ON the flat, fertile floodplain behind the long village of Neasham is a tumbledown tin hut on the edge of a broad field.

It is a quiet, country setting today, with the wind whistling through the gaps in the tin hut, but during the First World War, this was a “Danger Area” because bullets whistled across the floodplain and the tin hut was used either as a munitions store or as a canteen.

This was the Neasham Rifle Range where thousands of men must have been taught to fire a gun – and where at least one of them fell in love.

The flat floodplain was ideal as a shooting range. The butts were laid out at 100-yard intervals across the flat field, with the gunmen facing towards an arc in the floodbank where the targets were erected. Any stray bullets would thud into the soil behind – even today, First World War bullets are being dug from the slopes.

However, during the Second World War, when the range was still in use, a farm about a mile away, Low Maidendale, was equipped with steel shutters to protect its windows from any wildly inaccurate shooting.

Neasham’s use as a range dates back to at least 1876, when the 15th Durham Rifle Volunteer Corps (Darlington) held their regular shooting competition there.

Shooting could have started as early as March 24, 1860, when the corps was officially formed, particularly as one of the keenest advocates, Colonel Scurfield of Hurworth House, lived nearby.

However, life on the range became far more serious on November 23, 1914, when the Northern Command of the Army took over its running, and declared the floodplain a “Danger area”. In its long list of byelaws, which would have been displayed on walls and trees around the periphery, the command declares that when the red warning flags – one of which was directly behind the target on top of Broxmouth Hill – were hoisted, “no vehicle, horse or thing” was allowed to remain in the area.

Two First World War postcards survive purporting to show what the camp was like: they depict a football match taking place with large cabins in the background, and hundreds of men taking part in a physical drill with a vast array of tents behind them.

The list of lands in the occupation of Northern Command on June 1, 1918, notes a rifle range at Neasham and a training ground at Neasham Springs, on the higher ground, but if the postcards are a true depiction, the small village was home to a large military set-up.

However, it looks as if the postcards were produced for sale at every rifle range and camp across the country, with the name “Neasham” being added later to create a local souvenir which may not be entirely accurate.

There is, though, a love story told by the Hutchinson family of Darlington which has a ring of truth to it. Robert Hutchinson was born in Felling in 1898, injured on the Western Front while serving with the Durham Light Infantry, and sent back to the North-East to convalesce.

Like all convalescents, he was issued with a “hospital blues” uniform – a grey-blue single breasted jacket with a white lining that was worn open at the neck to reveal a white shirt and red tie underneath. The soldier would then wear his khaki regimental cap, complete with badge.

While Robert was convalescing, but not yet fit enough for frontline action, he was sent to Neasham camp, perhaps to pass on his experience to the new recruits learning to shoot.

There he met Daisy Patchett, who was born in Hurworth in 1894. A photograph of her survives, taken by a Darlington photographer, outside a “Navy & Army Canteen”, which looks suspiciously like an American Wild West scene.

On the back of the photo, someone has written “Daisy RHS, Neasham Camp”, and the shape of the canteen, right down to its windows, is strikingly similar to the tumbledown tin hut on the Neasham floodplain.

Robert and Daisy married in 1919 and moved to Sunderland, where Robert died in 1941, having never really recovered from his First World War injuries. Daisy, a dressmaker before the war, returned to Darlington, where she died in 1976.

The Neasham butts were marked out on the Ordnance Survey maps of the inter-war years, and then when the Second World War broke out, the range was pressed back into service, training lorryloads of regular soldiers during the week, and the Home Guard at weekends.

Robin Sanderson, who farms nearby, was five when the war started, and befriended the range warden who was in charge of shooting practice. He remembers the straw-stuffed targets swinging into position on a gantry.

“The range warden had books of what looked like coloured raffle tickets and a little pot of glue,” he says. “When practice was over, we would go and repair the targets, sticking the tickets over the holes. The bullseye was black, then a ring of pale blue, and then two shades of beige.”

Of course, quite a lot of bullets missed the target and blasted into the trees and the embankment behind. “We went up and collected the spent bullets which were full of lead, and someone in the village had a smelter and melted the lead out of them – we got a few pennies for the ones we had collected,” says Robin.

Another story remembered locally is that two separate paths led down to the latrines which were well away from the camp. One path was for the officers; the other, which probably went through a bed of stinging nettles, was for the men.

After the war, truckloads of German PoWs were sent to dismantle the range so that farming could reclaim the land, and now only the tinshed remains.

But a journey to Barnard Castle might give an idea of what was once there, as in Deepdale, to the west of the town, there is the remains of an old rifle range. Hidden for most of the year beneath the densest butterbur, a stone building survives with a gallery running off it.

The side of the gallery that the riflemen shot at has been heaped up with soil to create a berm which gave additional protection to those inside.

The men in the gallery would raise the targets on to the top of the soil embankment so that they soldiers in the butts up to 600 yards away could see them. Just as in Neasham, this was a naturally advantageous setting as the deep sides of Deepdale would harmlessly collect the stray bullets.

Once the firing had finished, the men in the gallery – who would have gained experience of what it was like to be under fire – would lower the targets and count up the scores.

The Teesdale Rifle Volunteers had been using the range since at least New Year’s Day 1879, when Colour Sergeant Ainsley won nine shillings and a cheese in a competition. Deepdale was taken over by the 3rd Durham Light Infantry which, from 1890, used Deerbolt as a campsite.

Just like Neasham, the range remained in use during the Second World War – and since it closed, it has provided generations of schoolboys with the opportunity to go digging for spent bullets.