WHEN it comes to Her Majesty’s prisons, this column’s not so much recidivist as damn-near institutionalised.

There’ve been spells in Durham, where there was a wishing well and a smell of old cabbage, and in Frankland where a wishing well might have seemed redundant and the unmistakeable smell was of fear.

There’ve been a couple of stretches at Holme House in Stockton – once after persuading the Teesborough Football League that it was a bit difficult for the prison football team to play a cup final on a neutral ground – and a carol service at Deerbolt young offenders’ place, near Barnard Castle.

The lads had rewritten Once in Royal: “Mary’s mum and dad went wild, when they heard about the child….”

Journalistically just visiting, there were also several tours of the old Northallerton jail, once to talk to an inmate who’d made a caravan from matchsticks – times change – and on another occasion asking a (very) old lag what he’d most miss about being inside at Christmas. “Being able to walk 100 yards in a straight line,” he said, one of the profoundest things I ever heard.

Northallerton prison closed in 2013, work on a £16m redevelopment of the town centre site expected to start in the summer. A fascinating little exhibition in the town’s library records some of its punitive past.

It was built on waste and swamp land kindly given by the Bishop of Durham, designed by John Carr – whose portfolio also included Harewood House – and opened in 1788 at a cost of £3,411 3s 11d.

By the early 19th century it was home to the country’s biggest and most vigorous treadmill, something in which the county town appears to take a sort of perverse pride.

The new development will itself be called Treadmills, including five “retail units” – anchored by Lidl – cinema, restaurants, large public square and a Centre for Digital Innovation, which may not have much use for matchsticks. Five prison buildings, Grade II-listed, will be incorporated.

The exhibition also tells the stories of prisoners like 17-year-old Robert Wright, declared insane after obtaining two shillings by false pretences but given three months hard labour nonetheless, and Sophie Constable, just 11, who for obtaining a loaf of bread by deception received three weeks hard labour and four years in a reformatory (which may not have been a bundle of laughs, either.)

Adults would spend 18 months in Northallerton before being transported to penal servitude in Tasmania.

In 1943 it became a military detention centre, what the Army calls a glasshouse, and in March 1946 a major riot broke out involving 70 prisoners, a huge amount of damage and a wholesale rejection of the adage about what people in glasshouses shouldn’t do.

The fire hoses used to persuade the rioters to come down from the roof did little for the fabric, either. Nineteen men were court martialled.

The exhibition, pretty much what today’s headline suggests, is at the library at the end of Northallerton High Street until May 31. It’s closed Thursday mornings, Saturday afternoons and Sundays.

CASTING about for something else entirely, we come across a half-forgotten Backtrack column about Don Bilton, a professional footballer who may perhaps best be remembered for refusing monkey gland injections at the hired hands of Major Frank Buckley, Wolverhampton Wanderers’ manager in the 1930s.

Don, who lived in Saltburn, moved subsequently to Derby County and vows he’d have ave been in the 1946 FA Cup final team which beat Charlton 4-1 had he not been unavailable when the semi-final was played.

He was on riot duty at Northallerton prison.

THE column a few weeks back confessed an almost criminal inability to remember the difference between “may” and “might.”

Classic explanation, writes a lady in Darlington. “A lifejacket may have saved him – he’s alive and wearing one and that may have been a factor in his survival.”

“A lifejacket might have saved him – he wasn’t wearing one and he’s dead.”

Waving not drowning? Oh definitely.

RECORDING the retirement of The Searchers, among the 60s’ more sedulous singers, the column a couple of weeks back recalled that they’d once played from the back of a lorry – without, of course, falling off it – at the Scouts’ Field in Shildon.

Did anyone else remember it? “I was there, just a couple of yards from Chris Curtis, the drummer” recalls a reader who asks anonymity but was himself a drummer with a Bishop Auckland band called The Sapphires.

It’s reckoned to have been 1963, the year of the Searchers’ first No 1, though whether before or after it – bitter-sweets to my sweet – is not itself recorded.

“I remember they got changed in a little Nissen hut that Shildon United football club used,” says our caller. “I don’t know how four of them got in, never mind a football team.”

He also recalls Chris Curtis ceaselessly singing “Oh my God it’s windy” but, alas, is unable to remember the tune.

The Sapphires (nee the Demons) weren’t playing that night, though they were legends at Ferryhill Gaiety and even got as far as the Co-op Ballroom in Doncaster. The backing group was Freddie and the Mizzaires – Trimdon lads, apparently.

Our informant also points the way to an “absolutely brilliant” website called Vintage 60s Live which lists hundreds of North-East groups – from The Strollers to The Strangers, Miscellaneous to Magic Roundabout and even Up North Combine (who doubtless were high flyers.)

“Literally hundreds of semi-professional groups were scattered around the North-East in the 60s. It seemed that every village had one or more,” says the site.

Someone called Johnny Gun, from the Rockin’ D-Jays, recalls playing on 83 successive nights – and still holding down a day job. Anyone else?

STILL on a musical note, we observe on a blackboard outside Boroughbridge Social Club in North Yorkshire that the turn on April 13 was Jonathan Carroll. Jonathan Carroll is also the name of a Durham Crown Court judge, jovial looking gentleman, pictured in the paper just a couple of days earlier. Much has been written of late of the impoverished judiciary’s pay and conditions. Is His Honour now having to sing for his supper?

….and finally, the image on the left/right/above/below was snapped during an accustomed late-evening wait on Durham railway station. It’s not a good picture because it was taken on a phone, at night, from several feet below and by a photographic nincompoop, but has saving grace, nonetheless.

The original photograph, about 5ft x 3ft, is on the side of the Costa cabin and welcomes worldwide visitors to the great city.

It is not, however, of the cathedral, the castle or any of the other gems which make up the World Heritage Site. It’s of the county palatine’s most beauteous location of all – Shildon Rec.