GETTING on three decades ago, Vin Garbutt wrote a song called John North, about this grand young lad who drank the best ale in the land. Chance would be a fine thing...

Last Saturday - surviving, thriving - he sang beneath a tree in Darlington, one of Britain's fast diminishing black poplars. "A magnificent thing, I was thrilled to bits when I saw it," says the 53-year-old former ICI apprentice, a poplar entertainer at last.

Popular, too. The lad from South Bank - there was another song called Slaggy Island Farewell - has become one of England's foremost folk musicians, a tin whistle maestro and ad libber extraordinary. Now he's marking 30 years on the road, a wandering minstrel without so much as a driving licence.

Much as he'd like to, however, he fears slowing down because, paradoxically, the wheels might come off. "A vicious circle" says Vin. "I'm a cottage industry, I have to peddle my wares. I got a provisional licence and a new Renault van when I'd made a few bob in about 1974. The trouble was that I had mates with licences but without a van, so they gave me lifts in my own van. Now I catch the trains."

And boats, and planes. "A supreme showman," enthused the Napier Daily Telegraph in New Zealand; "as good as Bob Dylan" said the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong; "a venerable legend of the folk scene worldwide," said the magazine Rock 'n' Reel.

"If you stop touring you're soon forgotten," says Vin, briefly back home. "It's very hard for an English folk singer to make it, as opposed to a Scottish and Irish one. With just one exception, Kate Rusby from Barnsley, the rest are from London."

He first did the nowt so funny as folk clubs in 1963, became a regular at the Rifle Club in Cannon Street, Middlesbrough whilst still at school. A publicity leaflet in 1970 claimed that he didn't mind people talking about his nose.

Now he lives on a cliff top near Staithes in North Yorkshire with his wife and four children and - presently - a dose of bronchitis so bad he might even have to go to the doctor.

"It's not that I don't like them, just that I like these things to be given a chance on their own. I felt it coming a couple of weeks ago, a couple of rough kips on the road, some food I probably shouldn't have eaten and my tubs of garlic pills were empty.

"The trouble now is that everyone kills me with kindness. At first if I was staying with people they'd tell me the breakfast was in the cupboard and go off to work. Now they take a day off to look after me and, to be honest, I don't get enough solitude."

He interrupts to blow his nose. "I've a pretty big nose to blow," says Vin.

If not the classic angry young man, he had certainly been socially conscious. His songs covered everything from the state of the roads to the plight of the Timorese refugees. Black Poplar is a lament for England's rarest indigenous tree, vanishing because its natural habitat is the flood plain and - as recent events have underlined - they're building houses on them.

"I don't write so many songs now because I have to get quite annoyed about something, but I'm really quite annoyed about the black poplar."

Neither of us, sadly, was much up to the best ale in the land. One day soon, though. There's more than the splendid Vin Garbutt who needs occasionally to wet his whistle.

PERCHANCE, the pub in which we played dominoes on Monday night offered copies of Keep It Live - a neat little gigs guide to the North-East. There's Outrageous Wallpaper and the Beer Pigs, Raised On Rusks, the Skip Rats and The Damned. There are jam sessions (for a couple of jars, presumably) and attitude nights. For some reason Vin Garbutt isn't in there at all.

THE Rev Harry Lee enjoins that we wait a minute - or some such horological pun - before finally calling time on Holy Trinity church clock.

The clock, it may be recalled, has been the subject of a major mathematical exercise in recent columns. Winners were notified last week, most wondering why 1900 wasn't a leap year.

"As a former Vicar of Holy Trinity, Darlington, I have been following the story with some impatience," writes Mr Lee, impishly, from Consett.

"Does no one in Darlington read Canon Cosgrave's history of the church from 1838-1931 any longer? Surely it is available in the library, if nowhere else. I refer to page 22."

Page 22 recounts two instances of the clock being stopped by snow on midsummer's day, the second - June 21 1890 - personally confirmed by the good canon.

Not only would it have stopped the clock, of course, it would have thrown the calculations on the number of times its pendulum had clicked. "I presume," adds Mr Lee, "that this incident may have been reported in the newspapers of the day."

Well no, it wasn't.

June 21 1890 was a Saturday, its activities apparently unaffected. Shildon Bicycle Club held sports on their Dean Street ground - the Temperance Band in attendance - Stanhope Saxhorn Band led the Weardale Friendly Societies' Gala and down dale at Hunwick, the Church Institute gala was blessed by weather "dull but dry".

Why snow should fall only on Holy Trinity church in Darlington is impossible for the unrighteous to explain. But something's gummed up the works, anyway.

AND what of Alexis Jane Cleveland, operational support director of the Benefits Agency and a woman powerful enough to be in Who's Who?

Last week's column noted that her only listed "club" was Durham Workmen's; this week's may not take matters much further. Firstly the telephone number was wrongly listed; secondly (says a much humbler civil servant) Ms Cleveland is very busy in meetings - only to be expected, of course - and thirdly the humble servant gives the distinct impression that she believes the column to be bonkers. "I will ask her if she has a minute, but I cannot guarantee that she will ring back," she finally, frostily, agrees. We wait anxiously for an explanation for such workmanlike behaviour. For the moment, at least, Ms Cleveland has the Benefit of the doubter.

MORE on Littleburn, the long vanished colliery village near Durham where a great flood 50 years ago closed the drift mine for ever.

Tom Fox was brought up in Littleburn before the war, his father a deputy - the man after whom Tommy the pit pony, the flood's only casualty, was named.

"The colliery was our play area. My dad used to take us down to see the rats," recalls Tom, in the manner of a privileged son.

Though the manager lived in Nevilles Cross, or somewhere, being a deputy offered little in the way of superior accommodation. "We hadn't a sink, a bathroom, a flush toilet or a hot water tap," says Tom, who now lives in Doncaster. "Though, sadly, they were sources of disease, the houses were still palaces to many of those who lived there.

"It was our world. We didn't have any other reference point, and we were happy."