DEVELOPERS will move on to the Tow Law Auction Mart site this morning, building nearly 70 homes in a town that has not seen any new housing for years.

Inside the tiny wooden mart building, there was little time for sentiment as auctioneer Trevor Simpson brought his gavel down for the last time yesterday afternoon.

Circling the tiny ring all day, farmers whose fathers and grandfathers had sold their stock at the County Durham mart for 123 years lamented the loss of a way of life.

Six thousand sheep had passed through in five hours - a fraction of the numbers once sold for a fraction of the prices they would have brought in more prosperous times.

Thirty and 40 years ago, Tow Law was one of the most popular marts in the country, with buyers filling the town's pubs and cafes on sale days -Tuesdays and Thursdays.

It was founded in 1882 by Joseph Vickers, a bank manager and local benefactor who lived at Helme Park Hall.

After Joseph, chairmanship of the mart passed to his nephew, Tom, and then to Tom's eldest son, John.

Through the prosperous 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, John, of Thornley Hall, and his cousin, Joe, of nearby Greenwell, presided over the ring. John's nephew, Harry Vickers, ran the mart for more than 20 years until he handed over to John's son, "young" Harry, the present chairman.

Both were at yesterday's sale. Harry Vickers Snr said: "It is sad to see it go. My family have run it for generations and I have good memories.

"We have a third of the stock we would have had.

"The decline in numbers goes back to the BSE crisis of 1986, which was exacerbated by foot-and-mouth in 2001.

"There are lots of other factors, such as changes in farming legislation, environmental schemes and country stewardship, which have all had the effect of reducing stock numbers and hitting our business hard.

"We have 6,000 sheep here today. At one time, this would have been a two-day sale and we would have had 18,000 sheep."

With stock numbers already dropping before foot-and-mouth, the mart took action and leased the site to Hexham and Northern Marts, which has operated it since.

Mr Vickers' last duty was to introduce the sellers of the champion pen, Lloyd Lee, from Frosterley, and his daughter, Julie Spedding.

They were presented with a silver rosebowl given in 1976 by retiring company secretary George Robinson, then an accountant in Crook, who died two weeks ago aged 90.

And with that, an era ended, with many farmers facing an increasingly uncertain future.

Harvest tradition ran through the ages

EVERY harvest festival, Joseph Vickers would present a calf or sheep to the town's Salvation Army corps.

He would buy the animal at a sale, send it to Greenwell Hill Farm to be fattened up on fresh eggs and milk, with instructions that it had to be given to the Army and killed for pies - but only after it had been paraded through the streets decorated with Army ribbons to advertise the following night's pie supper.