ON St Valentine’s Day – don’t you just love it – the column joined a litter picking patrol. The collective effort was commendable, the revelation loathsome. In short, we are verminous.

This was on the newish railway path between Shildon and Newton Aycliffe, supported by the Friends of the Stockton and Darlington Railway and ahead of Durham County Council’s Big Spring Clean which launched yesterday.

Half the 30-or-so volunteers began at Shildon station, the others at Newton Aycliffe, the plan to meet in the middle like excited Channel tunnellers.

Such the volume of garbage, it’s a wonder they got through at all. Doubtless this is what they’d want to call a heritage trail; in truth it’s tin can alley.

They gather at Locomotion museum, briefed – “health and safety,” he says – by someone from the county council and joined by a couple of guys on sort of stop-me-and-buy-one bikes, there to carry away the egregious evidence of oafs.

There, too, is Friends of the S&D chair Trish Pemberton, Cambridge-educated historian and former mayor of Shildon, already excited about the railway’s 200th anniversary in 2025.

They hope that what’s now called the Tees Valley will be named UK City of Culture that year – “a major world heritage site,” says Trish, “and it all began in Shildon.”

They also hope to create a cycling and walking route along the line’s entire course, from Witton Park to Stockton, but first must do something about mess, and about message.

That the all-pervading pollution seems even worse at the Aycliffe end is by no means to exonerate Shildon. Perhaps the greatest surprise is that none seems in the least surprised.

The louts’ drink of choice appears to be Fosters’ lager – “they can’t afford Budweiser in Newton Aycliffe,” someone says mordantly – followed, more unexpectedly, by Lucozade.

If that’s mainly youngsters, the dog filth probably isn’t. Extraordinary, the gatherers agree, that folk will put it into a plastic bag but then chuck the bag into the hedge.

Near the end, they compare notes – a golf ball, a boule, a bike, a scooter, two odd gloves, a Christmas tree, a pair of trousers… “It’s a bit like the Generation Game,” someone says, “all we haven’t got is a cuddly toy.”

Among those picking his way through the linear rubbish dump is former Darlington mayor Gerald Lee, still a borough councillor for Heighington, who 15 years ago began a little picking group around the village. Then there were five of them.

It’s grown into Litter Free Durham, which Gerald chairs. Working in partnership with Durham County and Darlington councils, last year they had 4,000 volunteers.

Litter Free Durham has addressed 16,500 school pupils – “it’s not about bollocking them, it’s about educating them,” says Gerald – talks to community organisations, parish councils, anyone who’ll listen.

Still the Heighington group goes out once a month. On Gerald’s stretch, half a mile of the A6072 to the Shildon boundary, he regularly fills six big bags.

Doesn’t it seem like a losing battle? “I have to be positive and believe that eventually we’ll win but you do get a bit demoralised,” admits Gerald, waving his litter tongs (or whatever it is they’re called) in the slightly menacing way that an old farmer might brandish a similarly-shaped gadget at an over-zealous bull.

All they can do, he says, is persevere. “It’s about loss of beauty, the cost to tourism, the effect on the environment and on wildlife and it’s about changing culture.”

Near the end of the two-and-a-half hour exercise, something akin to an air raid siren sounds from the direction of Aycliffe industrial estate.

Perhaps it’s the all-clear. If it is, it’s greatly unlikely to last.

LAST week’s column on Stan Abbott, the Durham public relations company owner whose first novel is based on what he terms his own descent into madness, resulted from an interview in the Colpitts, a street corner pub in the city.

It’s wondrously unspoiled, Sam Smith’s ale just £2 a pint, and since I’m there first, I ask the young landlord if he can remember the name of the world hot water bottle blowing champion, all but based there in the 1970s.

He looks suitably nonplussed, says that they’ve had shove ha’penny champions but that he’s never heard of hot water bottle blowing, adds that George will be in at one o’clock and he might know.

George does. It was Stewart Hughes, a chef at the Royal County Hotel who later lectured in Newcastle, took a smallholding in Cornsay Village and whose photograph was in the Guinness Book at much the same time as the account of the Sedgefield General Hospital patient from whose innards had been removed the contents of several large piggy banks and a small scrapyard.

Stewart subsequently diversified into tractor tyres. He died in 1997, aged 53.

Though such things are – of course – subject to inflation, most hot water bottle records seem now to be held by Shaun Jones, who burst a British Standard job in 6.25 seconds. He also holds the record for blowing up the things through his nose, doing it while riding an exercise bike at a minimum 20mph and, naturally, while standing on his head.

Wikipedia also records a former champion’s claim that at least five men have died in the attempt, adding that it’s unverified. Such things can get blown up out of all proportion, but still don’t try it at home.

A SADNESS to learn of the death of Tony Stainthorpe, an infrequent but much appreciated correspondent hereabouts and, more regularly, in Hear All Sides.

Born in Ferryhill, in the same class at Broom school as future Darlington FC manager Len Walker, Tony embraced everything from the Toc H lamp near Ferryhill town hall to the endless haircuts (“about ten in three months”) he was required to have as a police cadet.

The best tale, perhaps, followed a column on the affectionately remembered OK Bus company, based in Bishop Auckland. Tony had been learning to drive, for some reason in a Coal Board vehicle, when his passenger advised “OK on the left.”

Confusion ensued, a collision with the bus inevitable. “I guess,” said Tony, “that the passenger was right.”

Tony lived in Newton Hall, Durham. His funeral was last Thursday.

VENEZUELA continues to be troubled, not least by the television sub-titles watched by Martin Birtle in Billingham. Much recent publicity notwithstanding, they called it Venice whale. Clearly not fit for porpoise.

…and finally, the Railroad to Wembley – a long-familiar feature of the Backtrack column – was derailed two Saturdays ago by the snow.

Those who gathered beneath the stained glass domes of the Bodega in Newcastle were alternatively entertained by Mr Nigel Brierley’s locally legendary “true or false” quiz.

The Queen holds passport No 1? No she doesn’t, she doesn’t need one. Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating is said to have pinged Her Majesty’s bra strap?

True, apparently, though the emphasis should be on that word “said”.

Finally, Nigel asked if hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia were, indeed, the fear of long words. It’s true, but readers of these columns need, of course, have no worries on that score whatever.