I HAVE long been fascinated by Barforth on the southern bank of the River Tees. It faces Gainford on the northern side.

In tomorrow's paper (Saturday, November 7), we have a story about the on-going difficulties of the residents of Barforth as Durham County Council has deemed their bridge over the Tees is unsafe.

When I was mooching around Barforth five years ago, I remember then that the bridge was in the sort of state where you give a little sigh of relief when you make it to the far side without a piece of the wooden deck giving way and plunging you into the river beneath.

It was a memorable mooch for other reasons, as the story below illustrates. Firstly, there is some extraordinary tumbledown history: a 14th Century chapel and a 16th Century dovecote. Plus there are ancient lumps and bumps in the fields which suggest long lost civilisations, and there is a grand 14th Century packhorse over which today's residents will have to drive if their Tees bridge collapses.

Secondly, I remember that I had my young son in a backpack and we had an unpleasant disagreement with a prickly hedge when walking on an overgrown footpath.

And thirdly, I remember dogs, great big Rottweilers, making a hell of an intimidatory racket.

I think they were making the point that there is no public right of way across the bridge and so I shouldn't be trespassing upon it. Fair enough. But there are centuries-old footpaths running through the hamlet and the landowner really shouldn't allow them to be so overgrown that walkers can't use them.

And anyway, this is such an area of rich, romantic, imagination-firing history and beauty that people should be encouraged to treasure it by roaming around it.

This is my article from my encounter in September 2003 with the fascinations of Barforth: ======================================= GAINFORD is spread out before us, with a chequerboard of fields on the daleside rising behind it. At our feet - a long drop down - is the silvery River Tees, which twists like a snake, first rushing towards us and then changing its mind, so that it shoots off sideways for Darlington.

It is a wonderful view, "a scene long to engage the lingering eye". It is a view that our ancestors lingered over far longer than we can because, five or so centuries ago, they lived on this side of the river. In fact, they have left this high cliff - which they called Barforth - covered in grassy mounds and tumbledown ruins that become more romantic the more one learns about them.

For instance, the slowly collapsing chapel of St Lawrence was built 800 years ago on the instructions of the local landowner, who ordered that a priest should sing here on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays for ever.

Today, the only song that can be heard is that of the birds. The scene that a Victorian writer described as being "long to engage the lingering eye" can only be reached by pushing through half-forgotten lanes and overgrown footpaths.

Earlier this year, English Heritage said that of the 123 listed buildings in the North-East, the ruined chapel was among those in the worst condition.

Strange to report, then, that the new barbed wire fence that prevents people from getting too close to St Lawrence's is in very good condition.

Barforth's name (originally Bereford) comes from the Old English "barley ford". It is opposite Gainford, (originally Gaegenforda, from the Old English meaning straight ford).

There is also a tale about villagers fighting over who controlled the ford. Those on the south were so angry that they barricaded the ford - this meant they came from Barford. Those to the north won the dispute, so were said to have come from Gainford. All of which is probably nonsense.

Not in dispute is that, from at least the 9th Century, there were two fords here. The site of one appears to be lost, even though the ferry boat, complete with bell on the Yorkshire bank for passengers to ring for the ferryman who lived on the Durham side, sailed until 1935.

The lanes leading to the other - the "straight ford" - can still be traced on the map. The local names for the stretch of river (Boat Pool), the bank on the Yorkshire side (Boat Scar) and the sunken lane heading south to Eppleby (Boat House Lane) give the game away.

However, the public footpath from the end of Boat House Lane down Boat Scar to Boat Pool is treacherously overgrown and not recommended (especially if you have got a baby strapped to your back - he lost a bloody argument with an overhanging hawthorn tree, poor little chap).

It is said that the Romans might have crossed here, and it is rumoured that the Scots Dyke also came to the water here. The dyke was a bank of earth 12 yards wide which was the boundary between the Picts and the Scots. It is said to have run from Grinton, on the River Swale, up to Durham, on the Wear, by way of Barforth.

The pilgrims bearing the body of St Cuthbert also once paid the ferryman here as they wended their way towards Durham.

