ONCE it was a love/hate relationship. Though they lived in the same pit village and both played in fledgling pop groups, one went to a Roman Catholic school and other to a Church of England.

“We’d thump hell out of each other,” recalls John Wrightson.

“Chuck stones and all sorts,” says Mick Johnson, two years his junior. “Johnny was an awful teddy boy, I was a snotty nosed kid. Nothing to do with religion, understand, it was just what kids did back then.”

John was good both at football – once offered a trial by Manchester United – and at music, a group called The Rustlers, all black trousers and silver lame jackets who’d practise at Murton Democratic Club.

He’d even sold Mick Johnson his second-best guitar, for £3. “Times were tight, you couldn’t afford to keep two guitars,” says John.

“Three quid was still a canny whack in them days,” remembers Mick, who’d first started making guitars in woodwork class, when he was 12. Though both became pit electricians, until a couple of weeks ago they’d neither met, nor exchanged imprecations, for more than 50 years.

John Wrightson, now 71, never left the east Durham village of Murton – the streets they call Wembley – and remains with his band among the most popular performers on the North-East folk club scene.

“A sort of pitman’s Peter, Paul and Mary,” the column observed a couple of years ago,” says John.

“I’ve been interested in music since I was about five when me dad bought a ukulele thing and taught me a few chords, Home on the Range and stuff. I’m still fascinated by guitars.

Mick Johnson is 68, headed south in 1969 – “a rat deserting a sinking ship,” he supposes – rose to sergeant major in 22 years' Army service, taught electronics to degree level and is now one of the world’s leading guitar makers.

John had bumped into another old friend in the spring, fell (as you do) to reminiscing, wondered whatever happened to young Johnson.

“My mate says he’d done very well for hissel’, making guitars for some of the biggest names in the business,” says John. “I looked up his website and saw some amazing people among his customers.”

He emailed, wondered if Mick remembered him, asked tentatively for a price list. “I didn’t think I could afford owt, I’m just an ard pensioner and they gan for thousands,” says John.

“Remember him?” echoes Mick. “We’d scrap on a bit, but I lived in awe of Jonny Wrightson, learned a lot from him, one of the first people I met who could really play the guitar. I heard the Rustlers play Shadows numbers like Apache and FBI and they’d be absolutely steaming.”

Old pal’s act, he offered to make a bespoke guitar for the price of the wood and personally to deliver it on a trip back to County Durham.

The guitar made its public debut a fortnight ago at the lovely little Candleliters Club in Newton Aycliffe, which is where the column had serendipitously stumbled across the story. The craftsmanship, says John, is amazing.

Mick, who lives near Reading, makes the instruments in his garden shed – mind, he says, it’s a pretty big garden shed – with clients ranging from Roger Daltrey to Amy Winehouse, the Hollies to Hogan’s Heroes.

“I could do something arty-farty, but I prefer trying to put life into me guitars,” he says.

Customers also include former Shadows Bruce Welch and Hank Marvin, for whom Cliff Richard bought a £150 Fender Stratocaster in 1959. These days Mick services it.

“It’s probably worth hundreds of thousands now. I just look forward to the moment when he comes and collects it again.”

These days John Wrightson writes songs and prose remembering the region’s heritage, including a number called Tin Soldier – based on the new statue on Seaham sea front – which will form the centrepiece of a Remembrance Day event at Bishop Auckland Town Hall on November 11.

“Who knows?” he says. “I might even bring me new guitar. He’s a canny lad, is Mick.”

DIFFERENT beat, familiar territory, we headed last Wednesday for the National Railway Museum in Shildon for the free big band concert marking, that day, the 192nd anniversary of the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

First, the Durham Youth Band played the Rokeby Polka, said to have been the great locomotive engineer Timothy Hackworth’s favourite tune and appropriate because Jane Hackworth Young, his great great granddaughter, herself lives in Rokeby, near Barnard Castle.

Jane thought it all plausible. The polka, she said, had been “invented” by the station master at Bishop Auckland.

Other music ranged from Earth, Wind and Fire to the Sunny Side of the Street. Locomotive Rhythm, a modern jazz ensemble, played a slightly cacophonous (and wholly improbable) number called Diesel Multiple Unit Leaving Middlesbrough Station.

Though some of the works were being premiered, the guys clearly accomplished musicians, the audience was disappointing and diminished as the evening progressed. Doubtless it’s the innate suspiciousness of Shildon folk: no such thing as a free launch.

WHOLLY coincidentally, the column was invited officially to open the beer and music festival at Scarth Hall in Staindrop last Saturday lunchtime – no matter that they’d started pint-pulling 18 hours earlier – and the turn was a seven-member band called the Stockton and Darlington Ukulele Express. “Running late,” they said. They were brilliant.

BUT there’s terribly sad news at Scarth Hall. Morris Race, hub of the Staindrop community, reports that the great Bert Draycott had been found dead at his home the previous day.

Former pitman, lifelong resident of Fishburn, near Sedgefield, perhaps best remembered as World Spoons Playing Champion, Bert would have been 87 this month and was still a much-loved folk singer and entertainer around the North-East.

He’d reminisce about tin baths and poss tubs ("the world’s first top loading washing machine"), about free coal – “we got so much we had to burn some” – about marbles (“nuggs up and nuggs down”) and about blackclocks, of which Fishburn colliery had a thriving colony.

Bert was also a much valued contributor to these columns, subjects ranging from Slasher Shaw, the demon barber of Sedgefield, to the long-gone Alhambra cinema at Fishburn. “Nothing very startling, but whenever we saw a crowd we’d say it was like Fishburn pictures turning out.”

It was for spoons playing that he made red-top headlines, however, most notably in 2011 after he’d delivered a masterclass at the Deerbolt young offenders institution, near Barnard Castle. “I think they thought that people in prison shouldn’t be entertained by world class turns like me,” said Bert.

He’d learned spoon playing while in the Army, that and the words of Eskimo Nell, claimed the world title after an impromptu competition in the compressor room at the pit, one back shift in 1973.

That he held it for more than 25 years may have been because there wasn’t another competition; Bert’s claim that the Queen was in the audience must be supposed apocryphal.

The world championship was resumed at the Trimdon Folk Festival in 2001, the title frequently changing hands thereafter between Bert and retired railwayman George Hood, from Pelaw.

The world title? “Oh aye,” Bert insisted. “We’ve had people from Newton Aycliffe and all ower.”

He had moves like the Shotton Stott and the Roker Reverse Ripple, taught at schools and old folks’ groups, loved what he did. “I once saw a lass in Scotland, brilliant, but she just couldn’t manage the Fishburn Flick.”

When he was champion he’d sign letters WCSP; when he wasn’t he seemed unperturbed. “I’m still world famous in Fishburn.”