AMAZING how many Roman Catholic priests are football fans - a sign of their faithfulness, no doubt, that when in Darlington on Tuesday night so many forewent the Quakers against Bradford City to attend the launch of the diocese's 150th anniversary history.

"Ah yes," confided one reverend gentleman, "but what if it hadn't been throwing down?"

The diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, originally just Hexham, was formed on Catholicism's formal restoration to Britain in 1850 and originally covered Durham, Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmoreland.

Its first bishop was William Hogarth, who continued as parish priest of St Augustine's in Darlington, declined to move north, hoped to build a cathedral in Hexham and not have to use St Mary's in Newcastle.

"A bishop may go occasionally on great occasions," he wrote, "but no one should be condemned to live there."

Amid claims of popery, the restoration had been vigorously opposed. Edward Maltby, the Bishop of Durham, wrote to the prime minister deploring "papal aggression", the Vicar of Hartlepool complained in 1851 that the bells of St Mary's - the first Catholic bells to be rung in Britain - were spoiling his concentration.

Soon, however, the Catholics were in full fight against the Victorian perils of drunkenness, disease, ignorance and poverty - not least among the region's rapidly growing Irish population.

Rome decreed that if there was money only for one building, it should be a school and not a church. Fr Wilkinson rode around Crook market place on pay days ensuring that no Catholic entered an inn before taking is wages home; Canon Kearney of The Brooms, Leadgate, somewhat optimistically forecast "the speedy closure of all public houses in the district".

The near-300 page book - lively, learned, richly illustrated and remarkably inexpensive - is in two parts. The first is a vivid account of the first 150 years by Dr Leo Gooch, a Wolsingham based historian.

The second is a collection of essays written by retired Sunderland teacher Michael Morris based upon visits to more than 60 churches and previously published in Northern Cross, the diocesan newspaper.

The first, in 1983, was to St Augustine's in Darlington where parish priest Fr Bob Spence was photographed with his dog, named Canon. Bob Spence is now one of the diocesan Vicars General and is indeed a Canon. The dog's name was a mistake, of course: he should have called it Cardinal.

Canon Spence, a vastly admired pastor, was back in town for the book launch and presented with a special edition. "If I'd known about this, I wouldn't have bought one," he said. His address also included several references - they usually do - to his beloved Newcastle United. "Me dad told me never to miss a match and never to miss Mass. It's been invaluable advice all my life".

Now, of course, times have greatly changed. Dr Gooch reserves judgement over whether the church is, as it were, on its knees; Canon Spence was altogether more upbeat.

"I think the Catholic church is in a much more healthy state than it was a generation ago" he insisted. "The church of Jesus isn't about bums on seats".

It was a very good evening - Darlington lost, anyway - the only problem that the column's notebook was left behind on the vaulting horse at St Augustine's primary school and has since become irredeemable. This one may be about the book, therefore, but can no longer be said to be by it.

l Down Your Aisles by Michael Morris and Leo Gooch costs £10 and is fairly described by Fr Michael Finnegan as "the publishing snip of the millennium". It's available from Roman Catholic churches or, plus postage, from Northern Cross, St Joseph's Parish Centre, St Paul's Road, Hartlepool TS26 9EY.

A ticket only mass to mark the 150th anniversary will be held in St Mary's Cathedral, Newcastle - Bishop Hogarth conceded in the end - at 11am on Saturday September 30.

GADFLY column readers may recall that the Down Your Aisles do coincided exactly, date and time, with an invitation to a mass beer tasting at the Castle Eden Brewery.

Northern Cross editor John Bailey had certainly read that bit, secretly arranged with Castle Eden director Mike Wallbank for a dozen cans of Nimmo's 4XXX - and a pint pot - to be presented to the column at the end of the launch's slipway.

The beer tasting also went very well, apparently, except that the food didn't turn up. "We'd to send out for 40 Chinese takeaways" says Mr Wallbank. "You know what they say about booze ups and breweries." The infusion of Nimmo's finest was very much appreciated. As St Augustine would surely have done, however, we shared it among the deserving.

A TRAGIC PS to last week's piece on the "Beat the clock" races down Fawcett Street in Sunderland. We'd mentioned Paul Chapman, then a hairdresser, who won the final race in 1970 and named his racehorse Millfield Rebel after fellow competitor Jim Taylor, the contentious and subsequently unfrocked vicar of Millfield, Sunderland.

Paul became a travel agent in Bishop Auckland, moving his family to the hamlet of Bolam, just off the A68. In January 1993 Paul, his wife Julie and their 14-year-old son John died in a house fire there.

He was just 43, his wife 47. Christopher, their younger son, escaped to raise the alarm.

The deaths so stunned Bolam that most of its residents attended a special church service that evening. None in the village would ever forget them it was said. We are grateful to Shirley Palmer, Paul's sister, for providing the final chapter.

IN the pub, by remarkable coincidence, the talk turns to another Sunderland tragedy and to its eternal memorial.

Margaret Wheatley, a 16-year-old from the Herringtons, was killed in June 1936 after being hit by a train in Cumberland. She was in service, on holiday with her mistress, and had been trying to rescue a dog from the railway line.

The dog survived. Despite emergency surgery, Margaret died next day in Ulverston Cottage Hospital.

The RSPCA was so impressed with her courage, however, that the Margaret Wheatley Cross became - and remains - its supreme award for gallantry. Just nine have been awarded since 1983, says a spokeswoman, five of them posthumously.

The Northern Echo appears to have carried nothing of her death, though we reported that Darlington magistrates had refused a licence for a 2,036 seat cinema in Bondgate - there were ten "entertainment halls" already - but, doubtless reluctantly, agreed that the pub games of darts, dominoes and shove ha'penny could in future be played on Sunday evenings.

Our motoring correspondent, meantime, was trying out a device which, he was confident, would forever silence aircraft, motor bikes and windy picks. Like the inventor, he seems quietly to have gone back to the drawing board.

Margaret Wheatley is buried in West Herrington cemetery, her grave recently restored by Sunderland Historical Society - among them Julie Hull, who happened to be among our company. "She had become the city's forgotten heroine" said Julie. Next year she and husband Mike, a familiar Cockerton cricketer, plan to buy a vineyard in France - but that's another day's story.

....and finally, back on the road again. "Whatever happened to the Darlington to Barnard Castle road race?" asks Charlie Westberg, The Echo's long retired chief photographer. It was run on the Saturday of the annual Barney Meet, started in Coniscliffe Road and runners finished at the Buttercross, greeted by the Meet queen.

"We always had a picture of the winner being kissed by the queen. It was the bit they looked forward to most," says Charlie.

Further memories welcomed.