ALBERT Roxborough has compiled a book of wartime memories of folk in and around his church, from bombs to blitzkrieg and from evacuees to ITMA. “We needed to change the emphasis from research to recall,” says Albert.

Great idea, enjoyably nostalgic read, but a couple of afternoon hours at St Peter’s in Yarm Road, Stockton, reveals a great deal more about a 21st century Church of England parish.

Its other church is All Saints in suburban – some might say leafy – Hartburn. Move from one to the other and life expectancy falls by 18 years. “Here it’s lower than Ethiopia,” says Fr Philip Murray, the curate, startlingly.

Built in 1880, St Peter’s actively engages with refugees and asylum seekers, with drug addicts and with sex workers, with young and old and rich and poor but predominantly with the last. “The immediate vicinity of the church is extremely deprived,” says Fr Murray.

“Stockton parish church in the town centre is the poorest in the Diocese of Durham and this is very similar, among the 1,000 poorest in the country. We’re tapping into all sorts of poverty, not just material poverty and some of it not so obvious.”

To help address the parish’s challenges they can call upon around 100 volunteers, some of whom are young, some male and some – get this – even young men.

On October 27, the Church of England’s national Christmas television advert will be filmed at St Peter’s – “a brilliant opportunity for us to show the nation and the wider Church what we’re about," says the weekly newsletter.

Six or seven years ago, says Albert Roxborough, who’s 80, they formed a Way Forward committee. “Obviously there were some who were sceptical but people are growing to the idea that church isn’t just for Sunday, it’s a seven days a week open space. It’s quite positive at the moment.”

IT’S last Wednesday afternoon. Given pizza and hot drinks, a class for those learning English as a second language is talking and listening at the back of the church. Maybe 20 are present, fewer than normal.

“It isn’t some sort of cynical attempt to get people to church,” says Fr Murray. “Two-thirds of the people out there today are probably Muslim. We aren’t trying to convert them.”

The CofE being what it is, of course, they still had to jump through all manner of ecclesiastical hoops to get permission for apparently straightforward changes like moving pews. Don’t even mention the organ.

“The building is holding us back, not least with catering, it has to be improved,” says Fr Murray. “We don’t have a church hall and have started thinking how we can do things differently, but we will still preserve the integrity of the church as a church.”

They work with other churches – “Yarm Road has more churches than the Vatican,” says Fr Murray – running everything from holiday clubs offering meals and fun to a special service for toddlers. There are vibrant choirs for children and adults; a credit union was less successful.

Born in Consett, Fr Murray spent 12 years in Cambridge before returning to a diocese where the Church traditionally finds it difficult to attract priests. “It was very clear when discerning my vocation that I was being called to an urban priority area and that the priority was the North-East. There are plenty of opportunities.”

“We needed to have a good hard look at what we did,” says Elizabeth Stout, one of the churchwardens. “It wasn’t about giving the community what we thought it needed but what it really needed. We had to understand that first.

“There’s a lot of energy about St Peter’s now, and there’s energy seven days a week.”

ALBERT Roxborough was born and raised in Blackhall, on the Durham coast, recalls bombs falling on Hardwick Street. “I think the planes were going to Sunderland,” he says – eight people died while seeking shelter beneath the stairs,

St Peter’s in Stockton was within 50 yards of being hit when German bombs fell in the Sr Peter’s Road area on the night of May 11-12, 1941, killing seven people including a three-week-old boy who’d been baptised the afternoon previously. His parents, who also died, had moved from near Thornaby airfield a week earlier because they thought it would be safer.

Albert himself remembers little about the war – “it was just part of normal life” – but having been deprived of sugar and butter never ate either thereafter. His book draws together many other experiences – surprising how many chose to hide beneath the dining room table.

The cover includes a wartime poster addressed to the Housewives of Stockton – “Housework may be horsework, but it’s war work, too, especially if you mind a bairn for mothers on munitions.”

Ten further wartime memories:

  • "Nine scrawny, raggy, undernourished evacuees from the slums of Sunderland descended on us and took over our rectory. They didn’t even speak our language, had never seen a field, let alone farm animals, and were scared of cows. They were also lousy” – Hazel Hill recalls arrivals at Redmarshall.
  • “My mam would not let Joe out of the house that day as she was so glad to have him home safely. I followed him like a shadow, not letting him out of my sight until I was told to leave him alone to allow him to go to the toilet” – Lily Roxburgh remembers her brother’s return from Burma to Thornaby.
  • "Among my first memories was being fitted with a gas mask which had to be carried with me at all times – I’ve hated the small of rubber ever since” – the Rev June Thomas.
  • "My father was moved to a job in Intelligence which he disliked to such an extent that he accepted a reduction in rank from captain to lieutenant to do something more up his street” – John Child.
  • “It was St Peter’s church which kept my mother sane during those long years, because she was a long way from home” – Ruth Hicks,
  • "I went with my mother and grandmother up Swaledale on Percival’s buses to visit relatives and twice stayed at the hotel in Keld with awful outside toilets. I was terrified I’d fall down the hole. All the farmers travelled miles to the inn at night, the blackout curtains were closed and they stayed well past closing time” – Margaret Carney.
  • “The bombs that dropped were fitted with screaming devices and put the fear of death into you. My mother hung my vest in front of my face to shield me from the flash” – Alan Tweedy on banging Billingham.
  • "My sister and friends and I would hold concerts in the back garden. We would charge the other kids a ha’penny to get in, the money going to Missions to Seamen. We always had a full house” – Olive Jones remembers wartime in Whinney Banks, Middlesbrough.
  • "These missions took place throughout the year but on summer evenings he spectacle of watching them at 11pm or so when we had double summer time was special” – Alan Barber remembers heavily-laden Lancaster and Halifax bombers taking off from RAF Goosepool (now Teesside Airport.)
  • "It didn’t matter if you wore it, sat on it, slept in it, drove it or baked it, everything was utility. It was used like a designer label” – Hazel Hill.
  • Albert Roxborough’s book of wartime memories costs £5, plus postage, proceeds to St Peter’s. Details on