WEST Cornforth Community Centre, the column is said several years ago to have observed, must last have been painted at about the same time as the Mona Lisa.

"I was rather annoyed about it," said Gwen Dodds, as well she might have been, though as shabby remarks go it was deceptively well presented.

Mrs Dodds, at any rate, rang not just to indulge in some ceremonial lug chewing but to invite us to view the centre's Christmas decorations. "It's the nicest hall you'll ever see," she said, and since it is the season of peace and reconciliation, we got a number 13 bus and went.

West Cornforth is in what might best be termed mid-Durham, once a prosperous industrial village - muck and money - and known universally as Doggy not because of a rampant canine population, as popularly is supposed, but because of the dog-iron that was a by product of the steel works.

There were coke ovens and tar beds, a quarry, a foundry and Thrislington Colliery - Doggy Pit to those who hewed there - sunk in 1867 and scuttled exactly a century later.

A memorial in the main street notes that Thrislington had no major disasters, just the constant casualties who'd paid the monstrous price of coal. The dead are listed alongside, 76 miners aged between 13 and 69, and including Tommy Dodds's father, killed in 1936 when Tommy was just six years old.

Now he's community centre chairman, his mate Alan Stubbs, aged 76, the vice-chairman. Together they put up the decorations, Alan atop the wheeled scaffold, and since it's Christmas, let the women folk push them around.

Gwen couldn't make it - "mebbe just as well," they said - Alan was late because he'd been over to Fishburn to see to his mother-in-law. She's 96. "Getting on a bit," he said.

Originally the Miners' Welfare, the building and adjoining recreation ground had been given to the village by Pease and Company, the colliery owners, in 1927. It became a community centre in 1968; Tommy's been chairman for 30 years and helped withstand the worst that West Cornforth can throw at it.

A few weeks ago a fire caused £12,000 damage ("they just piled rubbish outside the back door and set light to it"), the other day they found yet another window broken by gunshot. Each replacement costs £140, and in West Cornforth - grim and grilled - even the window maker has had his window put in.

"We won't pack in because then they'll have beaten us," says the chairman. "We know who it is, but of course the police don't seem to be able to prove anything."

Against that background, amid the fight between those who seek to build a community and those relentlessly destroying it, the centre is stupendous.

Outwardly still nowt ower, as probably they say in those parts, it is internally immaculate and with ambitious plans for further expansion. "We may not see it in my time but for future generations it's going to be a huge boom," says Tommy.

There are water colours of the village, old photographs of the High Street, the open air baths, the day in 1911 when Thrislington pit took fire and of the long-gone school when old Summerbell was headmaster.

"Those who cause all this trouble wouldn't have lasted five minutes if he'd still been there. He'd have skinned them," he adds.

There are a couple of snooker tables ("I cut my teeth on them,") shelves of youth club trophies and a poster from the time in 1984 when Rolf Harris visited Cornforth with the Radio 2 roadshow. "Fabulous feller. Stayed here until one o'clock in the morning playing table tennis," the chairman recalls.

Most fascinating of all, however, are the pages from the programme for West Cornforth's "Xmas Fair" in 1925. There were hot peas and home-made toffee stalls, Try Your Strength, electric rifles and something called the Japanese Tea Room, where a plain tea was a tanner and a posh one ninepence.

Village advertisers included Miss Chatt the dressmaker, James Owens MPS ("try our noted cod liver oil"), Robt. Bainbridge boot stores - "leather, grindery and rubbers always in stock" and "Walton and Co, City tailors, West Cornforth".

The hall, where still on Saturday nights they gather for 50-50 dances from all over the county, is simply refulgent, the spirit of Christmas reflected in the shatter proof windows. You've heard of Ho-Ho-Homes? This is a Ha-Ha-Hall.

LOTS of kind messages about last week's column on Newbiggin Methodist Chapel in Teesdale, including one from the Rev Keith Garner - former high-profile minister of Elm Ridge Methodist church in Darlington and now chairman, the Methodist equivalent of bishop, of the Bolton and Rochdale circuit in Lancashire.

"It gives me chance to watch Bolton Wanderers," he says.

Newbiggin, of course, is reckoned the world's oldest Methodist chapel in continuous use - a claim, says Ian Andrew in Lanchester, which "generates correspondence" whenever it's aired in the Methodist Recorder. "Careful use of words usually resolves the matter," adds Ian. Continuous means without interruption; continual has an interval.

...and finally, since tomorrow's Backtrack column will be looking in a different direction, a tale from the tea room at Shildon Football Club.

It's half time in last Saturday's game with Esh Winning. Club chairman and successful Co Durham businessman Gordon Hampton is in full flow when his mobile rings.

It's Mrs Hampton, calling from outside their home in Spain whilst dressed only in her nightie.

Mrs Hampton has gone to the pool to watch the sunset and, returning, discovered that she's locked herself out. She does what comes naturally and rings the old feller a thousand miles away.

"What am I going to do?" asks Dorothy. "How the hell should I know?" says Gordon and returns to his tea and team talk.

It is to be hoped that Dorothy Hampton is no longer in her nightie in the Spanish garden, that Gordon retains the key to her heart and that they and all John North readers have a Christmas memorable for all the right reasons. We return on January 8