CHRISTMAS overflowed, as always it does hereabouts. Stockinged surprises included A Field Guide to the English Clergy, a greatly entertaining – some might say irreverent – volume which relies heavily on the adage that it’s awfully hard to libel the dead.

How else might the Rev Thomas Espin, Vicar of Tow Law for 46 years, be categorised among “Nutty professors”?

Former Bishop of Durham and Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey is included under “Prodigal sons” – perhaps chiefly because of the peculiar discovery in the River Wear a few years back of many of his personal treasures – there’s an 18th century curate of Lastingham on the North Yorkshire moors who combined clerical office with running the village pub and under “Rogues” there’s Lancelot Blackburne, a former Archbishop of York and pirate.

Blackburne’s behaviour, it was observed, was never that expected of a cleric and rarely that of a pirate.

It’s towards Thomas Espin, however, that the column eagerly turns its myopic gaze – truly a stellar figure.

Made a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society when just 19, he’d been curate of nearby Wolsingham, where his father was rector, before somehow humping his giant telescope to Tow Law in 1888. Tow Law, as many readers will know, is rather closer the heavens.

The Field Guide tells of his discovery and measurement of thousands of red stars and double stars from the observatory in the vicarage garden. It tells of the “complex” tropical fish aquarium in the basement, of the rifle range and gymnasium converted from his predecessor’s capacious wine cellar, of the hard tennis court and the sanatorium in the garden, both built for the health and welfare of parishioners.

While Thomas Espin might spend 13 hours a night looking to the skies, it may never have been said that he overlooked the day job.

He also built a fire-breathing X-ray machine, choristers persuaded to swallow small change by way of guinea piggery. “A good deal of benefit was accomplished,” said a Northern Echo report in 1911.

After his death, aged 76, the X-ray machine was bagged by the local GP, the telescopes by learned bodies and a crater named in his memory on the unseen side of the moon – might it be where the Chinese so historically landed a spacecraft last week?

The book supposes him to have been eccentric, and in that may have a point – but to astronomers worldwide, the nutty professor remains very much a star.

*A Field Guide to the English Clergy by the Rev Fergus Butler-Gallie (Oneworld, £12 99.)

THERE’S more. From these dusty shelves wheezes The Stargazer of Tow Law, a 50-page booklet published in 1992 by that small town’s local history society.

It’s foreword is by Patrick Moore – “the nineteenth century was above all the age of the talented amateur” – the preface by the Rev Anthony Driver, then Tow Law’s vicar. “This man’s life story is indeed unusual,” he writes, by way of astronomical understatement.

Espin, it’s noted, still found time to be magistrates’ chairman at both Stanhope and Wolsingham, to be founder president of Newcastle Astronomical Society and to take a six-week foreign holiday each year – welcomed home with a fusillade from the Church Lads Brigade cannon.

He was microscopist, geologist, botanist and misogynist – preferring the company of his cats, it’s said – and refusing to let women sing in the choir. Ever independent, he also declined to have a parochial church council.

He was pianist, organist and composer, accompanying his own services. His library contained 2,200 books on theology, the adjoining room a huge collection of fine china. The postman regularly delivered hundreds of panatelas and half a stone of tobacco from his supplier in London, though he never smoked before breakfast or an hour, to the minute, before a meal.

Though remembered for giving out free milk, cod liver oil and turtle soup, he was said also to have a “benign detachment” towards the parish poor and became a special constable, aged 66, during the 1926 General Strike.

Though one of Durham’s bishops simply supposed him “that queer star gazer from Tow Law”, Espin every Christmas sent his lordship a pineapple by way of episcopal homage. “One wonders,” says the local history society, “if it should have been an olive branch.”

THE internet, which not even the astronomer extraordinary might have foreseen, carries two of his obituaries.

“As Vicar of Tow Law he gained and held the respect and high affection of all. He was a most friendly and hospitable person with a keen sense of humour,” said the Royal Astronomical Society.

“One of the greatest of amateur astronomers,” said The Observatory in a piece written by William Milburn, Espin’s assistant, who became clerk to Tow Law Urban District Council.

His grave stands near the door of the church he served for almost half a century.

TOW Law no longer has a resident parish priest. The last was Peter Davis, an engaging if rather anxious Australian monk who claimed that both spirits and body temperature were sustained by inexhaustible tins of Campbell’s lobster bisque. When last heard of, he was a buffet car attendant on the west coast main railway line.

THE Rev John Garnage fails to find favour in the Field Guide but is included in Tales of Old County Durham, another stocking filler.

Garnage was rector of St Edmund’s, Sedgefield, from 1727-47, said to be both avuncular and popular and annually accustomed to receiving tithes – a tenth of his flock’s income. Tithing Day in 1747 fell on December 20, parishioners expected to arrive at the rectory with their offerings.

Shortly beforehand, however, word wandered the village that the priest was unwell. Anxious for the income, Mrs Garnage insisted that it was no more than a bug and that the reverend gentleman was recovering in the next room.

In truth he’d died two weeks previously, his body salted by his wife lest – how may this be put? – her visitors turn their noses up. John Garnage is said still to haunt the area around the church.

A couple of years ago a pub called The Pickled Parson opened in Sedgefield centre. Last week we paid a visit – excellent pint of Three Brothers ale from down the road in Stockton, decent sandwiches, seriously stretched service.

Those eating the oxtail pie were encouraged to make a “discretionary” 20p donation to St Edmund’s roof fund. For their generosity, John Garnage would have them preserved.

THE Pickled Parson’s Facebook page records a visit from five “professional” gentlemen, aggrieved to be asked by a member of management if they might not be better drinking elsewhere. That one was imminently anticipating the arrival of his first born and was himself dressed as a baby may have had something to do with it – or perhaps it just wasn’t nappy hour.

…and finally, Sedgefield gets another unexpected airing in Valerie Grove’s radio column in The Oldie magazine.

Ms Grove had had a new Azatom radio, made in the burgeoning County Durham town, but discovered that her daughter’s lurcher puppy had bitten through the earphones cable.

Expecting to be greeted by a robot, she rang the company and instead found herself talking to Simon Taylor about George W Bush’s visit to the Dun Cow in 2003 (when Simon was still at school).

Ms Grove considers the Azatom to be “by far the best” radio she’s ever had. The reception was pretty good, too.