WE all like a happy ending and the opening in County Durham of the UK’s first gallery dedicated to the art and history of Spain represents an uplifting conclusion of a story with a dark and twisty plot.

The Spanish Gallery, in Bishop Auckland, is the latest in a series of cultural attractions developed by the Auckland Project, a charity founded by philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer.

A significant cultural coup for a town that has known its tough times, it is nice to see the plan come to fruition.

And it reminded me of the role The Northern Echo played in preventing Bishop Auckland’s treasures being unceremoniously flogged off by the Church Commissioners, a body which administers the property assets of the Church of England.

Back in 2010, we revealed a secret plot by the Church to sell 12 Zurburan paintings – treasures that had hung in Auckland Castle since 1756 – by putting them up for auction at Sotheby’s for at least £15m.

The story was broken by Chris Lloyd – a regional treasure himself, if you ask me – with the help of our parliamentary correspondent, Rob Merrick. They’d been leaked “private and confidential” documents by Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman.

The crafty commissioners had seen the chance to cash in while no one was minding the shop. Tom Wright had stepped down as Bishop of Durham,and Justin Welby – later to be Archbishop of Canterbury – had not yet succeeded him.

So lucrative was the opportunity, that the plotters had paid £35,000 to a posh PR company to prepare the sale and keep it under wraps until it was too late.

The commissioners initially denied such a plan existed until discovering that The Northern Echo had documents unequivocally exposing the truth.

As the paper’s editor, I was then put under pressure to stop the story going to press, with claims that I would be guilty of a breach of confidence, while damaging the good reputation of the Church (a Christian institution which, don’t forget, was willing to lie to keep the plot secret).

They even tried to paint me into a corner with the threat of an injunction coming in from Mischon de Reya, a leading UK law firm, which had represented Princess Diana during her divorce.

As The Northern Echo’s Echo Memories columnist, the aforementioned Chris Lloyd is very good at remembering things, and he recalls that he had a speaking engagement at Winston Village Hall on the night of the legal threat.

“I kept my phone on to keep checking for a text to say if the injunction had been served, but all I got were goal alerts from a Man United match,” he laughs.

Surprise, surprise, the injunction never came and the front page above was duly published. The cat was out of the bag, the local community was in uproar, The Times followed The Northern Echo’s lead, and the story came to the attention of Jonathan Ruffer.

The rest is history – and stands as an exhibition of the value of local newspapers.

WHAT a joy to be back out  and about on the speaking circuit after lockdown, and reconnecting with wonderful grass roots organisations that bind our communities together.

It was a particular honour to be guest speaker at the first official meeting of South Durham University of The Third Age (U3A) in Cockerton, Darlington, last week.

However, catching up after a long time away can also lead to sadness and that was the case when a member of the audience introduced herself as Sue Boyle.

She wondered if I was aware that her husband, Brendan Boyle, had died from leukaemia at the end of May. Regrettably, I wasn’t, meaning that the following tribute is much later than it should have been.

Back in the mid-eighties, when I was a young reporter, Brendan, below, was a regular source of stories. He was co-founder of Darlington CAMRA – Campaign For Real Ale – due to the fact that one of his passions was “proper beer”.

Middlesbrough-born, he was a planning officer at Darlington Borough Council, a Boro season ticket-holder, and Friend of Stockton and Darlington Railway.

Brendan, pictured below, had initially been suffering from fibrosis, and a donor was lined up for a stem cell transplant, but last-minute tests showed he had leukaemia and, sadly, he didn’t quite make it to his 70th birthday.

The Northern Echo:

“He was a lovely, kind, intellectual man who is missed by a lot of people,” said Sue, who is new to the U3A.

From my point of view, he was a thoughtful, unassuming, very gentle man but passionate too – especially when it came to real ale. If we were short of a story for the Darlington newslist, he usually obliged.

Knowing that nothing more could be done for him when he had the leukaemia diagnosis, Brendan planned his own funeral, and wake. His beloved bike was donated to The Bike Shop, in Skinnergate, and his send-off was held at the ORB micropub, where he donated a pair of beer pumps to owners.

In the death announcement in The Northern Echo, he urged loved ones and friends to have a toast “for and on me,” adding: “No tears, just beers.”

Cheers Brendan. Rest in peace – sorry it’s taken me so long.

ON a happier note, Norman and Margaret Hewitson were also in the U3A audience.

They met while working at The Northern Echo. Norman worked in front office accounts and Margaret was an office girl. Part of her job entailed riding a bike to the railway station to collect the mail.

Norman and Margaret, pictured below, celebrate their diamond wedding this year after being married for 60 years. They have two daughters and five grandchildren.

“We still get the Echo delivered every day – how could we not?” smiled Norman.

The Northern Echo:

THEN I was approached by South Durham U3A member Don Eccles, whose dad Edward was a linotype operator at the Echo for 45 years and the union’s ‘father of the chapel’.

Don was a television engineer, who had the honour of repairing Sir Harold Evans’ telly, in the 1960s, when the legendary campaigning journalist was the Echo’s editor.

TO round things off this week, I’m back on the speaking circuit tomorrow – travelling to Chorley to address a bit of a cockadoodle-doo staged by the Lancashire Poultry Club.

I’ve been assured I won’t be paid a poultry sum.