Norman Fannon may have staged his last greyhound race, but his spirit endures at Wheatley Hill stadium.

JUST about any other Tuesday in the last 40 years they'd have been greyhound racing - flapping as the old hands still call it, yapping on any argument - at Wheatley Hill stadium.

This Tuesday evening it was almost eerie, trackless, silently barking up an altogether unforeseen tree. Norman Fannon, a North-East sporting legend, had died suddenly and unexpectedly, aged 78.

"Without doubt he was the last of a breed," said bookmaker Johnny Ridley. "Other people ran flapping tracks for the money; Norman did it to maintain a tradition. It was his life."

He'd operated the stadium in the east Durham former mining village for 40 years, schooled dogs with an innate Cruftsmanship, was reckoned never to have taken a day off.

In 1986, however, he barred me for suggesting in print that the atmosphere in the tab-end bar was "somewhat carcinogenic".

Somewhat carcinogenic? It was as purple as a pound of best plums.

"You had a bit of a run-in with him, hadn't you?" recalled Jean Booth, still painting a back shift wall at what might - sorry, Norman - be called the Better Day stadium.

It had been summat and nowt, I said. "Don't worry," said Jean, "there's not many come through those gates haven't had a run-in with Norman at one time or another."

Like many more, she loved him dearly. When the collieries closed and odds were on oblivion, he alone kept Wheatley Hill up and running. Norman flapped unflappably.

"There wasn't a dog man in the village who Norman hadn't barred at one time or another," they said in the Constitutional Club, 10p off a pint until June 5.

Mind, they added unequivocally, lovely feller, Norman.

He died a week back Monday, May 16. Two evenings previously, kids had broken into the stadium and set fire to the elderly car which they used to tow the gizmo which flattened the sand. Jean Booth told it like the thigh bone connected to the hip bone, the waft of arson and of irresponsibility still in the May air.

"They set fire to the car, which took the garage, which took the kennel block, which melted the electrics and that's why we'd probably have been shut tonight, anyway."

Norman fell into the flapping trap in 1965, since when many other "independent" greyhound stadiums in the North-East have gone, almost inescapably, to the dogs.

Whatever happened to Coundon greyhounds? Or Belmont? Or Spennymoor? Officially they were "independent" tracks; none was as independent as Norman.

He reinvigorated the place, maintained it, sustained it, particularly proud of the hare system he'd devised and built from a job lot of hundreds of ex-army bedsteads.

Something very similar is now used by most tracks in Great Britain and Ireland. Hare brained, nowt.

"The original was the McGee, so when Norman's hare came along we called it the McFannon. He was very proud of it," said Jean.

It was never a fast track, of course, though frequently a good bet. Folk loved it, good working lads and quite a lot who didn't - not for the Government, anyway. Norman, in his own way, loved them.

Though the Racing Post's handsome obituary suggested that the "shock and stress" of the arson attack may have contributed to his death, Jean - who'd worked for him for 25 years - was reluctant to link the two. She admitted, however, that he was "devastated" by it.

"Anyone would be. We'd been working together here until four o'clock on the Monday afternoon and two hours later he was dead.

"He was upset by the fire, there's no doubt about that, but you can't say, can you?

"Everything he did I did with him. I drove the hare, I did the form calculations, I painted the walls. Whatever he asked, I did it.

"Norman would help anyone, straight but fair. He was the type of man you'd do it for, a smashing man, a really smashing man, it just wasn't a difficulty.

"People would come down here all the time. Their dog had a bad ear, their dog had a bad toe. If Norman couldn't solve the problem, it couldn't be solved."

Johnny Ridley - "Young Johnny" as in those parts he is still known, so as not to be confused with Owld Johnny - recalled that as a youngster he'd been sent by his father to run a Saturday morning book at Wheatley Hill.

"I stayed for an hour then had to go back to help run the betting shop. That was my father, it was his way of helping Norman find his feet. He was a hard taskmaster, but very well liked."

Trainer Harry Williams thought him a genius - "a real salt of the earth character, a strong tough man but as straight as a die. He really looked after his regular patrons, who held him in very high regard."

Back up in the Cons Club they recalled the member's 19-year-old daughter, studying for a photography degree, allowed to take her cameras into the stadium.

"Half the punters just vanished, they thought she was the Social. Norman said it was very nice to have had her, but it was probably better if she didn't come back."

He lived in Shiney Row, near Houghton-le-Spring, his funeral service at Penshaw last Friday. Though there were fears that Wheatley Hill would never race again, Jean hopes that it can reopen a week tomorrow under the direction of Norman's son Jim, himself a bookmaker.

"He'll be an awfully hard act to follow," said Jean. "Dog racing isn't what it used to be, but I still think we get our share. I just hope we can do him justice.

"The policeman after the fire asked him why he didn't retire. Norman said he'd rather wear out than rust. It looks like he got his way."

