WE'VE had a week in East Anglia, roving the railways, rang Wilf Scott to suggest a catch-up couple in Cambridge. Wilf’s the Shildon lad, baker’s son, whose firework fantasias have lit up the world.

We’d last met in 2002, again in Cambridge, after his pyrotechnical panoply had launched the Queen’s golden jubilee celebrations over Buckingham Palace. The column called him a celestial choreographer.

Her Majesty, at any rate. had been required to press the button on The Mall which propelled a rather large rocket towards her home. “The one thing you never do in this industry is stand a living monarch on top of a pile of explosives and ask her to press the button,” he said at the time.

The Queen not only survived but personally conferred Membership of the Victorian Order.

Wilf answers, says he’d love a pint but that there’s a little logistical difficulty. While we’re in Cambridge, he’s moved back up north to Richmond.

There’s been an autobiography, From Pits to Palaces – sub-titled The Explosive Adventures of Wilf Scott – but these days he no longer actively devises displays. The lady of this house supposes that, having so coruscatingly lit the blue touch paper, he has now retired.

Much more on the celestial choreographer, with luck, before the big bang on November 5.

THE Free Press is a marvellous little Cambridge pub named after a temperance magazine which lasted just one edition. Thereafter we stroll around that elegant city and past King’s College, perhaps the most magnificent of all, outside which the porters’ lodge is now but a large wooden hut. Once the college custodians were housed rather more splendidly: they’ve just a porter cabin now.

HOLIDAY reading, a kindly gentleman in the Brit hands over two fascinating old books. “You’re better than Oxfam,” he says (a view with which that noble charity is unlikely to agree.) One’s a History of Spennymoor, written by journalist and magistrate John Reavley and published in 1935.

He recalls how nineteenth century Low Spennymoor was known as Jerusalem (“a small edition of hell”), remembers the spooky story of how the old Nicky Nack guest house at Croxdale came by its name, recounts the days when missionaries would fall spontaneously to their knees and be prosecuted for obstructing the footpath.

Particularly, however, the column is taken by the story of how Spennymoor got its railway bridge – and if that sounds a bit like the story of how the camel got its hump, oh best beloved, then there’s certainly something of Mr Kipling about it.

Some time in the 1870s, the railway company needed to build a new bridge to enable doubling of the track and duly sought municipal approval. The local board – “with the combined genius which so often characterises local authorities” – duly nodded.

The resultant bridge had an ugly great support right in the middle – “making the town look mean and ugly to all entering it for the first time and all because of the hideous obstructions that forms the gateway to the business portion of the town,” Reavley wrote.

The local board vainly appealed. The railway company, not unreasonably, pointed out that the worthies had themselves approved the plans.

Their mistake, alas, was that they’d read them upside down.


The second book’s Those Boys o’ Bondgate, a wonderfully diverting anthology published in 1949 and based on lectures by C P Nicholson to the Darlington and Teesdale Naturalists’ Society.

Mostly the book draws on Victorian reminiscence of Darlington and the dales, the days when Darlington was nicknamed Darn’ton i’ th’ Dirt.

The Bondgate boys were from the area’s numerous yards, frequently engaged in border skirmishes with rivals like the Bank Top Rats and the Cockerton Scrubs.

Bondgate’s best “laiked at will”, a phrase reminiscent of the larks foreseen by Joe Gargery, Charles Dickens’ long-suffering blacksmith. Amateur etymologists may explain.


The Times last Thursday carried a nicely anecdotal obit on Mike Neville, recalling that as a young actor he’d his eye on the West End. “The nearest he got was Chiswick Empire.”

Before the holiday there’d also been an email from Peter Sotheran recalling Mike’s 1958 season with the North Riding Repertory Company at the New Pavilion Theatre on Redcar sea front.

Peter’s family printing business produced the programmes – “mainly light comedies or Agatha Christie mysteries.”

Peter and his wife Sue, like dear old Mike both MBE recipients, have been promised outsize lemon tops – Redcar’s favourite delicacy – should a 1958 programme resurface.

So far no joy: the lemon tops are on ice.


Home in time last Saturday for an afternoon tea trip, a delightfully nostalgic experience, on the Wensleydale Railway between Bedale and Redmire. The icing was to be the appearance of Joem, a magnificently restored little steam engine with which the column is sacklessly, shamelessly smitten.

Sadly, the summer had become something of a no-Jo area. The first time we tried, she was absent through “staff shortages”; on the second her non-appearance was blamed on “technical problems.”

“The train’s broke,” translated a young railway volunteer, with neither technical nor grammatical merit.

On Saturday we arrived early at Bedale, breathed deeply as Joem smoked off down the mile-or-so to Leeming Bar, expectantly awaited her return. On time, the service arrived – hauled by what Thomas the Tank Engine contemptuously termed a diseasel.

The train’s broke, someone said.

The Wensleydale has also been much in the news of late over the proposal £400,000 sale of Aysgarth station, presently trackless, effectively signalling the end of ambitions to reach Garsdale to the west.

Word on the wires is that the intending buyer, planning what the Wensleydale calls a “hobby railway”, is 70-year-old David Smith, who lives in Staintondale – North Yorkshire Moors territory – and is the majority shareholder of Steamtown, at Carnforth. You read it here first.


Indisputably the world’s most priceless personalised car registration, SH11DON appeared in the column a couple of weeks back – just as it does on proud Shildon lad Graeme Scarlett’s white van.

Paul Dobson’s attempted equaliser – he swears that B15HOP was on a Maestro van – has been ruled offside because it no longer seems to exist.

Phil Chinery, hastened back to Darlington after six years in Scotland, reports that in Portree he spotted 5KYE, that in Rothesay he saw 13UTE and in Largs clocked L11RGS on a taxi.

Bill Bartle in Barnard Castle recalls an impoverished December many years ago when he and his wife both students, were wondering how to afford a nice Christmas present for their young daughter.

A knock on the door revealed the local garage owner wondering if the battered and elderly Morris Minor – the one with the registration RON – was theirs. “My name’s Ron and I want it for my Jaguar,” he added.

Deal done, daughter delighted. “Even now,” says Bill, “if I’m asked what a Christmas angel looks like, I reply that it’s about 5ft 6ins tall, balding and wearing a boiler suit.”


Across the A66, Penrith FC secretary Ian White is also an ardent Sheffield Wednesday fan – in football parlance, an Owl. In town the other day he spotted an OWL registration, engaged the returning driver, enquired if he shared the passion.

Not only was he a Wednesday season ticket holder, he was also the Archdeacon of Carlisle. Ian’s now invited him to one of their games, too.

Penrith are near the bottom of the Ebac Northern League first division. “We need all the help we can get,” he says.


….and finally, we noted on August 29 that North Yorkshire police still held the plate AJ 1, once much coveted by the golfer Tony Jacklin, and with no plans to cash in. Homeward from holiday, we fell for several miles of the A1 behind 1 AJ. Whether itself a police car we are unable to say, but can confirm that it never once exceeded the speed limit. These days on the A1 in North Yorkshire, you’re lucky to top twenty.