THE man who made the landmark Blue Bridge at Aycliffe blue was Karl-Heinz Asbeck, the managing director of Underground Mining Machinery (UMM) which had grown up beside the bridge on the southern approach to the town centre.

UMM was a German company and its corporate colour was light blue. The story told in Memories 477 was that Mr Asbeck, who our correspondents said “was a stickler for everything being right”, had his men use some leftover paint to tidy up the dull grey bridge and transform it into a landmark.

The Northern Echo: Karl-Heinz Asbeck, of UMM in Newton AycliffeKarl-Heinz Asbeck, of UMM in Newton Aycliffe

“I hadn’t heard that story, but it sounds like him,” says his daughter, Babs, who lives in Darlington. “He wouldn’t have wanted them sitting round, but the people who worked for him all loved him – he was a very fair man.”

Mr Asbeck was a miner from Berlin. In the Second World War, he was the chief engineer on a U-boat, but on his first voyage, he was torpedoed and captured. He spent seven years as a prisoner of war, held in the Lake District, Sheffield and Canada, before returning home.

The Northern Echo: Blue Bridge, AycliffeBlue Bridge, Aycliffe

After the war, he worked for Westfalia Becorit Industrietechnik which built mining equipment.

In 1955, perhaps partly because Mr Asbeck had learned to speak English while a prisoner, he was sent over to Aycliffe to establish a branch near the Durham coalfield. It was one of the very first big companies to arrive on the new industrial estate.

The Northern Echo: UMM at Newton Aycliffe from the air in 1968, with the famous Blue Bridge on the rightUMM at Newton Aycliffe from the air in 1968, with the famous Blue Bridge on the right

“There were no buildings there then; he established it from scratch,” says Babs, who was just five months old when the family came over: her mother, Elizabeth, plus her sister Sigrid, who now lives in New York, and her late brother Gerd.

(Babs’ name is properly Bärbel – “nobody can pronounce it, in fact I can’t pronounce it, so nobody calls me that”, she says.)

The intention was for the family to return one day, but then a fourth child, Peter, who lives in Darlington, came along and they got settled in Carmel Gardens.

The German parent company had high hopes for UMM, hoping to employ more than 1,000 people. It specialised in building panzer conveyors, which were the backbone of every mine. They carried the coal back from the face to where it can be shifted above ground.

It also built manriders and minirovers – underground transport systems which carried men from the shaft bottom to the coal face.

At its peak, UMM employed 600 people. The Duke of Edinburgh came to visit the factory in the 1960s (but we can’t find a precise date).

However, with hindsight, UMM had arrived in Aycliffe just as the Durham coalfield – indeed, the British coal industry – was beginning its terminal decline. UMM tried to diversify into motorway machinery, but it couldn’t make the switch, and it closed at Christmas 1992.

Mr Asbeck himself had retired in 1983. He was very active in the area, involved in training the next generation of engineers, and as president of Bishop Auckland Rotary Club in the mid-1970s.

He died in 1993 aged 76, and he certainly left a mark – the man who made the Blue Bridge blue.

MAISIE MATTINSON was born in Coatham Mundeville just before the start of the Second World War. Her father was a quarryman at Aycliffe and her first job was weighing the blocks of stone.

She remembers the Blue Bridge being built in the mid 1950s in the days before the houses of the new town of Aycliffe covered the area.

“We’d get off the bus at the Gretna Green Wedding Inn and walk up to my aunt Nancy’s house,” she says. “There was a little cinder path beside the railway line where we used to pick wild strawberries.

“My aunt lived at Simpasture on the line with massive steam trains going past. To get to her house we had to cross the tracks, but we always knew when it was safe because you could hear them coming a mile off.”

Maisie believes she was the last bride at the St Mary Magdalene Church at Coatham Mundeville. In 1959, she married her husband, John, who was stationed at Catterick, and their life together took them down to Ascot.

MATT LALLY, who grew up in Newton Aycliffe between 1957 and 1966, gets in touch from Wiltshire to take issue with the suggestion in Memories 477 that the Golden Arrow train was ever seen on the East Coast Main Line at Ricknall.

“The Golden Arrow ran from London to Dover and then onto the train ferry to Paris,” he says.

Indeed, the Fleche d’Or was actually a French first class service that ran from Paris to Calais in 1926. In 1929, Southern Railway on our side of the Channel ran the Golden Arrow first class service from London to Dover and then onto its new first class ferry, the Canterbury, which went across the water to meet the Fleche d’Or.

Over time, The Golden Arrow lost its first class exclusivity but, the war aside, it ran until 1972. It is hard to see how it was diverted to run through Aycliffe…

OF course, the new town of Aycliffe exists because of the Royal Ordnance Factory that was established in 1941 to make munitions for the war.

In recent Memories, we’ve been telling the stories of some of the 17,000 “Aycliffe Angels” who worked there – they were largely local women who arrived around the clock on foot, on bike, by bus and by train to work on three shifts.

It was dangerous work. Figures are imprecise. There were uncounted explosions, well over a score of deaths and plenty of disfigurements. Sadly, as Memories 476 told, the worst explosion was on May 3, 1945, when eight people were killed just six days before the end of the war.

Chemicals in the explosives that the women were handling reacted with the melanin in their skin to create a yellow pigment. They became known as “the canary girls” because of their colour. It wasn’t dangerous and over time, it faded, but it is believed that some of the Aycliffe Angels gave birth to yellow babies who had a curious yellow hue to them.

Again, it faded over time.

The yellowness of the Angels has inspired Annie Wright, a founder member of Darlington’s Vane Women group of poets, to write a series of nine poems. The series can be found in her latest book, Dangerous Pursuit of Yellow, published by Smokestack Books. For more details about the book, and to see the Aycliffe Angels series, go to

This is one of her poems:

III The Fundamental Things Apply

In February 1942 we’d been on earlies

so Audrey and me arranged to meet one Friday

for High Tea and the pictures.

When it was our turn in the queue

a chap behind us started whistling

and his pal called out, Well blow me,

if it isn’t a pair of Aycliffe canaries!

We went beetroot, under yellow stains

that all our scrubbing couldn’t hide.

Audrey dug her hands deep into her pockets.

You pay, she whispered and I did

because my fingers were only a little brown.

We were all right in the dark

with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

I wanted her to leave Laszlo, return to Paris

with him, even though you knew she couldn’t.

When Rick put her on the plane with Laszlo

not himself, I sobbed and couldn’t stop.

Next morning I could hear A kiss is still a kiss

as the Blue Band asked us to stand. I knew immediately.

There’d been an accident on lates –

two hundred pounds of fulminate exploded.

Edna, Irene, Alice and Phoebe gone,

instantly. We’d a minute’s silence.