SIX weeks ago, when it was impossible to walk 15 yards without a stick and a stop for breath, a holy grail arose amid the small print on page 17.

Amongst the Co Durham environmental awards for landmarks like the Cathedral, the Market Cross in Barnard Castle and Fawnless Hall, near Wolsingham, were two - almost unnoticed - in Newton Aycliffe.

One was for a butterfly meadow, a bright elusive butterfly meadow - or so sometimes it has seemed - the other for a five and a half mile circular walk, the Great Aycliffe Way. To complete it, again to walk five and a half miles without a paramedic on every mile post and an obituarist up every wrong turning, became the burning benchmark of a return to action.

The old lag would once more be off on his toes. One small step....

It should at once be said, therefore, that the Great Aycliffe Way is the most stupendous surprise. It is Newton Aycliffe as you've never seen it before, the new town as nature intended. Whilst it is by no means the most egregious of the post-war concrete bungles - in truth, probably the most pleasant - those of us of long and passing acquaintance could never have imagined such splendours within its compass.

Reminders remain, of course, that real life is just out the back.

There's a kitchen chair in the burn and quite possibly a kitchen sink as well; the litter louts and graffiti illiterates have left their serial stain; a woman through the Williamfield undergrowth threatens her child that she'll belt his **** for him - thereby raising the pedestrian pedant's question about whether he's supposed to do it himself.

The Williamfield houses were built in the 1960s by Crudens, four pounds and seven shillings a week, and a Rediffusion television thrown in.

The crude 'uns, alas, still remain, though when the Great Aycliffe Way scents housing, it scurries prudently in the opposite direction. It starts at Stephenson Way, burrows verdantly behind the town centre, left to Woodham, a sylvan stroll towards Middridge - before the Great Plan of 1948 just about all there was for miles - and back through Greenfield to the beginning.

To think that we supposed the name Greenfield to be a little joke, rather like the Las Vegas amusement arcade in Seaton Carew.

Completed by Sedgefield and Great Aycliffe councils to mark the golden jubilee of the town's formation, the way is fragrant, fascinating and - according to the little leaflet - full of wildlife.

There's yarrow and yellow rattle, ragged robin and dog's mercury, goldfinch and water vole, butterflies like the orange tip, the ringlet, the small copper and (honest) the comma.

"If you are lucky," adds the leaflet, "you might see wagtail, heron and kingfisher."

If this myopic column is lucky, it might not walk into a tree.

There are wrens, too, though the guide notes that they spend much of their time hidden among the foliage. Perhaps Yogi Bear is in there, too, awaiting an unsuspecting ambler in the eternal search of honey.

You also don't see people: a couple of kids playing nick, an elderly chap with champagne in the basket of his electric buggy, a dog with a limp worse than mine, but for three or four miles never a soul.

Does Newton Aycliffe even know about this gem, this secret amongst the Sky dishes?

The Way is also dotted with bits of art and sculpture - bug and toadstools, fairy ring seat, giant wooden sunflowers and by information boards which on past and present most fulsomely serve their purpose.

On Blue Bell Corner, we are told, old Mary Robertson (known thereabouts as Ma Rob) would sell sweets and Jones's pop from her butter churn kitchen; on Middridge Smallholdings, Herbert Beadle (a wonderful old gentleman whom we knew in the dear gone days at St John's in Shildon) raised his family and his 500 chickens; until 1958 Jack Dobson, a rep for Teesside Farmers, would do his rounds on horseback. Another board informs the reader that he is standing on Neddy Carr, which (happily) proves not to be the mortal remains of some long gone Eden family tenant farmer but the name of a particularly wet meadow.

In those days it all belonged to the Windlestone estate. For much of the way it's possible to imagine it unchanged and uncharted, that no town - new or old - awaits the unwary.

The leaflet suggests that it should be circumnavigated within three hours. We complete it slightly more quickly, ankle rankling, leg like a log.

It didn't matter that the bus stop was another half mile distant, that we'd seen neither butterflies nor precious few painted ladies. We'd walked it: once more the column has wings.

l The Great Aycliffe Way is prominently waymarked, suitable throughout for pushchairs and for most of its course for wheelchairs. Leaflets, large print leaflets and audio cassettes on both the Way and on its en route art are available from local libraries or from Great Aycliffe Town Council. It is hugely recommended.

AN EVERY day story of country folk ended when the Archers pulled their last pint at the Station in Hurworth Place, near Darlington. Keith and Carole, perfect publicans, had been there almost 30 years - he, 59, a former Barnard Castle polliss, she so very much his junior that she is but a day younger (though altogether bonnier) than I am.

Their Station has had no food, no bad language and precious little music - just well kept beer, good crack, civilised people and Hurworth Gentlemen. It's been taken over by Tony Gill - originally from Bishop Auckland, latterly an Army staff sergeant in Colchester - who promises the formula as before. The Archers, meanwhile, have moved up the road to The Wayside in Hurworth, where their house is renamed Fell-by. Readers can work out the address for themselves.

ON THE night that England played Germany, a while back admittedly, we attended a one man performance in Holy Trinity, Darlington, of the Gospel according to St Mark.

"Please make sure that your mobile phones, pagers, alarm watches etc are switched off," urged the programme. Someone clearly knew the score.

Christopher Wardale, Trinity's vicar, had not only memorised Mark word perfectly but delivered it - well he might - like he believed every sentence. A stunning and stimulating achievement.

Chris, Saltburn lad originally, had been on the boards since he was three, though this was his first venture for 20 years. "I've rediscovered stage fright," he said.

Mike Turnbull, the director, had done everything from Goldilocks and the Three Bears to Oedipus Rex. Chris's performance - Read, Mark and Learn - tours the region until November, though not again until September 13 at Darlington Arts Centre. More memorable than England.

FEET again beneath the table, we also helped form a Question Time quartet whilst recuperating at St Mary's, Acklam, kept in order by Tony Briggs, a circuit judge and all round nice guy.

Robert Ladds, newish Bishop of Whitby, Major Louis Kinsey from the Salvation Army in Catterick and the splendid Mary Butterwick, founder of the Stockton hospice, completed the foursome.

Mary, the most self-effacing of women, has been granted the freedom of the town, entitling her - she thinks - to graze sheep or goats in the High Street.

She's unsure which it is - "but I don't think I'll be taking advantage of either".

AND finally to open the Darlington Federation of Townswomen's Guilds garden party at Polam Hall school - climax of a year of fund raising that's raised several thousand for Save the Children - and to perhaps the world's biggest tombola.

They'd begged over 1,100 prizes, of which we won a pair of Wallace and Grommit socks, several bottles of smelly stuff, a milk jug, a £5 butcher's voucher, a tin of pears, a pen and pencil set and a box of crayons. It's a while since we wrote anything in crayon, mind, but whatever the medium it's very good to be back.