ATHELSTAN Pollitt Bennison, Athel to all, may have been the only bus conductor with a science degree from Durham University, or who played penny whistle and comb and paper to entertain the passengers, or who helped the bit bairns with homeward homework - such mutual assistance doubtless obviating the need of a clippie round the ear.

Beyond argument he was the only conductor to live in a country cottage called Calumet, named (for some reason) after a North American Indian peace pipe.

Athel, it's recalled, smoked some pretty strange stuff himself, but lived in peace with it, whatever.

Born in West Hartlepool in 1903, he was a thin, trilby hatted figure with a sallow face, sometimes unkindly likened to a ferret as he squeezed between the passengers at the back of a crowded bus.

If there is a man alive, however, who can put flesh on a bus conductor's bones it is retired teacher Peter Cardno.

Peter, who lives in Stockton, has previously written books - omnibus editions, as it were - about Wilkinsons of Sedgefield and Scurr's of Stillington. To his evident surprise they sold out, were reprinted, and sold out a second time.

"I don't think you could call me a best seller," he muses, "I just seem to have found a niche in the market."

The latest, out this week, is about Crowe Brothers, Bob and Harry, whose primrose and brown buses operated out of Osmotherley in North Yorkshire for 40 years from the mid-1920s.

Though the Crowes may not be said to have flown - 65 minutes from Ossie to Stockton, bit longer if the driver stopped at his mother-in-law's for a cup of tea - the first bus proved so popular that a second was hurried onto the road before it even had windows fitted.

A few days later, a party of well dressed ladies arrived home thoroughly soaked.

"I suppose if you were used to an open cart, a bus with no windows was a definite improvement," says Peter. "Most of them just laughed it off, today they'd have sued for every last penny."

Such accounts could be as flat as a fleet list, as dry as a conked out camshaft. By seeking out former passengers, employers and descendants, Peter drives in a wholly different direction.

"I aim to write the sort of book I'd want to read myself," he says.

There are tales of part-time driver Ernie Alsop, known as Hell Fire Jack - "whether because of his driving or because he was the Crathorne blacksmith, I don't know" - of frustrated ferrets (the four legged sort), of absent soldiers and missing links.

It's all wonderfully nostalgic - just the ticket, as Athel Bennison would probably have said - to be followed before Christmas by a history of Trimdon Motor Services, forever TMS, and thereafter by a book on Stockton Corporation buses.

Peter, lifelong bus and tram enthusiast and chairman of the northern branch of the Omnibus Society, is also anxious to trace relatives of Henry Thompson, who founded Layfield's buses in Yarm in the 1920s, or of HL Walker, who took over Layfield's in 1946.

Though bus books may not all come together, others will undoubtedly follow. "In those days," he says, "there were still plenty of buses to choose from."

* Co-written with Frank Reeve, Crowe Brothers of Osmotherley costs £7.50 (plus 50p postage) from Peter Cardno at 22 Welldale Crescent, Fairfield, Stockton-on-Tees TS19 7HU or from Ottakar's in Northallerton.

LAST week's piece on the 1942 Wellington bomber crash at Roddymoor, above Crook, stirred particular memories for Ann Layburn and Fenwick Scott, both still in the village.

Both agree that the pilot of the blazing bomber, lost with all five Australian and Canadian crew, had tried to ditch in the pit pond.

Ann's dad, who'd been gardening, dropped his spade and ran to help. "The first on the scene was a local farmer, but sadly there was nothing anyone could do." Fenwick Scott, then delivering Northern Despatches at Sunniside - the village above the crash site - recalls running down the old railway line to the scene. "I'd seen the plane coming low over St Thomas's church in Stanley and knew it wasn't doing tricks or anything like that.

"Every time I go out the back I think of those lads, odd times have a little prayer for them."

As the column reported, there's now a plaque in their memory in the North East Aircraft Museum, near Washington - but why, asks Ann Layburn, is there nothing at all in Roddymoor?

LAST week's column also pondered the birthplace of cerebral BBC bod Mark Lawson. Could he, we asked, be part of the great Shildon brain drain?

In front rowing a Radio 4 programme on the National Railway Museum satellite, Lawson had declared an interest in the dear old place - but only, it transcriptually transpires, from a distance.

His grandfather worked at Shildon wagon works, his father (like all the best folk) attended Timothy Hackworth school. "I must have been here in the back of my parents car 60 or 70 times when growing up," he told listeners.

He was born in London in 1962, however, and has presented BBC2's arts round-up for 11 years.

Among several readers who offered information, Tim Stahl in Darlington was unimpressed. "He sounds like a '90s computer game reading his scripts on an automaton," he says.

P.S. You know how these columns blame most of life's ills on the 213 bus from Darlington, via Sedgefield to Sunderland? Coming back from Wheatley Hill it gave up the ghost at Sedgefield - back bumper fallen off. As they'll verify in the Black Lion, if it couldn't drive a man to the office, it at least drove him to drink.