IT’S 4.15am on the clock and 10 degrees on the thermometer when we leave home on a moonlit Easter morning. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s still ten degrees 75 minutes later, 2,000ft up on Middlehope Moor.

The world slumbers, save for the young lady in Toft Hill tottering trepidantly homewards (it’s to be hoped it’s homewards, anyway.)

Middlehope Moor’s way up Weardale, road signs informing us not only that this is a Unesco Global Eco-Park (whatever one of those may be) but an Area of Outstanding Beauty. Gosh, and here’s us thinking it was a slum clearance area.

The Easter dawn service – they called it a sunrise service until experience overcame optimism – has been an annual occasion since 1989. The sheet has four hymns. “We may not sing all of them,” says Bruce Sayer, the newish Methodist minister, but if they don’t sing Thine Be the Glory, I’m going back to bed.

The minister’s wife and bairns are up with him. He has a music stand, plays guitar, keeps it succinctly joyous, occasionally glances over his shoulder as if wary of being followed by a moon shadow.

What he’s looking for, hoping for, is the sun. On the stroke of six, as if powered by GMT, it stalks o’er the dew (as the bard had it) of yon high eastern hill.

The final hymn’s Thine Be the Glory: a happy, happy Easter.

BREAKFAST’S taken in Eastgate village hall: hard boiled eggs, hot cross buns, jarping, joshing conviviality. The Eastgate platoon had featured in Dad’s Army the previous evening; here Elizabeth Bell soldiers pretty much single-handedly and prepares a feast fit for a king.

Conversation turns to the pronunciation of Eastgate and Westgate – dale folk compromise, first syllable stressed in one, second in t’other – but agree that Middlehope’s Middleup, as in Ayesupburn.

We then talk of St Michael’s church in Frosterley and in the same breath of Basil Noble, one of Darlington’s most colourful characters of the past 100 years.

Former Royal Artillery battery sergeant major, chartered surveyor, accomplished writer, magician – “The Great Basilio” – and bowler hat champion, he’d undertaken many assignments for The Northern Echo, including a trip to the then-troubled Toxteth ahead of which he went unshaven for several days. “I looked like Yasser Arafat in a flat cap,” he wrote.

He also enjoyed dressing up, once disguising himself as a tramp in an attempt to beg from fellow Rotarians on the High Row. “Some of them ran a mile,” he recorded.

Though a Conservative and very much a Maggie man – “intellect as well as beauty” – he got on with almost everyone, even Arthur Scargill. “He seemed the sort of fellow you’d welcome to a Saturday morning fourball,” wrote Basil, a former captain of Blackwell Grange golf club in Darlington.

Another of his many passions was Frosterley marble, mined in Weardale for centuries until 1914. In 1986 he heard of the discovery of a Frosterley marble font in a graveyard in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, hired a JCB the better to excavate it and borrowed a lorry to bring it back north. He called a public meeting, helped raise £3,000, saw it installed at the front of St Michael’s.

The church is recently redundant. Judith Bainbridge, Frosterley’s other patron saint, says there’s much agonising about what to do with the font. They’d best be careful. Though he died in 2004, aged 90, the Great Basilio may yet have a trick up his sleeve.

MANY of those Easter early risings were during the 17-year life of the At Your Service column. Though it got about a bit, only one came from foreign chimes, and that was Notre Dame.

The headline – French pronunciation necessary – was “Dame disgrace”.

It was the first Sunday of November 2008, 8.30am, Mass followed by Lauds at nine, notices urging to beware of pickpockets and that baseball caps were forbidden.

Everywhere appeared commercialised. If the capital’s great grandmama hadn’t quite sold her soul, it was certainly available for hire. Biblically, they were money changers and those that sold doves.

Slot machines, in full vigour as services continued, sold Notre Dame medals for two euros. Others dispensed souvenirs and prayer cards.

Tourists, twittering, tweeting, wandered wantonly and discoursed freely “Though it is in the centre of the cathedral,” we wrote, “the service is almost a sideshow, not so much an act of worship as a conveyor belt, an ecclesiastical go-as-you-please.”

There was no sermon. Had there been, it would have been by no means the first in which we’d understood barely a word, and most of the others within 25 miles of Darlington.

Next to us, a chap in a black homburg – no baseball caps, see – sat down half way through and took something from his briefcase. “Had it contained a strawberry jam croissant – had, indeed, there been a cardinal selling indulgences in the corner or the Archbishop of Paris bearing a sandwich board with the message ‘Eat at Joe’s’ it would not by now be particularly surprising,” said the column.

In a nearby street – the Rue de Tat, honest – a shop sold Quasimodo souvenirs among sundry sacred spin-offs. A long time since we’d read the book, it was impossible to remember whether or not old Quasi wore a cowboy hat.

The great church was still high and still handsome, but had become oddly and ineluctably secular, an uncomfortable manage of ifs and flying buttresses.

Last week’s fire was tragic and terrible, of course, but as the Easter sun rose over glorious Weardale it was possible once again to suppose that the best things in life are free.

BENEATH the headline “The minister who preached three-minute sermons”, The Times carries an obituary of the Rev Stanley Jones, 94, still remembered among Darlington’s older church folk.

The three minutes were Tyne Tees Television’s epilogue slot, an end to the night’s viewing in the days when folk had a bed to go to.

The usual viewing figures were put at about 20,000, of whom half had probably fallen asleep in the chair, to be wakened by that high-pitched whine at shutdown, and the other half were walking the dog round the block.

Stan Jones had been a young Presbyterian minister in South Shields, hitched a lift to Newcastle and found himself driven by a Tyne Tees chap who recommended he get in touch with the religious affairs department.

On the late night line-up he was talent-spotted by an elder of St George’s church in Darlington, which had a large congregation but no minister. Stan was persuaded to move.

Clearly he had more televisual appeal than had the column. On the one occasion we recorded an epilogue, in the early 1970s, transmission was delayed by some unexpected astronautical escapade. The epilogue went out some time after 3am to an audience of two. That was the nadir, Middleup Moor the zenith.