SHE was described by the Daily Telegraph as a wandering lunatic, attended by the Co-op butcher from Consett and the porter from Blaydon railway station, who launched a colourful 20-year claim to one of the North-East's wealthiest estates.

"She did not merely gild the lily, she painted it a glorious technicolour," observed a biographer.... Peter Jefferies in Durham introduces us to Countess Amelia Mary Tudor Radcliffe.

Peter had known nothing of her either, bought some contemporary photographs for a couple of quid in a Newcastle junk shop, began to wonder about the countess's new clothes.

Space may not do the story, or Peter Jefferies, great justice, but it's best to begin at the beginning.

John Radcliffe, much loved third Earl of Derwentwater, was a prominent Roman Catholic who lived in the early 18th Century at Dilston Hall - above Devil's Water - between Corbridge and Consett.

In 1715, he was a reluctant leader of the Jacobite Rebellion which sought to crown James Stuart - the Pretender - instead of the Hanoverian George I. Radcliffe was captured and taken, via Durham, to the Tower.

En route, Peter has discovered, the party stayed at the Bull Inn in Millburngate where the Earl struck his head on a door lintel. "The head of Derwentwater will be much lower when he returns," he is said to have remarked.

Subsequently beheaded - a gesture to nobility, the peasants were hanged, drawn and quartered - his body (minus the heart, for which many miracles were supposed) was finally returned to Dilston, via Durham.

As it approached the city, history records, "the entire sky was suddenly lit up by a fiery brilliance, with streamers of flame and colour flashing from east to west".

The aurora borealis had never been so bright, fearfully whispered to be an omen of heaven's wrath at the execution. The Northern Lights thereafter became known as Lord Derwentwater's Lights.

The Derwentwater estates finally passed to the Admirality. In 1857, however, Lady Amelia - "an irrepressible woman of uncertain age" - arrived in the region bearing a "collection of family heirlooms" claiming to the third Earl's great granddaughter and long lost heir. Her early supporters included not just the butcher and baker but the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle. "Her evidence places her lineage beyond all question," it concluded.

Officially rebuffed, the lady - with or without the capital L - simply refused to go away. Accompanied by her motley men, she marched in 1868 on the ruined Dilston Hall - dressed somewhat incongruously as an Austrian soldier - set up camp beneath a tarpaulin and became one of history's first recorded squatters.

Later, she set up a hut in the road outside, resisting all entreaties until officialdom succeeded where persuasion had failed and the Hexham Highways Board declared it an obstruction, fined the countess ten shillings and had the hut dismantled.

Still the campaign continued. That she gained particular support in the Consett area may have been partly because of the number of Irish Catholics at the iron works and partly because she ordered free beer at the Railway Inn, promising a wondrous spread when finally her boast came in.

It never did, of course, neither boat nor boast. Slowly the region, and its newspapermen, began to grow tired of the whole Derwentwater charade.

The Newcastle Journal talked of the "highly ludicrous but decidedly inconvenient audacities of the soi-distant countess and her abettors", the Telegraph simply wondered why she had not long since been committed to the county asylum. After spells in the debtors' gaol in Newcastle, she died at Benfieldside, Consett, in 1880.

Maurice Milne's 1970 booklet "The Strange Story of the Countess of Derwentwater" concludes that the heirlooms were "a pathetic collection of curiosities and imitations", that Amelia was a forger as well as a fraudster and that she'd probably been a lady's maid in Devon.

Peter Jefferies, holding court over a couple of beers in Durham, is less convinced of her guilt. "She was certainly a remarkable lady," he says and that, at least, is unchallengeable.

RECALLING the great storm of February 28 1937, last week's column also noted that the coastguard were alerted to a ship in trouble off Saltburn "by an SoS broadcast on the Home Service."

Martin Snape in Durham knows his stations rather better. It couldn't have been the Home Service, he writes, because until the war, the BBC offered only the National Programme or the Regional Programme. In 1939 they were replaced by the Home Service and the Forces Programme, the latter becoming the Light Programme when hostilities ceased.

"The error," adds Martin, "will only be appreciated by those of us who were children at the time, and so paid proper attention to such details."

JOHN "Basher" Alderson mails a letter from America. Enclosed are several film stills - My Fair Lady, Romanoff and Juliet, Last Stagecoach West - and a 1999 cutting from the People's Friend about childhood in Horden.

It's by Theresa Ash, collier's daughter, not least recalling the perishing winters. "Every house had a fire in the bedroom and in winter the hot shelves would be taken from the coal oven, wrapped up well and put in the beds."

Basher Alderson was the Horden miner's son who joined the Army, became a major, married an American general's secretary and, in Hollywood since 1950, has been silver screened alongside the most luminous.

He well remembers standing on the cliff tops - early morning, 1920s - watching the sun's total eclipse with his classmates and with Mr Hurt, their teacher. "It was momentous, the atmosphere and lighting amazing.

"Mr Hurt told us to look for the sun's shadow and we did as it swept like lightning across the North Sea. Sheer magic."

Paul Stradling's evocative history of Horden which began this trans-Atlantic trail fails to mention, however, the night in the 1920s that the Red Stamp store burned down. Basher takes it up.

"So what, you might ask? Well, one Red Stamp executive landed his plane in Ellison's farm field.

"There were no cars in Horden, let alone aeroplanes, and nobody in his right mind would land a plane in the field, even today.

"It's next to Ellison's bank and buses still avoid it in winter. We all stood clasped in silent prayer when, a day later, the plane took off again."

Basher's 85 now, still socking it to them in Tinseltown. Few may remember the foolhardy young man in his flying machine, but whatever happened to Red Stamp Stores?

CLOSER to hearth and homestead, another letter from Alan Thompson in Seaton Carew. "I worked with a lass on the United buses in the 1960s who was always on about her uncle Jim, as if I knew who he was".

Uncle Jim, she said, was the left-handed gun who guarded the stagecoach in the Wells Fargo television series. Originally, she'd insisted, he was from Horden. Was uncle Jim uncle John? Did Basher Alderson lead with his left or has the Durham coast two young men who went western? The intermission may not be too long.

*And finally, the changeover at the Brit in Darlington has gone smoothly. Sue Carr even marked her debut with vast bowls of carlins, a surviving tradition thereabouts. Another annual occasion, the fives and threes champion, was unceremoniously crowned on Monday evening. Modesty forbids another word.

Published: Thursday, April 05