JOHN "Basher" Alderson, the young man who went Wild West, is back for a last visit to home, hearth and Horden. He is welcomed with both warmth and wonderment. "I used to watch Boots and Saddles with me mam and she tellt us she went to school with Sergeant Bullock," says a chap in the Cons Club.

"I used to think she was mekkin' it all up. There was nee one in Horden talked like Sergeant Bullock."

By trans-Atlantic telephone, as it were, we had told his remarkable story - "From Horden to Hollywood" - last year. He was the lad from the County Durham pit village who came up for ever after just two weeks in a four foot seam - "you'd not have got your coals, then," they said in the Cons Club - who joined the Army, became a major, married the American general's secretary, was allowed into the US as a war bride and on the signed agreement that he was no more than five months pregnant, and who became one of the silver screen's best-known, most enduring and generally villainous actors.

Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel... they and another 150 films and television series all featured the star from Number 5 Eighth Street.

"I'm what they call a Limey cowboy," he tells the girls in the cheery chip shop down Sunderland Road.

Back among the Basher street kids, he's staying with his cousin Tom in Peterlee, a mile up the road. Local lad made baddie? "Oh aye," says Tom, "I've seen me Uncle Jack shot a canny few times."

He will be 86 next month, a big, tall walking man with huge hands and an accent more California than Crimdon Dene. He is vastly engaging, manifestly modest, wears a stetson with style.

He flew in on Monday evening. By Tuesday lunchtime we were doing the farewell tour, down to the now-blighted beach where they'd cook crabs in Nestle's milk tins, past the site of the Empress Cinema where once they showed Against All Flags - Errol Flynn, Maureen O'Hara, John Alderson - along memory lane to cottage hospital and Cowley's ice cream shop, by long colliery terraces where, in the General Strike, they'd sell potatoes penny a pail, and at last into the Conservative Club.

Horden Conservative Club is improbable, so improbable that everyone calls it the Tin Pot, anyway.

"Why yer bugger and that's swearin," someone says as he strides into the William Oxenham Lounge like John Wayne come for his boy.

His father was a miner, the netty out the back and the tin bath in front of the fire. "It was how I first noticed the scars down the middle of men's backs, over six feet tall, as I am, and working in a four foot seam."

As bairns they'd be forever down the beach - "not polluted then, a lovely, yellow-ish sand" - re-enacting the Three Musketeers ("Douglas Fairbanks was in that, we'd use bits of driftwood for swords") or playing at cowboys and Indians.

"In my wildest dreams," says Basher, "I never imagined that one day I'd be playing it for real and be getting quite well paid for doing so."

The beach, he adds, was wild and wonderful. "It gave you a sense of freedom away from the ever-present pit, which everyone hated.

"I would look out across the ocean and suppose that somewhere over there was Holland, where the little boy stuck his finger in the dyke, and wonder if one day I might go there.

"That was the 1920s where the furthest you ever got was Redcar on the Sunday school trip. You still don't get air like this in California."

There were memories of Easter egg rolling and of the 1925 eclipse, of the Split Rock, of friends like Jackie Scott, the butcher's son and Skinny Martin, whose father was pit manager.

Skinny would often come for tea, because he liked Basher's mum's cooking. "If he's the gaffer's son," Mrs Alderson would suggest, "why can't the bloody gaffer feed him?"

He remembered the Mordue brothers, too, Tucker and Jackie, who played football for Hartlepools United and became world handball champions.

"Me old grandma was a Mordue," says someone in the Tin Pot.

On pay days they'd have a twopenny fish and a pennorth of chips - "thrippence," Basher reprises, as a Horden lad might. Now haddock and chips is £2.80, with scrappin's, and so good that he gives the chip shop girls a deep baritone chorus of I'm Getting Married in the Morning. My Fair Lady? John Alderson was in that, too.

He'd gone down the perilous pit when his dad became ill. "It fulfilled every worst horror I had ever supposed about it." When his father died two weeks later, he closed the coal house door so hard it all but came off its skriking hinges and joined the Royal Artillery instead.

"I was sufficiently good an actor to wangle my way through the ranks," he insists.

In Berlin after the war, the general suggested he form a drama society. In California he was selling new-fangled televisions for an entrepreneur called Madman Munce and Hillman cars for someone wholly less memorable before getting his big break.

Sir Aubrey Smith, a renowned actor, ran a cricket team and wanted experienced hands. John agreed to play on condition that he were introduced to an agent.

"He told me I was too big for an English actor, they were all supposed to be built like David Niven.

"Westerns were very big at the time. If I learned a bit of American, he said, I might get a job playing the bad guys."

The rest is Hollywood history. Contemporaries at drama school included Leonard Nimoy, who went star trekking, and Richard Chamberlain, who graduated as Dr Kildare - "the worst actor in the class."

Now he lives amid 45 acres of landscaped gardens in the Motion Picture Actors Home, is visited by the likes of Catherine Zeta Jones and Michelle Pfeiffer, celebrated Maureen O'Hara's 85th ("still as beautiful as ever") has countless movie idols among his co-stars and among his friends.

One website even includes an appearance in It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, but it's possible they meant John Alderton.

In his absence, Horden has much changed, though the long rows where men would be knocked remorselessly from their early hours beds still line up in unforgiving order, First to Umpteenth Streets.

The pit has gone, the owt-for-a-penny corner shops replaced by tanning studios and chop suey houses and video rental emporia. "The place seems closed up," he says, but not for a moment unkindly.

The Empress, where sixpence bought a kiss and a cuddle in a double seat in the back, has long faded, though Ronnie Maddison in the Tin Pot reckons he saw Against All Flags on television only last year.

"Mind," he says, "you were pretty canny in it."

It was three hours before we headed back up to Peterlee, just green fields when young Basher - "I was quite a skinny kid, I still don't know how I got the name" - roamed through a colliery childhood.

The visit lasts just a week, and will be his last. He's a bit big, and a bit old, to be flying economy from Los Angeles.

It's the Durham people, he says, that most he misses. "I miss their warmth, their down-to-earthness and their compassion - the greatest human quality of all.

"In just one short afternoon I have been reminded of so much of it. Horden is still a wonderful place; it is truly lovely to be home."

FROM England, John Alderson flies to The Vatican for an audience with the Pope ("not just me," he adds.)

His papal devotion dates from 1960, when film making with Peter Ustinov took him to Rome and he contrived a place in Easter morning Mass in St Peter's.

"Pope John XXIII came within touching distance of me, and had such a magnificent effect. He was only supposed to be a short-term Pope, but he achieved so much."

Pope John XXIII now lies in state in the Basilica, where John Alderson will pay his respects. "He has meant so much to me. I just went to say hello to the guy again."

NOTHING, of course, could be so utterly out of the Hordenary as the story of the raggy trousered collier's kid from Eighth Street, but Jez Lowe has a fair old tale to tell, an' all.

Jez, an internationally-acclaimed singer, hails from Grant's Houses - about half a mile out of Horden - but now spends nine months a year on the minstrel road.

On Saturday evening, however, he and his band The Bad Pennies turn up at the Black Swan Arts Centre in Newcastle to launch his new album - "Honesty Boxes" - before an invited audience.

One chorus is about John Alderson, who will also be there. "We're more than ecstatic," says Jez, whose dad, in turn, used to tell him about an occasional drink down Horden with a Hollywood film star.

"Until five years ago, I thought it was just a big tease."

The Lowe down on that, and on why Jez's American record company is named after another County Durham pit village, next time.