BRADSHAW’S 1922 railway timetable, which no home should be without, records that there were nine trains a day in each direction on the five-and-half-mile line between Durham and Waterhouses, calling at Ushaw Moor only.

On Saturdays, in an attempt to ensure that the lads got home all right, an additional train left Durham at 10.25pm. Whatever the gradient as the old Think-ICan laboured up the Deerness Valley, thereafter it was downhill all the way.

Just one daily service steamed soporifically in each direction when finally the line closed to passengers – save for an annual outing to the Big Meeting – in October 1951. The goods service, pitmatic mostly, continued until 1964.

The relevance of all this, of course, is that Saturday marked the first qualifying round of the FA Vase, the traditional starting station for the Backtrack column’s ever-optimistic Railroad to Wembley.

This season, however, the FA had so narrowly focused its early-round groupings that not a single tie involving Northern League clubs was played outside the region.

Most clubs were horrified, the Northern League magazine dubbed it a noscore draw, the league has pleaded to be freed from a geographical strait jacket that also extends to the FA Cup and awaits, in hope, a ruling.

There may no longer be trains to Waterhouses but the trackbed now forms a splendidly scenic footpath westwards from the picnic area at Broompark, south of Durham.

On Saturday, the Railroad to Wembley became a walkway to Esh Winning v Morpeth Town.

ESH WINNING play at Waterhouses, a mile up the road. Further to confuse matters, Waterhouses station was in Esh Winning – home of the celebrated Fields’ fish shop, like the slow train to Waterhouses, still coal fired.

Those of an alliterary bent, and there are many, might want to sub-title the odyssey From Waterhouses to Wembley.

From Broompark, several other old lines radiate northwards towards Lanchester and Consett, back down to Bishop and westwards up the valley.

Among the advantages over a conventional railroad, especially on Saturdays, is that the Deerness Valley Walk is not, so far as may reasonably be ascertained, heavily populated by giggling, garrulous hen parties wearing angel wings and similarly asinine appurtenances.

Nor, more happily yet, is the tranquility interrupted every five minutes by irritating automaton – female, inevitably – with an announcement about the next thirty-or-so stations.

There were plentiful walkers, a few runners, a cyclist or two. It is one of the many curiosities of the laws of old England that a bicycle must be sold with a bell or other warning device but that thereafter there is no requirement to sound the damn thing, or even to carry it.

One such rider silently approached us from behind, compelling evasive action.

The lady of this house, also in attendance, yelled “Thank you” after him.

“If his mother hasn’t taught him manners, someone’s going to have to,” she said.

The lineside was verdant with campion and elder, nettle and dock, great plantations of rosebay willow herb – “they call it the bomb site plant,” the lady supposed.

Most of all as we neared Esh Winning the trail was festooned with foragers with overflowing carrier bags – the brambulant, it might almost be supposed – seeking pie filling for the winter ahead.

Fields’ fish shop had closed for the afternoon.

The clock not yet at ten to three, and was there bramble pie still for tea?

A HANDSOME testament to self-help, Esh Winning’s ground is among football’s most gloriously situated, the wooded valley rising, autumn gold, beyond. As if seeking colour co-ordination, the post-and-rail fence is newly green and yellow, too.

It may also have more stands, or at least covered areas, than anywhere else in the game. Presently there are six, shortly to rise to ten when – this week’s special offer – they take further delivery of redundant trolley shelters from Sainsbury’s in Sunderland.

“I know a man….” begins club secretary Dave Thompson.

Behind the top goal there are also stands named in honour of 40-year club stalwarts Alan Morton and Charlie Ryan, each – at a push – capable of seating five people.

Alan, named the STL Northern League’s Unsung Hero at the last annual dinner, is able to recall the railway. “We only used it for the Big Meeting,” he says.

“Hardly anyone ever did, apart from that.”

Norman Emerson remembers it, too – “The Big Club had trips out, Redcar or South Shields” – recalls the occasion when the royal train, carrying Princess Margaret, spent the night in the sidings at the back of the Stags Head.

Whether or not Her Royal Highness was tempted into the Stags for a Mackeson and 20 Woodbines he is, unfortunately, unable to say.

Alan swears there’s a photograph of the old station somewhere around the ground but is unable to locate it. “There’s one of the slaughterhouse, will that do?” he says.

Such are regionalistion’s regrettable restrictions that the two sides, both in the Northern League second division, had met just seven days previously. Morpeth won 2-0.

Though it may never be said the familiarity breeds contempt, it breeds a thirst for revenge and a quiet confidence in the warmly welcoming clubhouse.

Someone else urges mention, as well he might, of Esh Winning Cricket Club, whose first, second and third teams have all won their leagues this season.

The following day they’re playing Chester-le-Street at Durham City in the final of the Matthew Oswald – “a real shirt and tie job,” he says. The column invites itself to presentation night.

There, too, is John Coe, evergreen stalwart of Willington CC, who recalls that his dad Jackie, Willington’s goalie in the 1939 Amateur Cup final against Bishop Auckland, would cycle from Tow Law to play cricket for Waterhouses.

“I think they gave him half-a-crown,” says John, and thinks also that Waterhouses lived frequently up to its name.

SATURDAY’S lovely, an early-autumn delight. Esh Winning, known as the Stags, have a new, perspex dugout with a stag’s head embellished on the side.

Next to it, perhaps more surprisingly, are a load of what used to be known as chapel chairs, the sort with a shelf on the back for the hymn book.

They came, surplus to requirements, from the chapel at Frankland Prison where Dave Thompson’s governor. “The shelf’s a good place to put your Bovril,” he says.

The ground’s wellmaintained, the pitch immaculate. Relegated last season, Esh Winning hope similarly to smarten up their ideas under new manager Andrew Soppitt, a teacher at Bowburn primary school.

The players known him as Soppy, the bairns probably don’t.

At half-time they’re 2-0 up; soon afterwards it’s three. Mr Soppitt, as best he had remain, is urging his players to look to their halfpast- fours.

This, it has to be said, is a new one. Must be something they learn at school.

Morpeth pull one back, are contentiously denied a second by a linesman’s flag.

The liner’s called Sam.

Without the benefit of technology, without being able to play it again, Sam seems to be quite right.

It ends 5-2. A small step nearer Wembley, the victors are called across for a brief warm-down before a 6pm minibus takes them for a lads’ evening in Newcastle, a Stags’ night richly deserved.

...And finally

THE first manager to be sacked in the Premiership (Backtrack, September 10) was the late Ian Porterfield, forever a Sunderland legend, by Chelsea in February 1993.

It prompts Brian Dixon in Darlington recall that second-tier Sunderland had sacked Malcolm Crosby two weeks earlier and to seek the identity of the player – formerly with both Chelsea and Sunderland – who was on the score sheet the last time one of the North-East big three won a major domestic cup.

More of that on Saturday.