"Upon my left the bridge with arched pomp Joins the divided lands and proudly rears Its battlements above the streams of Wear, On whose rich banks deserted Newton Cap Mourns for the absent arts and sciences Which by her lord deceased were there retained."

SKIRLAW Bridge stands in the shadow of Newton Cap viaduct on the outskirts of Bishop Auckland. It is largely overlooked by the traffic on the A689 whizzing on high to Crook - except when strong winds cause the closure of the viaduct, and then the 600-year-old Skirlaw Bridge again becomes the only way of crossing the Wear.

But not for the next three months, because last week Skirlaw Bridge was closed and work began replacing the footpaths on this ancient monument.

It was built slightly before 1400 by Walter de Skirlaw, Bishop of Durham from 1388 to 1406, probably on the site of earlier bridges. It has two arches: a pointy one 91ft across and a rounded one 101ft wide.

On the western end is a stone inscribed "Edwd Palfreys Leep 1744". Edward Palfreys - or Neddy as he was known - "was one of those headstrong individuals, found in almost every town and village, whose deficiency of good practical common sense is made up by a certain, dogged recklessness of character, which places them at the head of every lawless mob", according to Matthew Richley, "the Auckland poet", in his 1872 book.

Neddy was a prize fighter, and he did not just take on humans. Bulls were a favoured opponent.

On the 1744 day in question, Neddy, who had probably consumed more beer than was strictly sensible, crossed the Skirlaw Bridge from Bishop Auckland intent on tackling a bull on the northern side. He was accompanied by a crowd in similarly merry spirits, but when they reached the appointed field they found the bull in no mood to fight. Placidly, it would have nothing to do with the drunken fool and his entourage.

"Neddy, no doubt, thought it a pity to bring the folks all the way there for nothing, so in lieu of the fight he determined to show them a few antics upon the parapet of the bridge," recalled Richley.

Being in such an inebriated state, Neddy's sense of balance wasn't all it should have been, and he took a tumble 46ft to what the crowd presumed was his inevitable death.

But, somehow, Neddy survived without a scratch. Egged on by his followers, he repeated the feat not once, but twice.

Some accounts of Edward Palfrey's leap say that on the third occasion he "dashed his brains out", but the following entries in the St Andrew's Auckland parish registers suggest he lived until 1770: 1755, March 15: Eliz, wife of Edward Palfrey of Newton Bridge (buried); 1770, July 7: Edward Palfrey (buried).

The well-worn stone recording his feat and leap survived the last major work done on the Skirlaw Bridge. That was in 1900, when the footpaths were placed on cantilevers so that pedestrians weren't walking in the carriageway. This year, those cantilever additions will be replaced by a single footbridge alongside the Skirlaw.

Thou craggy bank of Newton Cap, Should fortune give a home to me, There's not a spot on Nature's lap (For auld lang syne) I'd choose but thee.

Sweet Newton Cap! I mind thee still, Thou garden of my schoolboy days; How oft upon they bushy hill I've scratch'd my hands and torn my claes.

WHEN Bishop Skirlaw built his bridge more than 600 years ago, it would have connected Bishop Auckland with a "new town" on the cap of the hill opposite, but all signs of that settlement have been erased.

It seems to have been replaced by Newton Cap Hall, built around 1600 by Henry Bayles.

About 1699, John Bacon (1655-1736), of Northumberland, bought the Newton Cap estate which included the hall and the farm a little further along the A689 which goes by the splendid name of Needless.

Bacon was a descendent of Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the philosopher, scientist and statesman who may, or may not, have written William Shakespeare's works - the "arts and sciences" reference in the first extract at the top of this page is to this part of the family's pedigree.

John Bacon's great-grandson, John William Bacon Forster, began building a new hall at Newton Cap and his son, William Bacon Forster, continued the work.

But William married Lady Catherine Turnour, daughter of Earl Winterton, who had "extravagant habits, thereby embarrassing his affairs".

William himself was a keen gambler and so the family fortune was under double threat.

Early in January 1780, Lady Catherine died. Five weeks later, on February 23, William re-married, taking Frances Pewterer, of Ferryhill, as his second wife.

Frances soon fell pregnant, but debts were closing in on William. Less than two months after his nuptials, he went to the ruined old hall, where he "placed the muzzle of his gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger with his foot. The ball, after passing through his neck, made its way through a pane of glass in a staircase window, leaving a round hole the exact size of the bullet".

He was buried on April 18.

The son who never knew him succeeded to the estate, but he died, aged 30, without children in 1810. On January 15, the estate of Newton Cap and Needless was up for auction at the Wheat Sheaf, in Old Elvet, Durham City.

It was bought for £25,000 by William Russell, coal owner of Brancepeth Castle. Russell was interested because drift mining had been carried out on the estate for several centuries and, in 1752, a trial bore from the surface had reached the Five Quarter seam of the Durham coalfield.

Newton Cap quickly changed from a residential estate into a mining one, worked by WC Stobart and Company. Mr Stobart was in Toronto, Canada, when he heard, in 1859, that coal had been successfully won from the new main shaft. The village at the top of the bank, which his company built for miners and their families, was consequently named after the Canadian city.

The two halls on the estate were by now in terrible disrepair. About 1870, Russell's son-in-law, the Earl of Effingham, sold the estate to Stobart's coal company, and it pulled the mansions down and used the bricks to build coke works.

By 1894, the Toronto colliery was working the Harvey, Constantine, Five Quarter and Brockwell seams. The colliery closed in the late 1920s, but was reopened by the North Bitchburn Fireclay Company Limited in 1937.

At its peak in 1950, it employed 119 men. In 1967, it employed 70 men and 18 pit ponies, but it was closed.

IT was because of this area's rich potential that the York, Newcastle and Berwick Railway began building a Bishop Auckland branch line in 1854 that would connect Bishop with Hunwick, Willington, Brancepeth and Durham City.

"From the extensive mineral traffic of the district through which the line passes, it is expected that the undertaking will prove renumerative," noted The Times.

The line crossed the River Wear near the Skirlaw Bridge on the Newton Cap Viaduct. It was designed by Thomas Harrison, chief engineer of the North Eastern Railway.

It has 11 round arches, each spanning 60ft. It is 105ft high, 828ft long and its foundations had to be sunk 20ft into the riverbed because of the unstable nature of the ground.

It opened on April 1, 1857, with a train of 22 carriages ceremonially crossing it.

The last train to cross it did so in 1968 following the falling of the Beeching Axe. Durham County Council bought it in 1972. With neighbouring Skirlaw Bridge proving increasingly dangerous for modern heavy traffic, the council wanted to demolish the viaduct and replace it with a road bridge.

But the people of Bishop Auckland rebelled, and the Battle of Newton Cap was fought throughout the 1980s. In 1987, the people won, and the viaduct was saved.

Work eventually began converting it into a road bridge in 1994. A reinforced concrete slab was lain across its deck and, when it reopened on July 21, 1995, it had cost £5.85m.

It was the first time a rail bridge had been converted to a road bridge in Britain - although even today it requires help from its 600-year-old partner in times of gales.

If you have any information or memories about Newton Cap, either the bridges, the halls or the colliery and Toronto, please write to: Echo Memories, The Northern Echo, Priestgate, Darlington, DL1 1NF, call (01325)505062, or email chris.lloyd@nne.co.uk

Published: 30/01/2002