A WALK on the wildlife side, last week's sponsored hike with Wolsingham School proved - for most of us, at any rate - an exhilarating experience.

In Darlington the weather was dismal, in white capped Weardale it was simply wonderful.

With around 200 pupils and governors' chairman Charlie Donaghy, bad on his feet but great with his head, we covered the five mile round trip to Tunstall Reservoir.

Durham County Council's much criticised gritting cutbacks meant several casualties among those who failed to get their skates on, however. They may be hearing more from the parents of the lad with the suspected broken arm.

Tunstall Reservoir - never been? - is among the county's most spectacular surprises. Built in 1866 by the Weardale and Shildon Water Company, it's 74ft deep, covers 26 hectares, holds 520 million gallons of water, serves much of the Weardale and Bishop Auckland area and teems (so it's said) with brown and rainbow trout.

On the banks are several signs, the most fearsome "By order of the bailiff", forbidding bathing, plodging and other "contamination" and warning of fishermen slinging their hooks.

There's also a wildlife trail with the promise of creeping cinquefoil and celery leafed crowfoot, of Yorkshire fog, sanicle and sweet woodruff. The thread rush, usually found in northern Eurasia, is said to be nationally rare; the amphibious bistort is not a frog but a dock plant.

There are great spotted woodpeckers and pied flycatchers, treecreepers, woodpeckers and jays, short tailed voles, common shrews and roebucks which (as the information boards helpfully explain) chase the doe round and round in circles as part of the mating ritual.

Some of us, of course, have been doing much the same thing for years.

The school walk, as last week's column explained, was a last push towards the £50,000 they need before applying for specialist status as a performing arts school - not, as head teacher Mitch O'Reilly was anxious to explain, a "fame school".

(The notepaper identifies the head as Mrs U Y S O'Reilly. "Mitch" is a long story, but has something to do with Lt Col Colin Mitchell - lionized by the media as Mad Mitch - who became famous in Aden and later as a Scottish Tory MP).

Neil Tennant, Newcastle-born leader of the Pet Shop Boys, now lives in Wolsingham and has given £25,000; other sponsors had lifted the total to £46,000. The walkers did the rest.

Charlie, who spent most of his teaching career at Wolsingham before retiring and becoming governors' chairman, went home for a bath, and bed.

"The bath looked the same except that the sides were four feet higher than when I last remembered," he said.

The Tunstall water treatment works, and those at Burnhope, will be replaced at the end of the year by a £28m Northumbrian Water development at Wearhead, serving 200,000 people as far away as Sunderland.

The reservoir will remain, however, and the area's splendours abundantly merit another winter walk - with coat and 520 million gallon hat, of course.

STILL in Wolsingham, last week's column teased parish council chairman Ken Charlton for suggesting that the village had "more than 76" Christmas trees on brackets.

The inexact science was furthered by the newspaper which yesterday announced that "more than ten" of the region's brass bands are to compete in the Wansbeck Festival and by BBC Look North, which claimed that "more than three" Durham prison inmates had committed suicide last year.

It was true, of course. As the Echo reported the following morning, there were six.

OUR old friend Brian Myers, awarded a New Year MBE for services to the community in Willington, has been extolled in verse by local Methodist minister Tom Wilkinson. It probably helps that Brian's wife's called Alice.

They're on their guard at Buckingham Palace

As Councillor Myers goes down with Alice...

The 20 line poem also makes reference to Brian's diminutive stature:

I couldn't have done it without the support

Of those that I've stood on because I'm so short...

Brian, among much else, is a stalwart of Sunnybrow Methodist Church. "I think it's brilliant," he says.

Well, we did care

Peter Tinniswood died last week. It had been wonderful, just once, to have made his engaging acquaintance.

Former Sheffield journalist and Vienna insurance salesman, the incomparable Tinniswood wrote Tales From a Long Room, delightfully droll cricket chronicles through the eyes of a cussed old crust called The Brigadier who lived in Witney Scrotum.

It was a world - cricket followers will understand - populated by the likes of M J K Yarwood, H D "Dickie" Bird ("and his loathsome instant custard") and of Dr Fred Rumsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Natural features included Cowdrey's Bottom and Botham Gut - "an awesome earthwork"; amid them the Brigadier would dream of happier days, like when he met his lady wife.

"Into my view she glided, a tall, sylph-like figure in purest white. My heart missed a beat. The sap rose in my loins. Dear God, she was the spitting image of Herbert Sutcliffe."

Tinniswood also wrote many radio plays and the 1970s television series I Didn't Know You Cared, starring Robin Bailey as the lugubrious Uncle Mort, John Comer as Carter Brandon and the toothless Liz Smith as Mrs Brandon.

The Guinness TV Encyclopaedia described it as "A battle of the sexes in a morose northern household"; a later critic thought it like The Royle Family but incomparably funnier.

We met on his first visit to the Scarborough Cricket Festival, in 1986. He was a Lancastrian, he said, and hitherto afeared to cross the Pennines.

"The festival is brilliant. The ground is perfect, so spectacularly ordinary. It is unchanging, steadfast, at ease and elderly. I long to be elderly because people talk to each other, but I am only 49," he concluded.

He died at 66 from oral cancer thought to have been caused by 40 years assiduous pipe smoking.

One obituarist praised his "originality and scorching comic brilliance", another talked of the most engaging and companionable of self-proclaimed recluses, a third claimed, with justice, that Tinniswood couldn't write an ugly line.

A piece in Monday's Independent was simply headed "Why wasn't Peter Tinniswood a household name?" He'd hardly had time to be elderly, but his stuff is posthumously, rapturously recommended.

FOR much the same reason that Napoleon was red carded to Elba, we spent a January weekend 16 years ago at Rookhope, top end of Weardale.

It's the village where Caedmon, the first English Christian poet, was born in 658, where the Rev Arthur Officer remained Vicar until blind and 90, where an unforgettable 87-year-old called Wilf Swindle-Brown lived alone and independent in the hills and where half the families appeared to be called Hogarth.

A blizzard-hit sojourn in the Rookhope Inn passed more easily thanks to a copy of Tales From a Long Room, devoured in a day, though locals barely gave the snow a thought.

Bobby Bright, a retired rat catcher, had been collecting his morning papers at the post office. "There's nowt matter wi't weather," he said. "It's January, a perfect time for winter."

Uncle Mort, and Peter Tinniswood, would have been very proud of that.