THE mysterious disappearance of the builder of Causey Arch, near Stanley, is to be explored in a musical show in the town next week.

Set at the dawn of the industrial age, Arch Enemies recounts the building of the bridge, completed in 1726 and the oldest railway bridge in the world.

Stonemason Ralph Wood was commissioned by an alliance of coal owners to build the bridge to take horse-drawn carts across a gorge.

But in a bizarre twist, Wood became Britain's first railway safety campaigner when he raised fears the structure could collapse.

Shortly after he went public with his fears, he vanished. Legend has it that his broken body was found 80 feet below the bridge, at the bottom of a wooded gorge. His story is told in new musical by County Durham theatre company Jack Drum Arts.

Jill Cole from Jack Drum said: "This was the first time anyone had tried to build a stone arch like this since the Romans. The first structure collapsed before it was finished. It seems that Ralph Wood grew increasingly worried that the second arch would go the same way, when people were actually on it. His behaviour got more and more odd and he seemed to be losing his marbles. Eventually, he just disappeared."

The production also tries to capture the era's conflict between science and religion.

"There was so much explosive thinking at this time," said Ms Cole. "Isaac Newton was telling people that anything is possible through science. The upper classes were starting to get alarmed as the working classes were beginning to realise they, too, could achieve great things. Maybe somebody thought Ralph Wood was involved in something above his station. Nobody really knows what happened to him."

The group has been showing the play in schools across the county.

Ms Cole said: "This is not just a dry, historic play - it celebrates the creation of the Causey Arch and hopefully will encourage people to visit. It was a marvel of its time."

Arch Enemies shows at the Lamplight Arts Centre on Friday next week at 1.30pm and 7.30pm. Tickets are £5 from the box office on (01207) 218899.