WHORLTON LIDO was a wonderful place for a splash and paddle on a summer’s day in the cooling waters of the River Tees.

It was an idyllic spot, where nature had paved the riverbed and created satisfying rapids that captured the hearts of children.

Its natural beauties were augmented by a manmade wonder: the wobbly Whorlton bridge, which is claimed to be "the oldest suspension in the country supported unaided by its original chains".

And finally, from Easter 1971 until May 2005, the lure of the lido was completed by a miniature steam train that rattled round a half-a-mile long track and through a tunnel.

The village of Whorlton is high on the northern, Durham bank of the river, the road up from the bridge being a steep, wooded hairpin. The southern, Yorkshire side, between Thorpe Hall and the village of Wycliffe, has gentle grassy meadows, and it was here that the lido was laid out.

This area seems to have been a river crossing point for centuries. In 1691, James Browne was granted £1 to buy a passenger boat to ferry passengers over from Wycliffe. They waited for him in the riverside Boot and Shoe Inn, which doubled as a cobbler’s shop, and today in Wycliffe there is a waterfront holiday let called the Boot and Shoe Cottage.

In 1829, Parliament granted permission for the Staindrop to Greta Bridge turnpike road to be built, with a bridge over the Tees at Whorlton. They started building a traditional stone bridge, but a Tees flood washed its beginnings away, so they re-started, this time under the direction of John and Benjamin Green, of Newcastle, creating an early suspension bridge.

It opened on July 17, 1831, and until the First World War, you had to pay a toll at the cottage on the Durham side.

It is said that the lido – from the name of the famous beach resort at Venice – opened beneath the bridge in 1905. While it probably was a popular area, we can’t find any record of it being an organised attraction from that date.

Indeed, the first organised event seems to be the soldiers of the Second World War who used the meadows as a battle training school. In the run up in D-Day, Teesdale had thousands of men in six camps – Stainton, Streatlam, Deerbolt, Westwick, Humbleton and Barforth – and on the lido field, they dug trenches and stormed across the river to tackle the steep Durham cliffs.

On December 4, 1942, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood on the bridge and watched them. It was a “hellish cold” day, with ice cracking at the water’s edge as men waded back and forth up to their chests, but Churchill waved his famous V sign at them and sent a message congratulating their “first class show”.

Apparently, you can still see ironwork smelted into the rocks from those army days.

In 1953, the grassy meadow was purchased by Herbert Dunn, of Bishop Auckland. “My grand-dad liked the spot, saw that it had potential and so he bought it from the Scrope family which had owned it for centuries,” says Ridley Dunn.

We met Herbert last week when he was running the earliest miniature railway on a Bishop Auckland recreation ground in the late 1940s. He then took his railway to Seaton Carew before selling it to concentrate on Whorlton lido.

When Herbert died in 1957, his son Raymond took control of the lido, gradually improving the facilities – in the early days, daytrippers had to nip over the wobbly suspension bridge to use the toilet in the tollkeeper’s cottage.

At Easter 1971, Raymond bought the Lakeside Miniature Railway from Southport and installed it at Whorlton. It was initially worked by a diesel engine called Wendy, which was named after Raymond’s dog, but soon other engines came along.

For instance, in the mid-1970s, Bill Stewart built a 15-inch gauge replica of the Flying Scotsman at Washington Sheet Metalworks, and it brought the romance of steam to Whorlton for a couple of years.

When Lambton Lion Park near Chester-le-Street closed in 1978, its Rio Grande engine and seven carriages and track were moved to Whorlton so that there was now a five-minute dogbone-shaped ride, through a manmade tunnel. On good days, 1,000 cars from all over the North-East could be parked up at the lido.

In 1985, Michael Dunn – the fourth generation of miniature mad railway Dunns – bought a Barnes Atlantic steam engine called John for his 21st birthday.

In 1990, the Dunns decided they were done with the lido, and sold it to Ted Watson whose family kept the Wendy engine working on the line until 2005. They even excavated a lake around which the line ran.

In 2005, businessman Paul Townley, of nearby Thorpe Hall, bought the lido for £300,000 and closed it down. It was a controversial move, but the lido had attracted vandalism for decades which had developed into drunken, anti-social behaviour – villagers in Whorlton appear to have been relieved by its closure.

In 2011, there was a proposal to lift the overgrown railway and ship it to Sierra Leone, but a group of enthusiasts decided to restore it as a private venture. The Thorpe Light Railway is still worked by Wendy, and there are public open days – hopefully more on that in future Memories when the weather is a little more encouraging for those wanting to go on a miniature train ride.

“I REMEMBER the miniature train running at Whorlton and I ended up marrying the grand-daughter of the man who built it – Albert Barnes!” says Alan Peart, from Sedgefield, whose wife, Sara, has this railway claim to fame.

“The Whorlton engine was one of six that were built between 1919 and 1930 by Albert Barnes at the Albion Works in Rhyl and they became known as the "Barnes Atlantics".

“They are quite famous in railway circles and were Joan, Michael (also known as Railway Queen), John, Billie, Michael and Billie.

“All six survive; two are in private hands, four are at the Rhyl Miniature Railway of which some are still in steam there.”

Rhyl, in north Wales, is the oldest miniature railway in the country, having opened in 1911. Albert Barnes, who had the seaside town’s amusements, ran it as part of the tourist offer, and had to build locos to go on it.

“The engine with the Whorlton link is John,” says Alan. “It went into service from the Albion Works in Rhyl in 1921 and later worked at Alton Towers, Whorlton, Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, Evesham Vale Light Railway and is now, I think, in private hands in Oxfordshire.”