As much as the sights we see, it is the people we meet who make travel so rewarding and so memorable. Whether close to home or on the other side of the world, an interesting encounter can really bring a place to life.
A few years ago we had just such an encounter in Seaton Sluice, a coastal village north of Newcastle in north east England. I’ll come to the gentleman in question shortly; but first a few words about the village and what may sound like an unusual name.
It is hard to imagine now, but Seaton Sluice was once the centre of greater commercial activity, for its size, than any other village on the North East coast. Large ships visited its tiny harbour and hundreds of seamen worked here, alongside miners, rope-makers, sail-makers, shipbuilders and more. It must have been a busy scene indeed.
At that time the harbour was known as Hartley Pans, and served the neighbouring village of Hartley. In fact it was originally regarded as part of that village, before development of the harbour led to the creation of a distinct community here. Salt production was established here before the 16th century; and later the harbour was used to export coal from the surrounding coalfields.
But why ‘sluice’?
With the growth of the coal industry the natural harbour became impractical. Its north-facing entrance was difficult to navigate, and incoming tides regularly swept in silt that blocked the entrance and left the harbour dry at low tide. But a solution was on hand.
Not far from here lies Seaton Delaval Hall, now in the hands of the National Trust. Back then it was home to a local wealthy family, the Delavals. The first of them to see the potential of the small harbour here was Sir Ralph Delaval, in 1660.
Sir Ralph’s solution was to have sluice gates built. These closed against the incoming tide and dammed the flow of water into the burn. Horse-drawn ploughs would loosen the mud and silt; then the gates were opened and a surge of water swept into the harbour, keeping it clean and usable. It is thanks to this ingenious engineering solution that the port acquired its present-day name of Seaton Sluice.
Despite the improvements to the harbour made by Sir Ralph Delaval, it still struggled to cope with the growing volume of shipping and also the growing size of the ships. The water was shallow; the ships could only be part-loaded in the harbour before being taken out into deeper water at its entrance. There the loading was completed by keel boats (a local north east vessel), adding to the cost and causing delays.
So around the middle of the 18th century one of Sir Ralph’s successors, Sir John Hussey Delaval, decided on more improvement work. He drew up plans for a new harbour to be cut to the east, through solid rock. By 1764 work on this was completed, a major engineering achievement for its day. The new ‘cut’ (or ‘gut’ as it is known locally) was about 270 metres long, 9 metres wide and 15 metres deep. The first ship to sail out of the new harbour, on 22nd August 1764, was the ‘Warkworth’, carrying a cargo of 270 tonne of coal.
Thanks to this new entrance the harbour thrived. Seaton Sluice became a great centre of commerce and shipping – for its size, the busiest on the north east coast. Coal mined in the 30 odd pits around Hartley was exported from here.
A flourishing bottle works grew up too, owned by the Delaval family and employing many local workers. All the requirements for the manufacture of glass were on hand: sand, kelp, coal – and the improved harbour. Six glass furnaces produced, at the height of the industry here, as many as one million seven hundred and forty thousand bottles in a single year. Bottles from The Royal Hartley Bottleworks were transported all over the British Isles; and it is said that John Wesley preached from the steps of the old granary in Glassworks Square in 1744. The glass ‘cones’ can no longer be seen, having been demolished in 1897.
The harbour’s decline
But the harbour, and the bottle works, relied on the coal mined at Hartley; and in January 1862 disaster struck at one of the pits there, the Hester Pit. The beam of the pit’s pumping engine (used to keep out sea water as the tunnels ran out under the sea) broke and fell down the shaft. This trapped the men working below, and 204 died. This accident, which became known as the Hartley Colliery Disaster, led to a change in the law to stipulate that all collieries must have at least two independent routes to escape.
The Hester Pit never reopened. And although others in the area kept working, and indeed new ones opened, Hartley had been badly hit by the disaster. Local coal mining declined; the bottle works closed (in 1870); and major improvements to harbours at Blyth to the north and on the Tyne to the south saw shipping move away from Seaton Sluice.
