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Plenty of heritage at Druridge Bay

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In 2015 we began a walk round Druridge Bay, beginning at Snab Point in the south. Today, we pick it up again at Druridge Pools Nature Reserve, about half-way round the Bay.

From here I set out for Low Hauxley. The path is a National Cycle Route so I could have taken the bike.

Apart from the sand dunes, all of the land is low-lying, rising only gradually inland. This is not due to opencast mining. Old OS maps show that it was always like that.

Mackenzie, in his History of Northumberland, 1825, Vol. 2, says: “The land adjoining Druridge Bay, in the farm of East Chevington, lies so low for about half a mile that formerly it was sometimes overflowed by the tide and hence acquired the name of the Salt Meadows.”

The scenery is not dramatic. Its beauty, in the spring at any rate, is in the colours. The brilliant mauves and yellows of the flowers stand out against the green of the vegetation at large.

John Crawford Hodgson, in Vol. 5 of the County History, 1899, says: “The township of Hadston abuts onto the North Sea. Its arable land (admirably suited for the cultivation of wheat) is separated from the firm white sands which fringe Druridge Bay by a strip of link or sand dunes, a valuable store house for the entomologist and botanist of a variety of little known treasures.”

Like Cresswell, Hauxley was once a fishing village. When Crawford Hodgson wrote in 1899, there were about 16 families of fishermen living at Low Hauxley, then called Sea Houses. The fishery was particularly noted for lobsters.

Druridge Bay was once a source of industrial alkali.

Crawford Hodgson says: “Up to the beginning of this century the fishermen and others prepared and burnt great quantities of kelp.

"The seaweed was cut from the rocks at low water during the summer months and carried in panniers on the backs of ponies to the links, and there dried in the sun.

"Circular hollows, 3ft or 4ft wide, were dug in the ground and set round with stones; in them the seaweed was placed and fired.

"The liquid which exuded was worked with iron rakes into a uniform consistence, which on cooling consolidated into a heavy dark-coloured alkaline substance, and after being subjected to a refining process was used in the manufacture of glass and soap.”

Any seaweed can be burnt for alkali, but kelp, being much the biggest and stoutest, was the main source.

Hodgson's remarks make it clear that kelp (i.e. the alkali) wasn’t ashes in the usual sense, but a solidified liquid.

Synthetic alkali was invented by the Frenchman Nicolas Leblanc in 1789. The secret was brought to Newcastle in 1802, and by 1823 Leblanc soda had completely superseded vegetable sources of alkali, at least for industrial purposes.

This was at one time a great coal-mining country. Crawford Hodgson says that traces of old workings existed at Amble and Hauxley, but the earliest large colliery was at Radcliffe.

It shipped its first coals from Warkworth harbour on October 3, 1837. Then, five months later: “The owners of Radcliffe colliery succeeded in boring to a seam of coal, between four and five feet in thickness, about fifty-seven fathoms from the surface.” (Latimer, Local Records, 1857).

It closed in 1896, and Broomhill, which had begun working in 1849, became the main colliery in this area. Broomhill closed in 1961.

A huge area, from Hauxley down to Druridge, was opencasted in the 1980s.

East Chevington was demolished, and Hadston built to rehouse the families from the Drift.

Opencast mines are not pretty, and nearby residents can suffer badly from dust and noise. There was nothing in those days comparable to the recent (and successful) opposition to a proposed surface mine at Highthorn. People just put up with it.

The legacy of the opencast, however, is a string of lakes and ponds all the way from Cresswell to Hauxley, so beloved of birdwatchers. Lakes and pools do not appear in the earlier OS maps: “Out of the strong came forth sweetness.”

Amongst the relics of opencasting are the sluices and tunnels that carry the waters of the different burns safely through the dunes. Our picture shows the one at Chibburn Mouth on the Chevington Burn.

Another phase in the history of Druridge Bay was its role in the Second World War. With the fall of France in June 1940, the urgent need was to defend the coast against a possible invasion.

Later on, the emphasis changed.

Ian Hall, in Relics of War, 2013, says: “Druridge Bay became, in effect, one large target range, with the danger area extending well out to sea.... A number of range buildings can still be seen in the dunes.”

I came across what I take to have been an observation post for this purpose at the top of the dunes near Hadston Scaurs car park. Not far away is another, smaller structure half buried in the sand behind the dunes, but what that was, I have difficulty imagining.