ON a wet and woebegone winter day in Swaledale, we gathered last Tuesday to say goodbye to Tom Guy, the man at the centre of the most memorable story in my 54 years in journalism.

Tom, born in the dale and never tempted to leave it, ran a garage and had for 32 years been a retained fireman at Reeth, his last 15 as sub-officer in charge. In all that time he’d missed precious few Thursday training nights and only one fire.

When the bleepers sounded, there was competition among the part-time crew to be first at the station. “Give them half a chance and they’d bugger off without me,” Tom reckoned, though he didn’t miss a thing.

“Folk round here don’t dial 999,” someone once said, “they ring Tom and ask what he thinks.”

Anecdotes abound. There was the time they rescued a goat from up a tree, the day they decided against a hose relay and extinguished a moors fire with water from Tom’s helmet, the occasion when they clattered off to a fire at Marske and discovered that they’d lost the ladder en route. “It’s a wonder it didn’t end up in a car boot sale,” Tom’s granddaughter tells the thronging congregation.

Back in 1977 we also told the story of the row – a blazing row, surely – over the Reeth fireman’s ball. It was held annually at the Buck Inn, from which fireman Simon Coates was barred for an unrelated misdemeanour. The landlord being adamant that Simon could not go to the ball, the 12-strong brigade held a secret ballot to determine if they should pass the Buck.

By eight to four, they voted to remain. Simon, still with us, blamed the wives.

There was nothing, however – absolutely nothing – to compare with the events of the first weekend of December, 1986.

I’D been charged with spending a few days in sundry North-East villages, discovering character and characters. One was Reeth.

In the Friday evening bar at the Buck, Tom – lovely man – reported that the brigade hadn’t had a single shout, not even a whisper, since Hurricane Charley blew itself out 11 weeks earlier. Somewhat recklessly, I bet him £10 that there’d be a call that weekend.

At 9.22 on Sunday morning, full English half-eaten, the elderly fire engine two-toned past the pub. “Cow in ditch, Grange Farm, Grinton.”

Grinton’s down the hill and over the river, the poor beast in the 12ft dry ditch since 11pm the previous evening. “I didn’t like to call you then,” said Harold Brown, the farmer. “I thought I’d wait till you were up.”

Rescue proved tricky. “Now then you blokes,” said sub-officer Guy, “you spent three weeks once studying how to get a cow out of a situation like this. What did you come up with?”

“Not a lot,” said a firefighter.

“Not t’bloody cow, any road,” said another.

Tom had joined the poor beast. “Which one’s Tom and which one’s t’cow?” asked his team.

“Tom’s’t one in’t ‘at.”

Someone else suggested lowering a second ladder, so the poor beast could get up that one. “They’re mekkin’ game of you, lass,” said Tom.

Still they pondered when, about 10am, a second fire engine – from Richmond, it transpired – could be seen heading up the sunlit dale. Tom asked someone to radio headquarters to find out what was going on. There was a second cow in a ditch, this one full of slurry, on the far side of the village.

It was the first time in four years that Reeth had had overlapping calls, and even that was to a fireman’s chimney.

Then a third engine, Northallerton-based, could distantly be seen – summoned to rescue the second, stuck in the mud.

The first cow finally and ingeniously released, Tom’s boys drank farmer Brown’s tea, washed their appliance with water from the beck, wondered what the poor cow might be called.

Someone suggested Lucky. “Nay,” said Tom, “it’s us that’s lucky. Another 20 minutes and we’ve had the bugger in the slurry.”

IT was a good funeral, by no means a contradiction in terms. Reeth Brass Band played Old Rugged Cross and accompanied the hymns, family members spoke emotionally and affectionately of father, grandfather and firefighter, we sang a song of Swaledale.

The service was at St Andrew’s in Grinton, the wake in the Bridge Inn, across the road. The column instead squelched back up to the Buck, found a seat by the fire and raised a glass in memory of that sonorous Sunday morning back in 1986.

NEWS last week of the death of Babs Beverley, aged 91, stirred memories of a call from her back in the 1970s. The celebrated sisters had been in the North-East; I must have written something mildly critical. “Come down and see us some time,” said Babs, and so I did. Joy’s London mansion was elegant, the Beverleys every bit as synchronised, as sororial and as smashing as their carefully coiffed image suggested. Teddie, alone, survives.

THE last time the column was up Swaledale way (October 31) was atop The Stang – the high road which runs north-south between Arkengarthdale in North Yorkshire and Teesdale, in County Durham.

The two county councils have different approaches to winter road clearance, Hope and Scargill parish meeting seeking a judicial review of Durham’s perceived ice-age inaction.

The county’s website in turn became subject of review. On the “About us” page it claimed 12 “major centres” with a population of 7,000 or more, but listed just 11 – Barnard Castle, Bishop Auckland, Chester-le-Street, Consett, Crook, Durham, Newton Aycliffe, Peterlee, Seaham, Spennymoor and Stanley.

Was Shildon, population 9,976, the forgotten town that its residents have long supposed?

Or what, asked Chris Orton subsequently, of Ferryhill – 8,942 inhabitants in the 2011 census? “It’s no surprise We never get considered by Durham County Council,” he said.

Which was the missing link? “We value all communities in Co Durham and recognise their part in our county’s rich heritage and our vision for the future,” says Jenny Haworth, the council’s head of strategy. “We’ve recently updated the ‘About us’ section of the website which has included moving from old planning definitions to listing all settlements with a population of 5,000 or more.” There are 21.

But why, even after prompting, did the website still say there were 12 major centres of population – and were there really unlucky thirteen?

“The reference should have been amended when the other information was,” says the council. “The information has now been changed.”

And so, at long last, it has.

YET here’s another County Hall curiosity. The DCC website also said that the authority had five “service areas” – transformation and partnerships, children and young people, adult and health services and regeneration and local services.

Were there really five or was “regeneration and local services” just one department and someone in Durham had again been struggling with their arithmetic?

“There are five service areas,” replied the council, in writing. How odd that the website has now been amended to four.