FROM the Durham side came the mayor of Darlington; from the Yorkshire, the new Bishop of Durham. It was showdown at high noon on Croft bridge.

The mayor was mob-handed and armed, preceded by her macebearer. He marched solemnly forward, with a solid-looking mace threateningly across his shoulder, as if ready to poleaxe the approaching bishop should he say a word out of turn.

The mayor, Councillor Lee Vasey, was regal in red, cocked hat on head, the sun picking out the gold on her chains. She was flanked by clergy and her ranks were bolstered by council officials.

Behind them were policemen in black helmets and fluorescent jackets who protected the 13th Century falchion at the centre of the ceremony.

A falchion is a sword, curved like a cutlass, its silver tarnished by the centuries and its blade irregular, still showing where Sir John Conyers once smashed it through the bones and the blubber of the terrifying Sockburn Worm.


From the south came the bishop – the incomer, the newcomer, the Right Reverend Justin Portal Welby. He was accompanied by a rather thin retinue. Certainly in terms of numbers, he was no match for the mighty mayor, and he was armed only with a frail-looking staff.

Still he strode purposefully towards the showdown, his long vestments flapping at his ankles.

The parties converged on the centre of the bridge.

Below them, a couple of ducks slew sideways on the fast, muddy current of the Tees.

Over their heads, the merest smudge of a rainbow illuminated the grey, hail-filled clouds.

The mayor and the bishop stopped. Face to face.

If it had been a Clint Eastwood film, there would have been a coyote howl, a couple of whistles on a woodwind and the ripping zip of gunshots.

But it wasn’t. It was Crofton- Tees, where Yorkshire meets Durham, and so there was a smattering of polite applause.

The rector of Hurworth, Adele Martin, spoke first.

“My Lord Bishop,” she said, “I here present you with the falchion wherewith the champion Conyers slew the worm, dragon or fiery flying serpent which destroyed men, women and children.”

The bishop blinked behind his glasses, probably wondering whether his retinue would be up to dealing with fiery flying serpents.

The mayor offered reassurance.

“We look forward to your leadership and we pledge to work with you,” she said.

The bishop looked relieved.

“Thank you for your greeting and the presentation of this ancient falchion,” he said.

“I’m delighted and privileged to be entering the borough of Darlington and the diocese of Durham.”

Everyone peaceably shook hands, but even as they were shaking, the keeper of the falchion picked it up in his gloved white hands and, escorted by three officers of the law, whisked it away to the safety of a police car.

The showdown, which had taken place on that very spot since 1790, was complete.

“This ceremony embeds you in the traditions and history of this place, and that’s hugely important,” said the bishop. “If we are seeking to move forward as a church and to change as an area, unless we draw on our history, we lose the plot very quickly.

“Something like this reminds us where we come from, and its symbolism tells us about the past and the role of the bishop.”

They tidied themselves off the bridge, allowing the traffic to again flow as freely as the river, and then the heavens opened.