Having the back gates of Redworth Hall added to the UK's listed buildings means Valerie Whitby's long campaign has come to a victorious end

THE wrought iron gates are themselves imposing enough, but for local councillor Valerie Whitby they opened up a completely new world.

Fearful that the pillars might crumble, or the gates be removed, folk around Heighington - between Darlington and Shildon - urged Valerie to seek "listed building" status for the 200-year-old entrance, half-hidden on a quiet country road.

"I'd simply no idea where to start or to whom to write," she admits - and there were certainly no back door methods of persuading English Heritage to act.

More than a year later, and after compiling a 90-page historical dossier, she's toasting success. "Valerie's like a bulldog,"

says fellow Heighington parish councillor Eric Thompson. "Give her something to get her teeth into and she simply won't let go."

The English Heritage ruling described the gates as "an elegant example of an early 19th Century country house entrance"

and was also impressed by the Surtees family crests and the letters "VS" - thought to stand for Vane Surtees.

Victory also means another winner for retired Northern Echo racing correspondent Matt Seymour, who tipped 23,742 of them (someone must have been counting) in 12 years as Janus.

Matt, who lives in Heighington, had first raised the open-and-shut case. "He remembered as a child seeing a coach and four driving out of that gate and into the distance. It must have been a very impressive sight," says Valerie.

The gates are effectively a back entrance to Redworth Hall, ancestral home of the Surtees family but now an upmarket hotel. It's also a listed building.

Robert Surtees, a relative of the celebrated County Durham historian of the same name, is thought to have given them as a wedding present to his wife Elizabeth, when they married in 1811.

Urged to act, Valerie happily joined the lists. She and Redworth Hall also have history, she says.

"In 1997 they wanted to build a golf course, originally nine holes and then 18, that would have taken over two-thirds of Redworth Wood, which is lovely and can be seen for miles.

"It's really beautiful around here and suddenly we're threatened by all sorts of things. If we aren't careful it's going to become a builders' paradise."

Luckily she had friends, and friends of friends. One was a millionaire who had contacts in a leading law firm. The plan was bunkered; Redworth Wood still grows.

"The gates had been moved early in the 20th Century and they were looking very fragile. I walk past this way a lot of the time with my dog and there's a danger that you take these things for granted.

It's quite remarkable to have won.

"Now that they're a listed building, you can't just go along and paint them, but it means that their future is safe."

Matt Seymour's reluctant to join her in the winner's enclosure. "Valerie's been absolutely brilliant," he says. "The credit is all hers."

JUST as Valerie Whitby helps preserve rather a big piece of Heighington's history, the village has a new history of its own - in both DVD and written form.

The book combines previous village accounts written by Ann Abram and by the Reverend Hilary Jackson, Heighington's vicar for 16 years and, now 90, contentedly retired in Darlington.

It may even recall, probably does, the dark days of 1940 when the village fish shop was closed, Heighington's wartime battering considered so serious that questions were asked in the House. Dr Goebbels, further to stoke the chip pan, thought the story worth a bit of verbal ammunition, too.

Particularly, however, its appearance gives us chance to recall the story of His Serene Highness Prince Alexander Yurievsky - member of the Russian royal family, direct descendant of William the Conqueror and, for a time at least, Alex to his mates in Heighington.

Born in Nice in December 1900, he was a grandson of Tsar Alexander II, who had been murdered in 1881. After fleeing the Revolution in 1918 - leaving behind his fortune - he graduated at Cambridge, moved north in 1924, also stayed for a while at Redworth Hall.

He may even have traversed those early, if not necessarily pearly, gates.

"An unpretentious and amiable young man," observed the Darlington and Stockton Times at that time.

Subsequently, as the Backtrack column recalled many moons ago, he not only became the only Russian prince in the village hockey team but the only bankrupt, too.

Assets £32, liabilities £621, His Serene Highness moved to Stockton, became an £8 a week storeman at Head Wrightson's, where they knew him as Alex, too. He was discharged from bankruptcy in 1956 and a few years later, met and married a Swiss baroness. They moved to her castellated villa, the prince no doubt resuming the style to which he had once been accustomed. The couple had one son, Prince George.

Later Heighington generations may have supposed all this a bit fanciful until, in June 2005, a letter from Dorothy Pratt in Sunderland appeared in the D&S Times.

In her Heighington childhood, she said, her dad used to tell the story - almost statuesque, it seemed so tall - of a Russian prince who'd ordered a dinner suit from Fred Sowerby, the village tailor, but was then unable to pay for it.

