THE death on October 12 of former estate agent and hotelier Chris Close recalled some incorrigible teasing by the Eating Owt column in the 1990s.

Chris owned the Helme Park Hall Hotel alongside the A68 in west Durham, ran it superbly, might best be remembered for the excellence of the food – “I’ve travelled the world and rarely had a better meal”, a reader wrote – and for the magnificence and the munificence of the open fires. The views over Weardale from out the back weren’t bad, either.

Dating back to 1643, Helme Park had been home to Colonel Stobart, commandant of the nearby Harperley Hall prisoner of war camp – a low-risk place from which only one of the 1,400 German and Italian detainees ever bothered to abscond – and was regional headquarters of the Forestry Commission.

Its literature always described the hotel’s location as “Fir Tree”, a village to the south, perhaps born with a sylvan spoon in its mouth compared to Tow Law – a bit more rugged, shall we say – to the north. But wasn’t Tow Law both bigger and nearer?

Good estate agent that he’d been, Chris insisted that he’d measured it and that Fir Tree was nearer, albeit by about five inches. He took the teasing in good part.

After his death, we asked a Tow Law resident to check the respective distances in his car – he did better and used Google Maps. From Helme Park to the centre of Fir Tree is 2,772m, he reports, and to the centre of Tow law 2,315m – “and that’s going straight across the roundabouts.”

Chris was 74 and had moved down to Howden-le-Wear after selling the hotel. His funeral was last Friday. The Helme Park is now abandoned, boarded and seriously vandalised. A website proposes a plan to demolish it and to build 19 houses on the site. It makes things doubly sad.

HALLOWE’EN upon us, Guy Fawkes burrowing below, the geese getting fat and last Friday evening there was an Oktoberfest, or at least there was in Barnard Castle.

The event at the excellent Teesdale Community Resources Hub might admittedly have been what a German would suppose an ersatz Oktoberfest, but it was a cracking night, nonetheless.

The timeless Old Age Travellers sang mainly Irish songs, those and The Leaving of Liverpool, though it’s possible that the boat was bound for Hamburg.

The food van did spicy hotdogs (and absurdly salty fries) but nachos as well, the bar offered pints of Petite Belgique, but this was Petite Belgique all the way from Evenwood.

Few had accepted the invitation to fancy dress and, when they had, lederhosen more closely resembled pit hoggers. Nor, it should be noted, is it traditional to wear Marks & Sparks black ankle socks with such garments.

The Hub – “Teesdale’s hidden gem” says the website – is a charity based in extensive grounds on the Staindrop road out of town, offering activities from astronomy to yoga and approaching its tenth birthday on the rural site.

“At first it was mainly aimed at young people, now it’s for the young at heart,” says Rachel Tweddle, the former teacher who’s the chief executive.

The programme for the next two months suitably overflows. Fest or famine, as they may never have to say in Barnard Castle.

LIKE many another pub, the Red Lion in Darlington – formerly the Journalists’ Rest – is overdressed for Hallowe’en. Amid it all, the domino lads last week were somewhat nonplussed to be served by a full fig Santa Claus.

KNOWING the column’s initial interest, Peter Ellis in Northallerton kindly donates a slender 1970s tract called The Book of Famous Peoples Nameplates, the missing apostrophe presumably permissible because the DVLR doesn’t issue them.

Many appear to have been owned by entertainers, from Arthur Askey’s AA 10 to Pacemakers’ singer Gerry Marsden’s GER 1E. The pop group Slade, for reasons not immediately obvious, had YOB 1.

Among comedians, Lenny Bennett had GAG 22, Jimmy Tarbuck COM 1C and Bernard Manning 11 LAF.

Most familiar around these parts may be B16 LAF, owned by long-playing comedian and occasional Hear All Sides correspondent Dave “Grizzly” Adams, a Ferryhill lad long in Darlington. If he ever needs a few bob, he’s laffing all the way to the bank.

IT’S getting on a year since last we bumped into old Grizzly in the Brit, where he was recalling the Bongo club – which is more than I can – opposite Darlington bus station.

Among his drinking mates in there was former British heavyweight boxing champion Neville Meade, a Commonwealth Games gold medallist in 1974.

Meade, who weighed around 17 stones, was born in Montserrat, raised in Swansea, did national service at Catterick and played cricket – a bit erratically, it’s recalled – for Tudhoe.

A bouncer had spotted Meade smoking on the dance floor – against the rules even then – told Dave that he was going to ask him to desist.

Dave outlined his mate’s sporting pedigree. “I think I’d better tell him,” he said.

GAVIN Belton, who died in July after 50 years with the Tees Valley Jazzmen, was remembered at a memorial gig in Bishop Auckland Methodist church which raised £594 for church funds. “It was a brilliant occasion, loads of guest musicians and the church packed,” reports Gwen, Gav’s partner. The day might have raised a few bob more save for the fact that several of the raffle prizes were bottles – disallowed on Methodist premises. They hope to stage another fund raiser for the church.

THE unveiling of a blue plaque outside the Tudhoe home of gyro plane pioneer Ernie Brooks – reported here on October 9 – brought back memories for Jud Allison, himself now in Spennymoor.

Around 1950, Ernie and Jud’s brother Johnny were fellow apprentices at ENV in Aycliffe, visiting Shildon Show – of affectionate memory – to take part in the motor bike racing.

Riding Ernie’s bike, Johnny twice came second before Ernie reclaimed it, came off, but was happily unhurt. “Ah,” says Jud, “flying machines, indeed.”

We also hear, incidentally, that the BBC plans a documentary on the history of gyro flight, is keen to feature Ernie’s story and is likely to do much of the filming hereabouts.

Trevor Brooks, Ernie’s nephew – who reckons that the bikers mostly raced on sand – awaits confirmation from the BBC. “The presenter wants to go up in a two-seater,” he says. “It would yet again put the Spennymoor area on the map.”

...and finally, a bit more teasing. The banner across the top of last Thursday’s front page promoting Alan Titchmarsh’s one-man show at Darlington Hippodrome stirred memories of an Echo news report perhaps 20 years ago in which we claimed that Titchmarsh had been dive-bombed by a load of skewers. The Gadfly column, bless it, took considerable pleasure in suggesting that they might have been skuas instead.