IN many old postcards and photographs of Darlington town centre, like the one on today’s front cover, there is a distant spire.

It is a fine spire, tall and slim, slender and elegant, which is covered in yellow-green algae and architectural detail.

“Nec tamen consumebatur” shouts a Latin legend in big capitals at the passing traffic on Northgate and the crowd of takeaway shops on the other side of the road.

Above the writing is a carving of a burning bush, and to its side are two learned, bearded stone heads which seem to be deep in conversation while a dragon, with mouth of flame, scrambles down the middle of the doorway.

Today, people are invited to have a proper look at the spire and then enter the doorway beneath it – without getting torched by the dragon – as the United Reformed Church commemorates its 150th anniversary.

It was built as a Presbyterian church – a Protestant faith – and held its first service on March 24, 1869. The service was followed by a dinner in the Fleece Hotel and then by a public tea in Central Hall which was attended by 500 people.

The Presbyterians really began organising in Darlington, largely among the immigrant Scottish community, in 1863, holding services in the Mechanics Institute on Skinnergate. In 1865, a young, energetic minister from Kinross, William Johnman, arrived and began addressing the lack of a building.

Another important figure was Robert Lamb, an architect from Newcastle, who moved to Darlington and became one of the first elders in the church. He became the chief fund-raiser.

For £750, the Presbyterians bought a plot of land on Northgate from the Pease family, and instructed a Darlington architect, John Ross, to design it, probably in conjunction with Mr Lamb.

Their church was large enough to seat 520 people and was built of Houghton Bank stone, quarried at Houghton-le-Side, near Heighington. The steeple was 120ft high, with a representation of the parable of the Burning Bush on it – the Latin talks of how the bush is burning without being burnt – and with the carved heads of 16th Century Scottish Protestant reformers John Calvin and John Knox on it.

Quite where the dragon comes in is a bit of a mystery. The church was originally dedicated to St George, so perhaps it is the fire-breathing monster that he vanquished.

However, the architects liked their dragon. Mr Ross and Mr Lamb went into partnership and their biggest contract was to build Northallerton Town Hall in 1874. There are no dragons in the middle of Northallerton High Street, unfortunately, but when the duo designed Cockerton Methodist Church in 1875, they put an identical toast-making creature in the middle of its doorway.

On the opening day of the £3,600 church in Northgate, when the spire was “rapidly approaching completion”, the preacher was a fiery fellow from Glasgow, the Reverend James Wells. Once he had finished, the congregation adjourned to Mrs Hayward’s Fleece Hotel at the south end of High Row (where Boyes is today) for dinner and speeches and toasts.

Once they’d exhausted Mrs Hayward’s hospitality, they moved to Central Hall where the “tables were loaded to repletion with substantial and excellent fare and the trays were furnished” by 19 female members of the congregation, who flitted among the tables feeding the 500.

Then followed more speeches with another visiting clergyman, the Reverend George Robertson of Whitby, telling them that “as the devil sets his traps to catch the unwary you should set yours also and endeavour to entice as many young people as possible into your communion”.

St George’s succeeded in entrapping a new generation of worshippers. It established mission churches in the Springfield and Rise Carr areas of town, and set up sister churches in Middlesbrough and Harrogate.

In 1874, members of the congregation were allowed to attach umbrella stands at the ends of the pews at their own expense, and a harmonium was hired for £7 7s a year – a big step in a church which in those days regarded musical accompaniment to a service as an adornment too far. To accompany the harmonium, a choir was formed and £3 9s was splashed out on cushions for the lady choir members – the male singers obviously had tough bottoms.

In 1891, a referendum was held to see if the harmonium should be upgraded to an organ, and when the result, closely fought, was in favour, JJ Binns of Leeds installed a £600 music machine which is still one of the features of the church.

As the 20th Century wore on, in common with most other churches, the Presbyterian congregation declined and in 1972, at a national level, it joined up with the Congregational Church. Both churches originated from a Protestant tradition in which they were run by the people rather than a hierarchy of bishops.

However, in Darlington, the creation of the United Reformed Church meant there was a spare church building, and the sad decision was made to leave the Congregational Church in Union Street, which had been built in 1862 to seat 700 worshippers, with a steeple a mere 100ft high, at a cost of £2,000. The church, behind Boots and Halifax on Northgate, became a carpet showroom until, in 2012, it was struck by fire. Now it stands forlornly empty, except for pigeons and rats.

Yet this has enabled St George’s to survive so that now its 120ft tall steeple has stretched elegantly into the skies over Northgate for exactly 150 years.

To celebrate, a coffee morning is being held today from 10.30am to 1pm when the church will be open for inspection. Tonight, there is a free social evening starting at 7.30pm with café style light refreshments and entertainment.

Tomorrow, which is 150 years to the day since the first service, the Sunday service will start at 10.45am and will be taken by the Reverend Dave Herbert, the Moderator of the Northern Synod of the URC.

AN oddity from the Northgate church registers: on September 9, 1935, the church protested against a proposal to build a dog track nearby.

Greyhound racing had developed in the US after 1912 when the mechanical hare had been invented, and by 1927, there were 40 tracks in the UK. Was one really suggested for the Northgate area?

IN the English Civil War of 1641-1652, the English Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians were usually on the side of the Parliamentarians against the king. Part of their motivation was a wish to purify the church of its fancy Roman Catholic ways.

After the death of their leader Oliver Cromwell and the restoration of the monarchy, Puritans were persecuted – in 1662, 2,000 Puritan ministers were ejected from the Church of England. They continued to operate underground, and in 1672, the Reverend Rogers, a Barnard Castle clergyman, was spotted preaching his Puritan ways in Darlington.

By the late 18th Century, the English Puritans had become known as Congregationalists – they were largely run by their congregation. Because of their similar outlook, in Darlington, they were worshiping with the Presbyterians in Northgate.

But in 1806, a fearsome Presbyterian minister called William Graham drove 12 Congregationalists out to set up their own home in Union Street. In 1812, they built the Bethel Chapel – "house of God" – which in 1862 was rebuilt as the Congregational Bicentenary Memorial Church, which commemorated “the great ejection” of the 2,000 in 1662. Those words, carved in Gothic script, can still be seen on the church doorway – but, hurry, the building can’t surely stand up for long.