Today the harbour is still in use, but only by pleasure craft and a few small fishing boats. The Cut though has silted up; the route in and out of the harbour is once again along the natural flow of the burn to the north. Landlubbers can enjoy a stroll on its grassy banks; or relax on one of the many benches to take in the views.
The Watch House and Rocky Island
When Sir John Hussey Delaval commissioned the opening of the Cut, a small piece of land became separated from the mainland (literally cut off). This was transformed into an island, known as Rocky Island, accessible by footbridge from near the Kings Arms pub. Today there are only a few buildings on the island although until the 1960s it was a thriving community. The 1901 Census showed 16 properties here: two blocks of three, one block of six, and a cottage down by the harbour. All were owned, like most of the village, by the Delaval Estate.
It’s hard to imagine that thriving community when you visit the island today however. Just two houses remain, former coastguard cottages, plus the Watch House. The volunteer life-saving movement had started on the north east coast at nearby Tynemouth, where the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade was set up in 1864. Other coastal communities followed Tynemouth’s lead; and here in Seaton Sluice, in 1876, a small group of volunteers was enrolled to assist the local Coastguard, becoming the Seaton Sluice Volunteer Life-Saving Company.
A few years later, in 1880, a Watch House was built to provide a look-out point, storage, and somewhere for the men of the brigade to congregate when the maroons fired to alert them to a ship in distress on the rocks. They would also meet here regularly for training exercises, practising firing the rockets that carried ropes onto the ships in order to rescue those stranded by means of a breeches-buoy harness. There were regular competitions between the different north east brigades; and social events such as dinners, concerts and of course drinking in the local pubs.
The Watch House is nowadays owned by Northumberland County Council and is a Grade II listed building. Its already very limited opening hours have no doubt been further restricted by the Covid-19 pandemic, so I would be surprised if it’s possible to see inside – we never have.
Meet Tom Newstead
And now to that memorable encounter I mentioned at the start of this post. Tucked behind the Kings Arms pub is a real treasure trove for anyone in search of the quirky or eccentric. A local man, Tom Newstead, has returned to Seaton Sluice after travelling the world and set up a wood-carving studio in an old shed. His creations may not be to everyone’s taste; but in the right setting (out of doors, informal) they have a certain appeal. Indeed, Tom’s creations are dotted all over this part of Seaton Sluice so do keep your eyes open; have another, closer, look at my left-hand photo of the Cut above and you should spot one!
On a recent visit to Seaton Sluice we were fortunate enough to meet Tom, who was at work just outside his shed, and enjoyed chatting with him for a while. An interesting man, he was born here in Seaton Sluice and trained as a boat builder, before joining the Merchant Navy as a carpenter. The enabled him to travel the world, finding inspiration for his art. And after leaving the navy he continued to travel, working in various places; building boats in Bermuda, teaching yoga in India.
Back home he took up violin lessons and, unable to pay his teacher, instead made him a violin and case from silver birch wood. In doing this he rediscovered his love of art and now spends his time here carving his idiosyncratic creations. He welcomed us to take photos; and in return we put a donation into the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) that sat in one corner.
Last time we visited Seaton Sluice Tom’s art was still much in evidence; but his shed was shut up so he must have been working elsewhere that day. But we’ll be sure to stop by again next time and hope to catch him home. And I recommend you do the same should you ever find yourself in this welcoming and surprisingly historic harbour village.
Cady has (sadly) decided to discontinue her excellent ‘Just one person’ challenge; but for the time being I plan to continue to share a weekly post about somebody memorable I have met on my travels, either at home or abroad. This isn’t a formal challenge, but if anyone else wants to do the same and share a link with me here, please do; I’d love to meet your people too!
I visit Seaton Sluice quite regularly; most of the photos on this page were taken in 2016 (when we met Tom) and 2018