THE day before Boris Johnson helicoptered into the George Hotel at Piercebridge, Ralph Wilkinson and Ray Wade landed back there, too.

It was June 21, 2016, 40 years to the day since – then just 21 and 24 – they took over one of the North-East’s best known inns.

“Midsummer Day, so hot that the tar was melting on the roads and it stayed like that for months,” Ray recalls. It is by no means the only example of changing times.

The George, a few miles west of Darlington but on the Yorkshire bank of the Tees, was best known for its grandfather clock – the one that stopped short, never to go again, when the old man died.

“It was the first thing the Americans wanted to see. I even had to sing the song for them,” says Ralph, then North Yorkshire’s youngest licensee.

It was owned by Swallow Hotels, part of Vaux Brewery. The friends, both sons of Co Durham dairy farmers, decided to take the lease after a few drinks – “and then a few more” – in the Penthouse Club in London.

“The next day we woke up and wondered what on earth we’d done – probably a bit like Boris that Friday morning,” says Ray, who sold his Mini for £700 to help raise a deposit and has further reason to remember their first night at the George. “We hadn’t even any barmaids. Ralph said he knew a lass called Sally Ann, worked at the Black Bull in Moulton, and she came over to help.”

Three years later they were married. Love at first sight? “I think it probably was.”

The George, conversely, had seen better days – “It was very tired,” says Ray – Swallow so anxious to put a few miles between Piercebridge and Sunderland that they even took away the corporate beer mats. Its fortunes revived from the very first night. “A lot of it was just hard work,” says Ralph. “Sometimes we’d be clearing up after a function at 3am and serving breakfasts four hours later.” In three years, turnover quadrupled.

Ralph stayed for six-and-a-half years before taking over the Stanwick Arms at nearby Aldbrough St John. Ray remained for another three, sold the lease back to Vaux and opened a café in Darlington. He and Sally Ann now run a hugely successful event catering company; Ralph for the past 21 years has had – among other interests – the greatly garlanded Number 22 pub on the edge of Darlington town centre. It’s there that the three of us spend a nostalgic ninety minutes, recalling the happy days when pubs had up-front landlords not back-shop managers and when, likely as not, a pub would simply be known by the first name of the person who ran it.

Ralph’s majors on real ale, attracts an older – some might say more discerning – clientele than other town centre haunts. “My cafe staff used to call it Jurassic Park, there were so many dinosaurs in there,” says Ray.

Like Boris’s, their return visit to the George might also be described as flying. They only stopped for one. Unlike the grandfather clock, time marches on.

DURHAM Big Meeting this weekend, 150,000 expected they reckon – less a few Labour MPs, of course – and Paul Hodgson in Spennymoor spots a familiar face on the 2016 Gala poster. “Biggest Tory in ten counties and they have to choose you,” he reports, questionably. The picture was taken beneath the Royal County Hotel balcony last year: given the familiar phrase about getting where draughts can’t, Spennymoor folk will be unsurprised to learn that Hodgy’s on it, too.

LAST week’s column lamented the closure of yet another Methodist chapel in Swaledale. Weardale follows sadly suit. There since 1861, now with just 11 members and probably fewer regulars, the Bridge End chapel at Frosterley holds its final service at 2.30pm this Sunday.

John Wesley loved Weardale, visited at least 13 times. “The people are some of the liveliest in this kingdom, knowing nothing and desiring to know nothing save Jesus Christ,” his Journal observed, a little left-handedly.

Times change. Chapels at Wearhead, Westgate and St John’s Chapel have closed in recent years. Frosterley once had a Primitive Methodist chapel, too. “Wesley’s work is now almost in ruins,” observes the Weardale Gazette, rather brutally.

The column had spoken at Bridge End in 2003 – “An evening with Mike Amos,” they grandly proclaimed it – warned by the splendid Jill Hann, the minister’s wife, not to essay any jokes. “Not even the one about Fred and Ginger,” she added.

We wrote subsequently of “a splendid building, welcoming folk and a magnificent supper.” Memory further suggests that the evening ended with a joke about Fred and Ginger.

DEVOUTLY Christian, uniquely innovative and irresistibly charismatic, Bishop Auckland-based Kynren creator Jonathan Ruffer admits to a vice – “swearing, but in a posh way” – in a newspaper interview. Perhaps it explains his “motto”, outlined in the same Daily Mail piece. “Money changes people, unless you are a s**t. If you start as a s**t, you stay a s**t, but with money.”

OTHER places have bright elusive butterflies, Shildon has the dingy skipper. “Grey and dull and more like a moth,” an entomologist observed 15 years ago when – flight of fancy – first we spotted its potential.

The dingy skipper was reckoned rare, one of its few habitats the undergrowth alongside the railway line from Shildon towards Newton Aycliffe. Now the county council has created a four-metre wide tarmac path between the two stations and, whatever dim view the dingy skipper might take of it all, a stroll last week deemed it delightful.

The National Railway Museum is on the other side of the tracks; the Flying Scotsman lands there at the end of July. Wing it.

BILL Callan has died, aged 95. A wonderfully loyal Echo reader, even into his 90s he’d send snippets – usually culled from his favourite newspaper.

No small ad was so inconsequential that it escaped Bill’s scrutiny – give me strength, we once even advertised “dung bells” – though his finest hour may have been in 2009 when, carefully circled, he returned two howlers from the same edition. The first was about door-to-door salesmen “pedalling goods” – on their bikes, presumably – the second about the pop band Jedward “reeking havoc” on X-factor.

Bill, who lived in Richmond, was a bit more sympathetic to that one. “Let’s face it,” he wrote, “their act stinks.”

…and finally, Cliff Tunstall in Hartlepool points out that last Wednesday’s pictures of Mr Nigel Farage at the European parliament show the Union Jack in front of him is upside down. “Any older serviceman will recognise that as a signal of distress,” says Cliff. “I wonder who set it up.”