AN accomplished conductor returned to his old stamping ground yesterday to be honoured for his achievements in music.

Richard Hickox, considered one of Britain's leading conductors, made his name leading the Northern Sinfonia from 1982 to 1990.

His stint at the helm of the region's premier orchestra helped to put both the Sinfonia and himself on the musical map far beyond the North-East.

He has gone on to win acclaim throughout the music world, conducting several leading orchestras and playing at international venues, earning various accolades along the way, including the CBE last year.

But he found time in his busy schedule to receive an honorary degree awarded by Durham University, given in recognition of his achievements as an international conductor and for his "inspiring role" championing the work of English composers.

The honorary doctorate of music was conferred by university Vice-Chancellor Sir Kenneth Calman, at a ceremony in the Tunstall Chapel of Durham Castle, attended also by Mr Hickox's wife, mezzo-soprano Pamela Helen Stephen, and their children Adam, six, and two-year-old Abigail.

The university's public orator, Professor David Fuller, gave a speech highlighting the musical contribution given by Mr Hickox, before Sir Kenneth gave the address.

Following the ceremony, Mr Hickox was reunited with the Sinfonia, leading them in a celebratory concert at nearby Durham Cathedral last night, in which his wife also performed.

Reflecting on his years with the orchestra, with whom he is conductor emeritus, Mr Hickox said: "This is incredibly special to me, because my time as artistic director has been seminal to my life and I'm very honoured they still confer the title."

He is looking forward to a further return to the region to perform when The Sage Gateshead international music centre opens during the 2004/5 season.