MEMORIES 211 strolled down Front Street in Witton Gilbert.

Alice Potter in Darlington wrote: "When researching my family, I discovered that my great-grandfather, John McCormick, and his family lived in a pub, the Oddfellows Arms, in Front Street in 1901.

"The family had come over from Sligo in Ireland at the time of the potato famine of the 1840s – John's father, Michael, was killed in Cornsay colliery when the roof fell in on him."

Cornsay Colliery was about five miles west of Witton Gilbert. It opened in 1868 and in its heyday before the First World War, it employed about 700 men and boys, and had 270 coke ovens. It went into rapid decline after the war, and only employed a handful of men until its closure in September 1953. Nevertheless, in its 85-year life, 35 men were killed in the colliery, including Michael, who died in January 1876.

His death warranted a paragraph in The Northern Echo.

He left his widow, Mary, with nine children, the youngest of whom was three. John was nine, and in later life Alice discovered him augmenting his miner's income by running the Oddfellows.

"Looking at your picture of Front Street, the Oddfellows Arms seems to have been the farthest building in the distance. These big families often ran a shop or pub as well as mining, and the pub could just have been their front room.

"Eventually it became a house again and then it was demolished. A garage and petrol station were on the site for a while and the pop group Prefab Sprout famously practised there at one time!"

This is a great claim to fame. Prefab Sprout were one of the great nearly-groups of the 1980s. They were founded by brothers Paddy and Martin McAloon, who were born in Consett, but whose family moved to run the garage in Witton Gilbert when they were still in their formative years. Their progress from Front Street to Top of the Pops is charted in their 1988 album, From Langley Park to Memphis.

THE recent articles about dart-blowing have hit the bullseye. There has been a lot of response.

Dart-blowers, you will remember, put darts sideways in their mouths and then spat them at a target as far away as 36.5ft. The first of them was Syd Hall – real name Stephen – who came from Darlington and who in 1938 was crowned the first, and only, World Dart Pouffing Champion (Memories 214). At the time of his triumph, he was a boilermaker at Cleveland Bridge.

The story explained to reader Colin Bennett something has father used to talk about.

“He said that he had a work mate at Shaw and Knight in Bishop Auckland who used to blow darts in local pubs, and that his name was Steve Hall,” says Colin. “Dad used to say that Steve was living in a cottage near Bolam at that time.”

There can only be one Steve Hall dart-blower, so we guess he worked at S&K – a famous sanitaryware manufacturer with tall chimneys beside the railway line – before he hit the big time as the world champion dart-pouffer.

RONDART was the second generation of dart-blowers. He was Syd Hall’s cousin, and Rondart – real name Ronald Tomlinson – spent 40 years as a dart-blowing professional, touring the world, and appearing on stage with everyone from Larry Grayson to Paul Daniels.

Rondart hailed from West Auckland, where members of his family still live.

“Rondart was my dad’s brother,” says John Tomlinson proudly. “The Tomlinson family moved from Horden to West Auckland in the late 1920s, and my grandfather, Adam, set up a coal business with five wagons.”

When the Second World War began, the wagons were taken into military service without the family receiving compensation, so they had to start again – this time in the scrap trade. In 1959, John’s parents, Robert and Hannah, established a scrapyard on the old colliery yard in West Auckland, which was called R&H Tomlinson.

“My uncle Ron would put in a Saturday morning’s work there when he was home,” says John. “My father bought the yard in 1959 for £590. It was about four acres, and when we sold it about eight years ago, we got £1.5m.” There are now more than 100 houses on the site.

IN Memories 216, there was a selection of snow scenes, including one in which an Echo photographer, in December 1941, took a picture out of his front door somewhere in Darlington. His car was parked outside.

Sally McDonagh suggested it was a Ford Popular and Mark Cooper described it as a "sit up and beg" Ford.

John Biggs agreed it was a late 1930s Ford, either an Eight or a Ten. "The radiator grilles of the two cars were slightly different – the Ten grille had three vertical divisions," he says, "but even with a magnifying glass, it's not possible to tell from the photo which this is.

"Perhaps the most interesting feature is that the headlights are filled with devices to reduce light output. It was taken in 1941 – of course, war time, with blackout restrictions in force."

MEMORIES 214 spent time in "the most amazing room in Durham", which involved a lot of bad puns about being "well plastered".

It is in a splendid Georgian house in Castle Chare, which is currently home to the former mayor of Durham City, Mary Hawgood, and her husband, John. The grand dining room, with views to the cathedral, is extravagantly covered in ornamental plasterwork: fruits, flowers, heraldic symbols and symmetrical panels.

Dorothy Tarelli was among several readers have kindly pointed us in the direction of a new book, Out of Italy, by Hugh Shankland, which tells the story of Italian immigrants to the North-East. It is a fascinating study, mentioning practically all the families involved in the great ice cream boom of a hundred years ago – itself one of Memories' favourite subjects.

Another chapter in the book tells of another great boom: the rococo stucco fashion of the early 18th Century, when stately homes were all the rage. Their wealthy owners were inspired by their Grand Tours of the continent, particularly by the perfectly proportions of Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, which they mixed with the elegance of a Parisian style of interior decoration called rococo.

It was, says Hugh Shankland, "a style as elegant and frivolous as a minuet, perfectly attuned to the tastes of the leisured classes of pre-revolutionary Europe".

Rococo demanded rooms be covered with stucco – an intricate form of plaster made out of powdered marble, gypsum, lime, sand and water.

Just as only an Italian could make a proper ice-cream, so only a Italian-Swiss from the Alpine lakes near Lugano, could do proper stucco.

These artisan workers became known as "stuccadores", touring from building site to building site armed with moulds and pattern books.

The first in our region was Giovanni Bagutti, who worked on Castle Howard in North Yorkshire and Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland in the first three decades of the 18th Century.

He was followed by Francesco Vassalli, who did the bath house at Gibside, near Rowlands Gill, and Aske Hall, near Richmond – none of which survives.

Then came Pietro-Lafranchini who did Wallington Hall in Northumberland and the Garter Room at Lumley Castle.

And then, most prolific of all, was Giuseppe Cortese – or Joseph, as he was known in York, where he was based. In his 40-year career, he worked a lot in North Yorkshire with architect John Carr, and in County Durham, he won contracts to beautify Hardwick Hall at Sedgefield (his rooms are now lost), the King Charles Room in Auckland Castle, plus Elemore Hall, Croxdale Hall, Aykley Heads House and Coxhoe Hall, all around Durham City. Plus, of course, Mary and John Hawgood's wonderful room.

"Other than the elan so evident in the work they left, nothing is known about the personalities of these foreign craftsmen who created such beguiling settings for the lives of the good, the bad and the ugly in so many of the North-East's grandest homes," says Hugh Shankland.

BLOB Out of Italy: The Story of Italians in the North East of England by Hugh Shankland (Troubador, £12.99)