DURHAM - Land of the Prince Bishops. Of course that understates it. The Bishops were really Kings, even raising their own army.
Yes, but where was their kingdom, whose amazing independence sprang from one of history's great paradoxes - the fact that the Danish Vikings, though launching their conquest of England on its
North-East coast, ultimately left the folk north of the Tees largely to their own devices?
With an earldom north of the Tyne, Durham became a virtual principality under its always-influential bishops. Their fiefdom stretched from the North Sea to the Pennines, twixt Tees and Tyne.
Despite their power, they dare not set a foot across the Tees. But equally they would never have yielded an inch around the estuaries of Tyne, Wear and Tees. And as for having holes punched in
their land by anywhere daring to call itself a Unitary Borough, like Darlington, well, the Bishops' famous Falchion sword might have lopped off a few heads.
So the "Land of the Prince Bishops" is nothing like what today's "County Durham" signs proclaim. These identify only the territory of Durham County Council, a mere 32 years old in its present
incarnation, and only a little more than a century all told. The true "Land of the Prince Bishops" predates even the majority of "shire" counties, set up by the Danes.
Therefore, when the county council calls the removal of its signs by the organisation CountyWatch "nothing more than sheer vandalism, no less mindless or anti-social than smashing bus stops or
phone boxes", it is a trifle wide of the mark, don't you think?
Cast your mind back to 1974. The boundary changes then were pushed through on the back of assurances that traditional loyalties were not affected. Intended to clarify the arrangements, a
Government circular said: "While the (new) names apply to the districts defined for local government purposes, they do not supersede existing place names; nor do they affect postal addresses or local
usage for purposes other than local government".
This was widely taken to cover the counties too. And since the traditional counties have never been abolished, they must remain intact. But, inevitably, the drip effect of the administrative
counties has been to obscure their historic counterparts, even though several of the upstarts, including Cleveland and Tyne-Wear, have already been scrapped. Others, including Durham, have had their
Which leads us to the future. The administrative counties are teetering on the brink of extinction. Big districts within regions is the Government's, and the EU's, preferred way. On the day that
Durham County Council is abolished, its signs will give way to probably bigger, brasher ones trumpeting the NORTH-EAST (ugh!).
A guerrilla movement it might be, but CountyWatch is acting to safeguard ancient and deeply-held identities that help define who we are and where we came from. In a world of rapid, often
unsettling, change we need this. The cost to the county council of resiting its signs is paltry. So, too, would be the cost of a nationwide signing of the historic counties, which would have been a
far better Millennium project than the Dome. Carry on CountyWatch.