Jesmond Dene is a narrow wooded valley running north from Benton Bank to South Gosforth; it was acquired in the 1850s by William George Armstrong, who then carried out extensive works clearing and replanting the area and laying many bridges and walkways through it. In 1883, Lord Armstrong presented the main area to the Corporation of Newcastle, which has since provided enjoyment for citizens of all ages. It was extended to the North in 1936 when the Noble estate was added. The trail starts at the Southern end of the dene and the full distance is nearly three miles. It is essentially a circular route and can be joined at many points along the valley.
1. Our starting point is at Pets’ Corner, popular with children who come to see the many birds and animals, including rabbits and cavies, ducks, parrots, pheasants and other foreign birds [NOTE: Pets’ Corner, next to Millfield House, is currently closed for refurbishment]. Look too for the established planting, including the early flowering rhododendron praecox. The route takes us up the roadway alongside the Ouseburn, on the far bank of which is a Nature Reserve established by the Friends of Jesmond Dene. Apple and pear trees give evidence that the area was once used for allotments. A pair of mute swans are often found swimming in this part of the Dene with their young together with varying numbers of mallard and moorhens.
2. The second stopping point is at the first of a series of small waterfalls along the Dene; close inspection will show that this, like the others, is partly man-made. On the bank above the side of the stream can be seen the remains of Lord Armstrong’s Banqueting Hall, now a preserved ruin. Here can be seen a fine holly tree, together with the sweeping form of a sequioa tree and a blue/grey Atlantic cedar – both of which have some years to go before they reach full size. As you pass upstream, look out for the yew tree hanging out over the water, bent over by the weight of snow in winter, but now apparently stable.
3. Stop three is just north of the bridge which crosses over the roadway and the river. Notice the covering of ivy hanging from the arch of the bridge and on the bankside, with examples of mosses and ferns growing in the shaded areas. A good selection of trees can be seen from here, including Austrian pine with its stiff, dense whorls of needles in dark pairs; the characteristic tall, narrow shape of the Lombardy poplar; the native ash tree with sooty-black buds on grey twigs in winter and bunches of single-winged seeds turning from green to brown in Autumn. In Spring there are some colourful rhododendrons in this area. The river here is shallow and gravely – a good place to see the grey wagtail with its grey back and yellow underside and shoals of sticklebacks swimming in the water. On the right and parallel with the roadway can be seen the dip marking the Old Mill Leat and in places, the large rhubarb-like leaves of the gunnera. One of the first Spring flowers, the lesser celandine, can be seen forming a golden yellow carpet here and elsewhere in the Dene; also look for the slender stemmed white flowers of the wood anemone or wind-flower. From the far bank of the stream comes the strong scent of wild garlic or ramsons.
4. Stop four is along the river path, beside the Fisherman’s Lodge (shown on early maps as Heaton Cottage). A good example of canker can be seen on a wych elm tree just before this stop. In the bank of the far side of the stream look out for the tunnels, home of the water voles. Pike have occasionally been seen in the deeper water here.
5. Stop five, at the junction of a pathway turning off to the right up the bank. Along the waterside notice the tall Himalayan balsam with its pink flowers from July onwards, and another tall intruder – the Japanese knotweed. Here too, on the left of the side road, is another form of oak tree – the Turkey oak (quercus cerris); look out for the acorns with their mossy cups. You may also see a wood pigeon gliding among the tree tops, an innocuous-looking bird but enemy of the farmer in the country as it does immense damage to crops.
6. Stop six is at the point where two bridges cross the burn together, one originally intended for Lord Armstrong and his guests, the other for the public. Here too, you can see the remains of the buttresses of a third bridge which once carried a private walk-way over the road. Over either of the bridges and into the open space of the picnic field, an area of managed grass intended to stand up to considerable wear – quite a contrast to the weaker grass among the trees on the opposite bank, which quickly suffers when trodden on, resulting in unsightly and eventually, dangerous erosion of the steep slopes.
7. Stop seven, over the picnic field to the newly rebuilt pavilion shelter. To the right is a fine example of the sweet or Spanish chestnut, probably introduced into this country by the Romans. Notice the characteristic spiral edges in the bark of the trunk; in the Autumn the ground may be littered with the clusters of spiky fruits with their shiny red/brown nuts. To the other side of the pavilion is a mixed group of trees including the London plane with white patches on the trunk, Norway maple, silver birch and yew. You may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a blue/grey nuthatch or a mottled brown tree creeper hopping up and down the tree trunks.
8. Stop eight, past the pavilion and turn right over the Ouseburn once again. Stop for a moment on the bridge and look to the left to see the largest of the waterfalls in the Dene – another fine example of Lord Armstrong’s work with, at its base, a deep pool sometimes used by hardy swimmers. Notice the more mature ivy growing over and around the bridge, a dense mass of twisting stems, its Autumn flowers popular with insects and followed in the spring by heads of small blue/black berries. To the right as you cross the bridge are the ruins of a fourteenth century water mill, one of several mills using the Ouseburn power for grinding corn from surrounding farms. It was also used at one time as a flint mill.
Turn left and up the steps past a fine stand of cotoneaster and mahonia with the dense carpet of rose of sharron (hypericum calycinum) with its bold yellow flowers in summer. Look out for the Portugese laurel on the right, a relative of the cherry with glossy dark green leaves and spikes of creamy, scented flowers in June. Follow the path along past North Lodge. Notice the buttercup-flowered potentilla forming an unusual informal hedge along the garden, and by the side of the pool, the twisted stems of the contorted willow. In Winter, look out for the white-stemmed rubus cockburnianus or ghost bramble to the north side of the lodge. Keep to the same side of the water and follow the path along the river bank.
