SEVENTEEN years ago, I began a little campaign to get the Skerne Bridge opened to the public for one day so people could see the history in their pocket and celebrate the 175th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway.

The bridge was then consumed by industry. Steel fences meant that the closest the public could get to its southern face was by looking at the back of the £5 note where its contribution to railway history was noted.

However, just as nature abhors a vacuum so youngsters abhor a steel fence, and little access holes had been rolled back to enable small people to crawl onto the site to sniff glue and spray graffiti.

My campaign came to the attention of BBC2’s Newsnight who persuaded British Gas Properties to open up the site so they could interview me with the bridge in the background. The producer persuaded a couple of workmen, who were banging and crashing about, to pipe down so that the nation could hear my words of wisdom. My spiel was that it was important to preserve these places and stories that give communities roots and identities, otherwise everywhere is the same, and that at the millennium it was even more important to know where we had come from in order to work out where we were going.

Halfway through my answer, I became aware of an approaching trainwreck. I had all my arguments strung out in my mind, like carriages in a train, and I could see that for some unfathomable reason the last one was going to be that “some people find steam engines sexy”. However I tried to change track, it was also there – and so I blurted it out as some sort of grand conclusion.

The pre-recorded interview was a set-up for a live studio debate in London, chaired, I think, by Jeremy Paxman and featuring Brian Sewell, the London Evening Standard’s art critic, who delighted in being controversial and contrary.

I was skewered by Mr Sewell. He condescendingly referred to me as a “strange man from the north”. He said that what I wanted to preserve was nothing more than industrial bric-a-brac that had been accidentally washed up by the tide of time, and he found it frankly preposterous that anyone might find a steam engine even slightly sexy.

Next day British Gas phoned to say that it was too dangerous to allow me to take unwashed members of the public onto the bridge site. I ironically agreed, saying that the two workmen who had piped down by eating their sandwiches while sitting astride the main gaspipe that runs across the river, had finished their meal by lighting up postprandial cigarettes.

All this came to mind on Wednesday when the Lord Lieutenant of Durham opened a new cyclepath under the bridge and unveiled a plaque celebrating its history.

There are still too many fences in the area and too many willows in the river, but it is great that at last, due to the offices of the council, the bridge is now embowered in the whites, yellows and purples of wildflowers rather than consumed by the grime of industry, and it is open to the public.

Eat your heart out, Brian Sewell.