THOUSANDS of campaigners have joined Foreign Secretary William Hague on the biggest demonstration ever in North Yorkshire's county town.

Organisers of the protest over a recommendation to downgrade maternity and paediatric services at the Friarage Hospital drew more than 2,000 residents to County Hall, in Northallerton, to signal their defiance to NHS bosses.

Hundreds of others joined this afternoon's mile-long march, which was led by Richmondshire MP Mr Hague, and more stood applauding as it passed along South Parade, the High Street and past the infirmary before reaching Bullamoor Memorial Park.

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Richmondshire District Council leader Councillor John Blackie, who co-organised the rally, described the turn-out as "fantastic" and said it sent "a very loud, very clear and compelling message to the NHS to maintain services" at the Friarage.

He told the rally: "I know many of you here today are here to protect that right to have your babies born in God's greatest county."

Mr Hague, who was warmly welcomed by the mass of protesters, delivered a passionate defence of the hospital's services, saying he regularly received letters from constituents detailing outstanding treatment there.

He was cheered after calling for the NHS to not only abandon the proposals, but to set out "a detailed, clear and sincere vision for the hospital's future".

After the rally, while eating an ice cream and having his photo taken with residents in the park, Mr Hague told the Northern Echo he had met Health Secretary Andrew Lansley four times to discuss the proposals.

He said: "He wants us to see if there are alternative solutions. He has been perfectly constructive about it so far."

Representing the Public and Commerical Services Union, Lorna Garrick, of Scotton, near Catterick Garrison, was among a small group of protesters who said they wished Mr Hague had not turned up.

She said: "I would rather that he admitted that the cuts were causing this to happen. It is a PR exercise for him."