In most other places, history becomes clearer after the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066. Not at Barforth.

As a reward for helping him with the conquering, William gave a fellow called Waldef a large chunk of land to the south of the Tees.

Waldef's son, Roald, gave 25 acres of land "for a priest to sing in his chapel of Bereford on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays for ever" (Roald also gave the land on which the churches of Eppleby and Caldwell are built).

Roald's chapel seems to have been built and dedicated to St Lawrence during the reign of King Stephen (1135 to 1154). It was repaired and enlarged in the time of King Henry III (1216 to 1272). It might even have become a college for monks.

All this activity tells us that the village of Barforth was clearly thriving at this time.

But where was the village? There are strange bumps around the chapel, which is on the east side of Chapel Gill Beck, but historians believe these are probably the foundations of an ancient manor house.

They say that the bulk of the village was in the heavily ploughed field on the west side.

The two sides communicated via the remarkable 14th Century packhorse bridge that still survives and still carries a farmer's four-wheel-drive.

Historian Robert Scarr described the bridge as having "one pointed arch with chamfered ribs and quaintly corbelled sides, showing it to have been a bridge of some importance in the far off days when the manor house at Barforth entertained many of the leading aristocracy of the country".

Yet something was going wrong at Barforth. In the early 16th Century, we can see that a wing of the church was converted into a two-storey house, complete with chimney, for the priest to live in.

From this we can surmise all manner of things: The priest had probably previously lived in lodgings in the manor house, which we can assume either fell from importance or fell down, leaving him roofless; the trainee monks, if they ever existed, had fled; the congregation had shrunk so that the chapel could afford to lose half of its pews to a domestic conversion; the priest liked to keep warm beside an open fire, hence his chimney.

The conversion was the first sign of decline. By the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, Barforth was completely deserted. Never again did the priest sing on a Sunday, Wednesday or a Friday in the chapel of St Lawrence.

So what happened? Theories abound. Did a 14th Century poll tax drive the villagers from their homes? Did the enclosures of the 16th Century steal their land, forcing them to leave? Did the plague wipe them out? There is not a shred of evidence to support the first two, and only the merest shred to support the latter. That shred is to be found in the aptly named Hell Hole.

As Chapel Gill Beck tumbles underneath the 14th Century packhorse bridge, it changes name and becomes Hell Hole Black Beck. It plummets another 12ft over a waterfall (well, it does in wetter years), lands in Hell Hole and meanders off to the Tees.

Hell Hole is reputedly a long tunnel into the cliffside. Now blocked by a rockfall, myths say that Hell Hole once led to Richmond Castle (Barforth might have been known as Old Richmond in the very dim past), or to Cliffe Hall, near Piercebridge (various noblemen escaped religious persecution this way).

But when the Black Death struck, it wiped out most Barforthians. The survivors threw the bodies into Hell Hole, then brought the roof down to keep the contagion in, and fled - unwittingly taking the plague with them.

Barforth was deserted.

Some time during the 15th or 16th Century, the manor house was built anew at the bottom of the cliff by the Tees.

Now known as Barforth Hall, it is a splendid-looking house with a courtyard in the middle - although the ferocious Rottweilers behind the gate do not encourage close inspection.

Families including FitzHugh, Layton, Pudsey, Fawkes, Lascelles and the wonderfully named Sir Barrington Bourchier of Beningborough have lived in the hall. All would have relied on boats and fords to cross to Gainford until John Graham, owner of Piercebridge Quarry, built a private bridge over the Tees after the Second World War.

Some time in the 16th or 17th centuries, another wealthy resident,built a beehive pigeoncote next to the ruins of St Lawrence's Church.

It is a very early example of the pigeoncote craze. By the 18th Century there were 26,000 pigeon and dovecotes in England. Judging by the tiers of holes in it, it provided shelter for 1,500 pigeons.

English Heritage has said that it, too, is at risk, but at the moment it stands with the romantically ruined chapel and the elaborate packhorse bridge as a reminder of what was once to be seen if you lingered to look at this wonderful view.