 30 room neo-Gothic mansion, ironically named Hawthorn Cottage, was built here in 1821 for Major George Anderson. The house was extended in the 1850s by the Pemberton family, owners of several local collieries, and renamed Hawthorn Towers. It was rather a grand building by this stage, and even had its own private platform for the nearby railway line between Sunderland and Hartlepool.
Hawthorn Towers in its heyday. Photo courtesy of http://landedfamilies.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/130-anderson-of-newcastle-and-little.html
The house was let out to a variety of people in the early part of the 20th century and used by the Home Guard during the Second World War. Nothing remains of it now – it was demolished in 1969 after falling into disrepair. The beautiful coast we see here today would have looked very different in the sixties, black with waste from Easington and Seaham Vane Tempest Collieries dumped at sea – think the final scene of ‘Get Carter’ – so maybe it’s not surprising it wasn’t a particularly ‘des res’. Hawthorne Dene itself had a narrow escape. Originally, the colliery which opened at South Hetton in the late 1820s was to be connected by waggonway to a new port at Hawthorn Hive, where the dene meets the sea. Luckily for the dene, however, the owner decided using the newly built Seaham Harbour from which to ship his coal.
However, I digress. Hawthorn Dene is now safely in the hands of the Durham Wildlife Trust and managed to preserve the wide range of habitats it provides for plants, animals and birds. It is one of a series of narrow valleys running down to the sea, cutting through the band of Magnesian limestone along the Durham coast, and sports a species rich limestone meadow near the site of the old house. I’ve enjoyed coming here in the spring for the snowdrops and noisy woodpeckers for many years but am looking forward to a summer trip this year to enjoy the meadow and hunt for the saprophytic Bird’s-nest Orchid (Neottia nidus-avis) found in the beech woodlands.
The beech plantation intrigued me on our Sunday afternoon walk. A rough estimate (arms around the trunk at chest height) suggested the trees are about 1.3 m in girth, which would make them about 50 years old. I don’t know who planted the trees but they are in very neat rows, unusually lanky and unbranched for beech because of the way they are crowded together. I’d love to know who planted them like this, and why!
Beech trees in the ‘Old Plantation’, Hawthorn Dene
Other spring plants are just starting to flower on the woodland floor; Lesser Celandine and Coltsfoot catch the eye but the delicate flowers of male Dog’s Mercury plants are easily overlooked. Primula and Viola leaves promise more delights to come.
Left to right: Ranunculus ficaria, Tussilago farfara and male Mercurialis perennis flowers