9. Stop nine, on the left past the bridge, is a large willow tree whose caterpillar-like catkins can be seen littering the pathway in Spring. To the right is a good place to find young tree seedlings, the first stage in a process of naturally occurring regeneration. Look out for sycamore and ash and notice how the first leaves vary from the adult tree. Further along on the left are examples of bamboo, a greyish willow-leaved pear (a useful weeping tree for smaller gardens) and the distinctive drooping sedge. At any point along the Dene, but particularly at this point, you may be lucky enough to catch a brief glimpse of the bright blue kingfisher as it speeds along the river bank in search of small fish and insects. Under the stones at the water’s edge, just below the weir, can be found little fresh-water shrimps and small black leeches. Further along the river bank you come up to the Castles Farm Bridge which marks the end of the best-known part of the Dene and the northernmost point of our trail. Those who wish to go further can pass through the tunnel, higher up the bank and in the side of the bridge, and continue into the less-developed, more open area which extends north as far as Haddrick’s Mill.
10. Stop ten and our route now takes us up the side of the Dene. Before ascending, take a look at the stone outcrop and notice mosses and ferns which take advantage of every crack and cranny (particularly on the damper, shaded side of the rock) and which, if left undisturbed, will gradually build up a rich vegetation. Climb up the steep valley side (keeping to the path) and take the middle walk past the park seats. In the bank to the left look out for tiny holes marking the entrance to the home of one of the solitary burrowing bees. This path brings you out on to the ramparts overlooking the quarry. Pause here a minute and, looking back up the Dene, you will see a typical example of the original natural woodland with a mixture of oak, hazel and holly. A short distance further and turn left down into the quarry garden, taking care as you go as the path is quite steep and may be slippery.
11. Stop eleven. The steep sides of the quarry are well covered in trailing ivy, a popular centre for flycatcher and other small birds, but the layers of rock can be clearly picked out including, near the top, the dark line of a coal seam. In the secluded shelter of the quarry bottom, notice examples of viburnum, peiris and a magnolia tree which can be seen in full bloom in May/June; also a stand of bamboo, the remains of a Chinese garden. Passing out of the quarry, rejoin for a short distance the path already followed past North Lodge. Near the junction may be seen an example of a laburnocytisus adamii, a remarkable small tree which is a graft hybrid (a chimera) with laburnum forming the core and broom the outer part. Some branches have the yellow flowers of laburnum, whilst others bear clusters of purple-flowered broom. The more intrepid can now carefully cross over the Ouseburn by the stepping stones in front of the Lodge (the less athletic should cross the bridge further upstream, turn left and rejoin the trail).
12. Stop twelve, the steep shaded bank to the right of the path is constantly wet with water running from the higher ground and here you can see a wonderful display of algae and the flat creeping liverworts, some of the simplest green plants, together with the more advanced rosettes of a saxifrage. Here too, you may be lucky and catch a glimpse of one of the smallest birds in the Dene, the wren.
13. Stop thirteen, continuing on up to higher ground, on the right is a stand of horse chestnut trees which give a splendid display of colour in the autumn. On the left is a great pile of rocks, apparently abandoned by the early developers of the Dene. Closer examination might suggest a more premeditated placing, as the upper part can be seen to be carefully built up and covered with a clever cement coating. Mature trees grow on the top of the rocks with little or no soil and their roots go down into cracks.
14. Stop fourteen, the next stopping place is just after you pass the Giant’s Footsteps bridge (so called because of the indentations in the balustrades for the original hand rail). In the Spring, this is a good point in the Dene to see some of the many flowering plants. Dog violets and the graceful wood anemone, the pale-flowered wood sorrel whose clover-like leaves close up at night. The lesser celandine, the barren strawberry – similar to, and often confused with, the true strawberry, but with dry unstrawberry-like fruits – and the pink purslane, a garden escape now naturalised throughout the Dene. Follow the path along the bank forking left at the first junction and right at the next. Look out on the left for examples of the cut-leaved and purple varieties of the beech. Occasionally you may catch sight of the shy hawfinch among the beech trees. Here also is a favourite spot for the weasel with its rusty-coloured black and white underparts. Here too, as the evening draws in, bats can be seen flitting among the trees in their search for insects.
15. Stop fifteen and the path brings the walker out behind the Fisherman’s Lodge, but just before the Lodge can be seen examples of other tree species; particularly unusual are the tulip tree with its unique shaped leaves, closely related to the magnolias but the flower is less conspicuous; and the larger walnut, rather similar to the ash but with more rounded leaves set alternately (not opposite) on the stem. Also to be seen is the Japanese cedar and some young larch trees, one of the few deciduous conifers or cone-bearing trees. Further along, the path joins the river path. Keep to the left and passing the wishing well, move up again on to the higher ground. This stretch of path is a good place to see different forms of yew as well as the common form. Each tree is usually either male or female. Both flowers are inconspicuous but, in the Autumn, the females form the bright red fleshy seeds. The holly too generally has separate male and female trees. The shape of the leaves may vary considerably in different parts of the same tree. Look out for a golden variety and also the variety crispa which has contorted leaves.
16. Stop sixteen, from here the path passes banks of rhododendrons, a reminder of the earlier planting and now grown tall and bare-stemmed. In Spring and Autumn particularly, look out on the right for the colourful red oak, an American introduction with larger leaves than the English varieties. Turn right and down the path to come out on the river walk and the end of the trail near Busy Cottages.
The Dene is always changing and there are different things to see at different times in the year. We hope you have enjoyed your walk and will come again.
The text above was based on a booklet prepared by Parks & Countryside Ranger Service, Newcastle City Council.