SALUTED worldwide, Witton Park was at the heart of the protracted, but ultimately successful battle against Category D, a Durham County Council “no development” policy which condemned 121 communities to a slow death.

Half a century later, the reborn village near Bishop Auckland is again anxiously engaged with the county council, fearing that a vital road link may permanently be closed.

Engineers have discovered that the 20m bridge over the River Wear, linking Witton Park with neighbouring villages like High Grange and Witton-le-Wear and with Crook and Weardale beyond, is extensively corroded and unsafe. It was closed, originally for painting and maintenance, almost a year ago.

Now the council says that it will cost £5.6m to replace the bridge – one of few which itself goes under a railway bridge – but that the annual “structures capital maintenance budget” for the whole county, including 1,000 structures and 487 road bridges, is under £2m. Strengthening and refurbishing the existing bridge would itself cost £2.5m, but with a potential weight restriction, while a “bridleway” bridge would cost £1.6m. Removing the existing bridge and permanently closing the road north-westwards from Witton Park would cost £1m.

The Northern Echo:

Worried villagers have now been told there is a “reasonable alternative route” – via the A68 and adding eight miles to every round trip. The bridge adjoins a riverside area known as Paradise.

Campaigners want to know why a 2014 “principal inspection” of the bridge described it as both “good” and “reasonably good”, with necessary work costed at just £260,000, why earlier inspections were simply carried out from the river bank and how many more bridges in County Durham may be in a similarly dangerous condition.

The bridge and its approach roads have been closed since last summer, originally for bridge painting maintenance – when the extent of corrosion and damage was discovered.

“Witton Park has become a really attractive place again, but that bridge is used by a thousand vehicles every day,” says villager and retired police officer Ian Wilson.

“People have moved here to be near their families on the other side. Now they’re talking of moving out again. The county council has been keeping us in the dark.”

Steve Newcombe, who has a farm in nearby Escomb, said it wasn’t just Witton Park which would be affected. “If you went to every house in these villages you’d find people angry and affected by this. Why couldn’t the deterioration have been identified earlier, before it got this bad? We’re supposed to be more environmentally friendly. How much more pollution is going to be caused by all these long extra round trips?”

Neighbouring parish councils and community associations are also joining the campaign for the bridge to be reopened.

Brian Buckley, the county council’s strategic highways manager, said that “serious structural defects” had been exposed while carrying out scheduled work last summer. “We were left with no choice but to extend the planned 20-week closure on the grounds of public safety.”

The options of renewal, building a “bridleway” bridge, repair with a weight limit or permanently closing the road would be considered by the council cabinet, said Mr Buckley. “Residents, councillors and the local MP will be informed of any updates. We would like to thank people for their patience and understanding.”

Local county councillor Rob Yorke has asked Witton Park village hall committee to discuss the issue at its meeting on June 7 and plans a public meeting in July. “Obviously I’m pushing for a new bridge, but appreciate that with an annual bridge repair budget of £2m across the county, £5.6m is a big ask.”

ROB Yorke’s mobile’s not picking up, his landline rings out. Finally I email. “I’m in the Yosemite National Park in California and it’s 3.25am,” he replies almost at once. The forest is like Hamsterley only bigger, he says, perhaps prompting the guide to ask if he knew David Bellamy. Small world, he did.

A BIT closer to home, we’re ambling last week through Hutton Magna – there seems not to have been a Hutton Parva – one of those villages just north of the A66 which may find itself in County Durham or North Yorkshire depending upon Whitehall caprice.

Presently it’s in Durham, though the village church – where blankets are provided for less clement days – remains in the Diocese of Leeds.

The pub’s gone, the red telephone kiosk disconnected. These days it’s identified as The News Box, offering second hand books and first-hand information. Thus can we report that on Sunday, June 9, at 10.30 the tenth anniversary of the Great Global Greyhound Walk – that leg of it, anyway – leaves from outside the village hall. Lurchers welcome.

Particularly, however, we’re taken by this garden gate notice at the top end of the village. Its message may chiefly be jocular: mulch ado about nothing.

RAISING a glass two weeks ago to the Ripon Cathedral beer festival, we surmised that Rhatas, from the Whitby Brewery, took its falling down name from Dracula’s dog – and, of course, were barking up the wrong tree. As Eric Smallwood in Middlesbrough points out, it’s an anagram of brewery founder John Hartas – “lovely guy.” Enough to make you scream.

THE same column reported the official opening of the netties at the acclaimed George and Dragon pub in Hudswell, near Richmond. That very morning, a columnist in The Times not only chronicled the formal opening of the toilets at his local church – he wasn’t invited – but that St Vincent Ferrer was the patron saint of plumbers.

Though his qualifications are uncertain, it appears true. Vincent, a 14th century Franciscan, is also patron of builders, prisoners, construction workers, fisherman and Spanish orphanages.

His plumbing credentials are endorsed on a website run by a Franciscan community in North Dakota which also claims that “computer issues” are referred to St Isidore of Seville, a sort of celestial IT department.

Isidore lived from 560-636 and is often termed “the last scholar of the ancient world”. Computers may then have been in their infancy, too.

THE George and Dragon has become a national model for community-owned pubs. Among those hoping to follow that lead is the Stanwick Arms at Aldbrough St John, between Darlington and Richmond.

Described in the 2019 Good Beer Guide as a “welcoming, multi-award winning 19th century inn” on a picturesque village green, the Stanwick has been closed for several months.

Now, we hear, a steering group has been formed and some funding obtained in the hope of following Hudswell’s cheering example. More ere long.

…and finally, it’s good after several years absence to hear from Harry Watson, in Darlington. Having exhausted Geordie jokes, he says, he’s found what purports to be a Yorkshire one.

A farmer’s searching desperately for a missing padlock key. “Tin tin tin,” says his wife.

“I know,” says the old lad, “I’ve already looked there.”