When her father died, in 1972, she'd discovered an old evening suit in a bag at the back of the wardrobe. "Oh yes,"

said her mother, "that's the one that was made for the prince."

Sadly, however, someone borrowed it for a fancy dress do and never returned it - but unlike the prince's new clothes, you couldn't make it up.

Prince Alexander died in Switzerland almost 20 years ago, on February 29 1988.

■ The Heighington book and DVD have been compiled by Frank Haylett.

Details on 01325-312067.

A law unto itself?

MICHAEL Palin, he who went round the world in 80 days, once spent an equally unforgettable afternoon in Tow Law. It was his 34th birthday, May 5, 1977, and Martin Birtle in Billingham discovers the account of it in The Python Years, the prolific Palin's diaries from 1969-79.

He and the Monty Python crew had been staying at the Royal County in Durham, blew in to do some filming atop Windy Ridge and weren't over-impressed.

"Just a skeleton of a town," wrote the Sheffield-born Palin. "A cold wind whipped through the grid-framed streets. No grass, no parks, no opulent homes, not even well-off areas. All in all, it's a grim place for a birthday."

They celebrated at the Tow Law Hotel, free drinks for the crew, "Happy birthday"

essayed on the piano with "lush holiday camp rills" on the organ. Such extravagance notwithstanding, he appears not to have been back since.

TOW Law may for all that have far greater claim to fame than he - or I, or damn near anyone else - could ever have imagined.

Plodging the internet for further information, we discover that Britain's great folk music revival of the 1950s had its birth in Tow Law workmen's club.

Even allowing for the fact that there's nowt so queer as folk, that's a quite remarkable revelation.

It was 1950 and, for reasons wholly unexplained, the musicians Ewan MacColl and A L "Bert" Lloyd were singing for their supper at the workies'.

Who then should pitch up in that west Durham fastness - the website calls it "remote" - but Alan Lomax, an American regarded as one of the 20th Century's greatest music collectors and recorders.

Chiefly he worked in the American south, with the likes of Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters and (it says here) Jelly Roll Morton.

Inspired by that session over a couple of pints of Fed Best, MacColl and Lloyd went back to London and began the first of what became known as folk clubs.

"The meeting," says the website unequivocally, "is credited with being the point at which the roots revival began."

Put that in your Python pipe, Mr Palin.

STILL on a musical note, last week's column on the prolific hymn tune composer John Bacchus Dykes - a mid-19th Century precentor of Durham Cathedral and later vicar of St Oswald's, in the city - brought a gratifying response.

Amid it was a note from Gordon Thubron that Dykes Walk in Newton Aycliffe is named after him, though clearly he had no connections with the new town. Newton Aycliffe has some interesting street names; it's a subject to which we may return.

SEEMINGLY anxious to promote Black Sheep's clothing, the Archbishop of York had barely plugged the Masham brewery in a sermon at Northallerton last month than he was off to Rome with a couple of bottles for the Pope.

The ale, coincidentally, was called Monty Python's Holy Grail, though only the Church Times columnist noticed the slogan "Tempered over burning witches"

at the bottom of the label.

Dr Sentamu's brotherly gesture may further have been degrailed in the Daily Telegraph, after they consulted a Papal associate.

"He doesn't really drink," said the priest. "I think he prefers Fanta."

FAST flowing as always, last week's column wondered both about the River Gaunless - a tributary of the Wear - and the settlement of Tindale Crescent, near Bishop Auckland, by which it flows.

Local historian John Land claims a "silly" theory - "but then I'm full of silly theories" - that "tin" may be a Viking word meaning "meeting place", as in Tinwald, the Manx parliament.

Chris Lloyd, who also courses those parts, reckons that Gaunless may be from the Old Norse "gaghenles", meaning gormless or useless.

"This is probably because the Gaunless can be a mean trickle which doesn't sustain fish and hasn't created many fertile meadows along its banks."

There may be more water beneath the bridge yet.

LAST week's column also wondered if Easter had ever been earlier than March 23 when, Christmas decorations barely packed away, it falls this year.

The parish magazine of St Cuthbert's in Darlington provides the answer - it's March 22, and that hasn't happened since 1913.

It's all to do with the lunar calendar, apparently - officially the first Sunday after the full moon after the vernal equinox.

The latest that Easter can fall is April 25. Almost to the moon's opposite phase, it'll be on April 24 in 2011.

SPEAKING of moveable feasts, the official reopening of Taylor's celebrated pie shop in Skinnergate, Darlington, has been put back from 9am today to the same time tomorrow.

Presumably what's called earning a crust, I'll be ready with the scissors then.