RONNIE "Rubberbones" Heslop, the first man to go over the wall at Durham Jail, has died at 68. "He was an absolutely wonderful person, a true Robin Hood without an ounce of badness in him," says his friend and former partner in crime George Reynolds.

The prison didn't miss him for six hours, didn't catch him for six weeks. Ronnie avoided arrest by twice swimming the swollen River Wear to escape pursuing dogs.

Police called the great escape "cheeky" - audacious might have been more appropriate - not least because he left his rope and overalls outside the prison officers' club before fleeing.

What they said about Ronnie's two cell mates, who finally reported him AWOL because of the draught through the hole in the wall, has never been recorded and could possibly never be repeated.

It was March 13, 1961, the same morning that the New English Bible was published and sold a million copies on the first day.

Ronnie, a 26-year-old serving soldier, was awaiting Quarter Sessions trial on charges of stealing £262 from a lemonade factory in Spennymoor and attempting to blow the safe at Spennymoor Ministry of Labour.

Using a teaspoon and a small kitchen knife, Houdini Heslop spent four days removing the ventilation grill from his cell floor, squeezed down through it, took out the bricks from the outside wall beneath and made his way over the rooftops of the adjoining Assize Court building.

The Cathedral clock was just striking midnight, he once recalled, as he cleared the 20ft perimeter wall and dropped silently to freedom.

"When you're young and daft, you do all sorts of things you might regret later," he told the column almost 30 years ago.

Ronnie died at the weekend. His funeral is at Whitworth Church, across the River Wear from his home at Page Bank, near Spennymoor, at 2pm today.

"Villains were different in those days, you could almost be friendly towards them," recalls a retired senior detective, and the grudging respect for the escape - a breakthrough, as it were - became evident in the hours afterwards.

A police spokesman described Ronnie as "agile in running and climbing", adding for good measure that the man for whom the entire force was out combing Co Durham was a teetotaller and non-smoker, too.

George Reynolds, now chairman of Darlington FC, recounts the story of the safe job in which he and Ronnie had shared around £2,000 - "a lot of money in those days."

Two weeks later Ronnie tried to borrow from him. "He'd gone straight to Page Bank and kitted out all the bairns in new Clark's shoes," says George.

"All his life, I don't quite know why, he couldn't bear to see kids in shabby shoes or in poverty. There never was a kinder man."

Though Ronnie lived at the time in Ushaw Moor, police attention had always focused on the long terraces of Page Bank, known locally as Egg Cup Alley until swept away when the Wear burst its banks in November 1966.

It was there that Rubberbones was arrested after the constabulary (then as now) received "certain information" and (then as now) "swooped".

Back in Durham, Ronnie got 15 days bread and water - the Number One diet, was it not? - and, he said, "a bit of bother", too.

Whatever indignation he felt, however, was naught compared to that in 1974 when, in his autobiography, genial John McVicar claimed to have been the first man to escape from Durham.

"He's a nice kid," said Ronnie, "or at least all the lads who've met him say he is, but it's not right talking like that. He was never the first away, I was."

McVicar, in truth, had been the first to escape from E-wing, seven years later. They weren't two of a kind at all.

Ronnie talked freely and amiably about his escape, admitted he'd put on weight - "I wasn't all that small when I got through that hole, either" - and that the second time he swam across the surging Wear he thought he wasn't going to make it. The 1974 headline was "Local boy makes off."

For reasons never quite understood, however, he wanted a fiver to be photographed on the bridge at Page Bank, wearing his trade mark titfer. It was a first and last foray into cheque book journalism and sod's law says we've lost the picture.

Many others also knew a thoroughly decent side to him, underlined in 1987 when Ronnie, driving a lorry, came across a serious accident on the M6 in Cumbria and received an official citation from police for his courage in helping clear the road.

He never did explain, however, the claims that he'd occasionally pop home for the night from jail - "That's something you lads don't knaa about," he said, "but they knaa aall aboot it in Durham."

George Reynolds, intercepted in Paris on the way home for the funeral, adds one more mystery.

"We'd had our card marked about this job up north, gilt-edged, reckoned to be worth around £7,000.

"When we got back to our little allotment shed to count it there was only about £300. Ronnie turned to me and said we'd been robbed.

"To this day I don't know if he was joking. Now I never will."

Popping into Tow Law

TUNED to Radio 2 the other day, Kevin Richardson in Evenwood was taken aback to hear a song about Tow Law - not the sort of place, bless it, which is usually set to music.

The song was by Mark Knopfler, Newcastle-raised singer, guitarist, composer and familiar Local Hero, had lines about going up to Tow Law and was called Hill Farmer's Blues, said Kevin. He was just about right.

Though there's probably a law about repeating the song chapter and verse, all three verses begin with references to Windy City:

I'm going into Tow Law

For what I need

Chain for the ripsaw

Killer for the weed.

There's another bit about going into Tow Law to have some fun which is entirely plausible, of course.

Knopfler, who also wrote Sailing to Philadelphia about Cockfield-born American legend Jeremiah Dixon, has a website on which questions from fans are invited.

We have therefore asked Mr Knopfler why Tow Law, when last he had a pint in the Dans Castle and whether he couldn't get a chain for the ripsaw in Consett.

To date, unfortunately, there has not been a reply.

CONVERSATION in the pub turned to other North-East places which have featured in pop - as opposed to folk - songs.

Nor may numbers like New York, New York - that well-known village near North Shields - be included.

There was the Jarrow Song, of course, Alan Price's top ten hit in 1974. The Shadows recorded Stars Fell on Stockton and Alice in Sunderland, apparently after appearing in pantomime at both places, but after that we got stuck like a 78 needle and welcome other entries for the North-East top ten.

Mr Tim Duncan's attempt to include Come By Yarm (My Lord, Come By Yarm) may be attributed to a mishearing. The Sandpipers sang Kumbaya.

THE plan was to end today's column with notes, musical or otherwise, from Tow Law Town v Penrith on Tuesday evening. Unfortunately the match was postponed when the gale prevented a goal kick leaving the 18 yard area. "There've been severe weather warnings all day on the radio," said Lawyers manager Dr Graeme Forster. "Unfortunately there's always severe weather in Tow Law."