APART from heralding the start of a new decade, New Year’s Day 2020 marks a much grander milestone: the 150th anniversary of The Northern Echo.

This Wednesday is, indeed, a cause for celebration because The Great Daily of the North has performed outstanding service to this region for the past one and a half centuries.

As an anniversary supplement on Saturday will testify, The Northern Echo has done some incredible things in the name of campaigning journalism. It has influenced Government policy, changed laws, raised vital funds for countless great causes, and, without fear of exaggeration, saved lives.

The Northern Echo has been a huge part of my life for nearly 40 years, I was proud to have been its longest-serving editor, and it is my sincere wish that its campaigning traditions are respected for years to come.

This special newspaper, of course, owes much to Darlington being the birthplace of the railways. It was because of that happy twist of fate that copies could be distributed to every station in the North of England.

The Northern Echo can also claim to be Britain’s first true national newspaper because the railway network meant its morning edition was simultaneously on sale in the country’s two great capitals of London and Edinburgh.

Throughout my time at The Northern Echo, it has been a personal frustration that Darlington has failed to make the most of that unique railway heritage, lacking the vision to capitalise on its historic place as the town that changed the world.

Hopefully, that is about to change. On January 7, Darlington Borough Council’s cabinet will debate a multi-million pound plan to develop a “Rail Heritage Quarter” to rival the National Railway Museum in York. The proposal, including the complete transformation of the Head of Steam railway museum, is geared towards completion in 2025 – the 200th anniversary of the pioneering Stockton & Darlington Railway.

Such a momentous milestone provides Darlington with the opportunity to finally get its act together and seize the potential of its place in transport history. It simply cannot be missed. The town must be bold and visionary – just as the railway pioneers were.

And wouldn’t it enrich the offering if that vision included a “Museum of News”, preserving fading archives, and putting them on public display, to illustrate how the railways helped give birth to the country’s first national newspaper?

From Britain’s first halfpenny morning newspaper, all the way through the world wars, the advent of computer technology, and into the age of social media, what a fascinating journey it could be.

THE remarkable Bill Blewitt is approaching an extra-special milestone of his own.

At 99, Bill is the oldest member of the wonderful Ukulele Band, based at Age UK’s Darlington headquarters.

And it was a joy to be present, just before Christmas, when Strictly Come Dancing head judge, Shirley Ballas, popped in to give Bill a surprise.

Despite an injury, Shirley, who is starring in Jack and the Beanstalk at Darlington Hippodrome, made Bill’s day by leading him in a dance. Naturally, the music was provided by an uplifting union of ukuleles.

Shirley couldn’t have been nicer, making time for everyone, and Bill was clearly smitten.

“She was absolutely lovely,” he swooned.

A few days later, on Christmas Eve, a first-class package arrived at my house. It was a Christmas card from Bill, together with a copy of his second CD, featuring a ukulele version of “What Do You Wanna Makes Those Eyes At Me For” and a number he composed himself.

In the highly unlikely event that I should make it to 99, I sincerely hope I’m having as much fun as Bill.

No doubt CD number three is planned for when he gets to 100. In the meantime, sales of numbers one and two are raising money for Age UK Darlington and North Yorkshire.

ALTHOUGH the circumstances were less than appealing, it was nice to catch up with former Tyne Tees Television anchor, Paul Frost, just before Christmas.

As a local resident, Paul had alerted me to the intriguing mystery surrounding the Phantom Poo-Dumper of Bishopton. (His description was slightly more earthy but this newspaper has standards.)

An inquiry had been launched to find out who’d been fly-tipping mountains of horse manure on roads, lay-bys and farm entrances around the County Durham village.

While we drove round the various locations where the piles of poo had been unceremoniously dumped, Frosty recalled another horsey connection.

Back in 1991, he had something unusual in common with the legendary Desert Orchid – they both fell on Boxing Day.

Dessie was running in the King George VI Chase at Kempton, and Frosty was appearing in a pantomime on ice at Whitley Bay Rink.

HAPPY landings in 2020…