PROPHESIED hereabouts in July, the folk of Witton Park now formally face losing their parish church – St Paul’s – but with an ingenious plan for its salvation.

Local county councillor Rob Yorke has asked the Bishop of Durham about the possibility of a community buy-out, what might be supposed privatisation, with the church still used for baptisms, weddings and funerals.

“I don’t know of anyone else who’s done it, but we like to lead the way in Witton Park,” says Rob. “I really can’t think of a reason why it wouldn’t work so long as the community was prepared to fund and manage it. We could call it Hatch, Match and Despatch Limited.”

Witton Park’s near Bishop Auckland, once a thirsting ironworks community with more than 20 pubs and in the 1960s the crucible of the campaign against Durham County Council’s loathed Category D policy.

Though the last pub has closed, the village still has three church congregations – Roman Catholic, Methodist and Church of England.

The last time the column was at St Paul’s, for the funeral of the Rev Nick Beddow, there were five bishops – outnumbering the regular congregation which now attends Sunday morning services.

Fresh from the successful battle to restore the road bridge linking the village with the west, Cllr Yorke now seeks to fight the good fight elsewhere.

“We’d like to understand how much they will be looking for when they sell the church and we’ve also asked about running costs,” he says. “Witton Park was a large settlement with folk now spread all over the county, but they still come back for weddings and funerals. We could let the church use our building.”

The Ven Rick Simpson, the Archdeacon of Auckland, says that St Paul’s parochial church council had become “increasingly concerned” about the sustainability of the church and agreed to explore the “unfortunate, but perhaps necessary” closure process.

“The churchwardens are lovely people and they’re very sad about it. We’re a couple of steps into the process and we’d be very happy to talk to Cllr Yorke.”

GAVIN BELTON, whose death we reported in July, was himself a Witton Park lad who for half a century led the Tees Valley Jazzmen with his brother Keith. His funeral at Bishop Auckland Methodist Church raised £450 for cystic fibrosis research; on Saturday, October 19, from 2-4pm, the band’s memorial gig at the same venue will raise money for church funds. Admission’s £4, including tea, coffee and biscuits – and musicians who’d like to join in will be most welcome, too.

JOHN BIGGS, whose funeral was held yesterday, was himself a greatly accomplished musician and a true pillar of Bishop Auckland Methodist Church – “a man of integrity and principle,” said his death notice and might have added that over the years he was also greatly helpful to both me and Chris Lloyd.

Visiting the church in 2011, the At Your Service column was much taken by John’s “keyboard” tie and matching socks and braces – gallusses, he called them, adding that he had a tie with snatches of Mozart, too.

“Though the gallusses are just as tasteful as the tie,” the column observed, “it seems impudent (not to mention imprudent) to ask if his boxers match as well.”

A postscript came a couple of years later when the etymological and globally-followed website A Word a Day lauded the column for correct use of the word impudent.

John Biggs was to be thanked for that – but in Shildon we’d still just have called it impitent fond.

OTHER commitments – village cricket – meant that we were unable to attend another day of what might be termed ecclesiastical restructuring.

Up in Swaledale, the United Reformed churches in Low Row and Keld are joining as Low Row with Keld URC. Low Row’s quite healthy, Keld – once described by the walks author Alfred Wainwright as a place where the hours are measured by sundial but time is measured in centuries – has but three members.

“Keld won’t be closing,” says Daphne Clarke, one of the elders. “Villagers mightn’t go much, but it’s important to them. They like to have their weddings and funerals there.” See under Witton Park, above.

Services were held in both churches, lunch for ten between the two at the Keld Lodge.

The At Your Service column had attended the 200th anniversary of Low Row church in 2009, an occasion marked (as always) by a splendid spread and a lively sermon from the Rev Julie Martin, the 20th minister in those 200 years.

When she came, she said, she’d been given two bits of advice – always carry a torch, because it becomes almost impenetrably dark up there, and never preach about sheep. “The congregation,” said her gaffer, “knows far more about sheep than you ever will.”

As Dissenters, then Congregationalists, they’d been formally in those parts since 1691 when a little chapel – “situated on the side of a steep mountain” – was built at Smarber. An annual service still takes place amid the ruins.

At Your Service more than once attended that one, too, once noting that a gentleman had asked a lady if he might sit next to her. “It’s probably a URC courting ritual,” we added.

Daphne insists that services will continue in both places. “There may be fewer services in Keld, but we’ll still be there. It’s been a long time now.”

THE multi-talented Daphne Clarke, bless her, turned up at Dalton near Richmond the other evening for a recital of her ever-entertaining poems. Carefully having checked that it was the right Dalton – North Yorkshire has several from which to choose – she was also happy that it was the right date. Just a shame that it was the wrong year.

RIGHT day, right year, the column pitched up last Tuesday to address a Stokesley-based men’s group at the Wainstones Hotel in nearby Great Broughton. Two pints, one of them Coke, £8.

The invitation had been from Allen Nixon, long familiar hereabouts as the Stokesley Stockbroker, who recalled that our first contact had been via one of those new-fangled faxes in the mid-80s.

The Stockbroker had posed a Backtrack question about the Munich air disaster survivor still playing at that time in the top division, the answer supposedly Arsenal and Leeds United goalkeeper John Lukic – the then unborn son of a stewardess.

Reminded that Lukic was born almost three years after Munich, the Stockbroker fell to quoting Denis Healey and elephantine gestation periods.

Last week he also made me an OBE. “It was in the Watford Observer,” he, rather oddly, insisted.

No matter, at 75 he’d just completed the Great North Run – “I let Sir Mo win” – raising £600 for Diabetes UK. His friend Sue ran for Orangutans UK. The Stockbroker insisted there was no connection.

THE blue plaque red tape has been near-asphyxiating. Finally, however, the green light for proper acknowledgement of aviation pioneer Ernie Brooks’s achievements outside his former home in Attwood Terrace, Tudhoe Colliery, near Spennymoor.

Trevor Brooks, the gyrocopter pilot’s nephew, reports that both the Blue Plaque Heritage Society and the British Aeronautical Society are happy to recognise Ernie’s life and work. He died, it will be recalled, when his gyrocopter fell to earth at Teesside Airport in 1969. More from the back plaque column in a fortnight.