APPROVING a new e-book on a year in the life of the Northern League, last week’s column noted that Ryhope – a semi-self-contained suburb of Sunderland – was said to boast the only pigeon cree that’s a Grade II listed building.

Flight of fancy? We set out last Saturday to find it.

That the great Ryhope derby – Sunderland RCA v Ryhope CW – was to take place that very afternoon may be considered a little less than coincidental.

Ryhope still proclaims itself a village, though the 2011 census recorded 10,484 souls – about the same as Shildon, and Shildon’s a veritable metropolis.

The old water works pumping engine it itself a listed building, as is the early 19th century place identified on the plaque outside as the Ryhope Rent Office. But a pigeon cree?

Homing instinct or accustomed good fortune – the latter, it may be assumed – we find Maurice Surtees’s celebrated sanctuary almost at once.

It’s in the allotments off Back Ryhope Street, near the former Blue Bell pub – now a tanning salon. Pubs don’t get listed, not in Ryhope, anyway – and the memorial garden to the many killed in the 110 years of Ryhope Colliery. Most of the allotments appear rather better kept.

MAURICE, an 85-year-old former pitman, isn’t there. “He’ll be about five minutes,” says his mate Graham Burns. A pigeon clock may be set on it.

He arrives on a mobility scooter – “his go-kart,” says Graham – but walks unaided down the path to the cree.

A delightful man, much given to the observation that nowt’s a bother, he is at once asked where his own plaque is. “All these years and I still haven’t got a one,” says Maurice. “I’ve asked MPs, all sorts. I’d pay for the bugger mesel’.”

He and his brother Bill built the cree in 1955, chiefly with wood liberated (shall we say) from colliery houses awaiting demolition.

“Look at them netty doors, good as new,” says Maurice. “If pigeon men want owt mekkin’, they mek it theirsels.”

Forty years later, his allotment and 20 others were threatened when the Newcastle-based owners sought to develop the land for housing.

Local MPs Chris Mullin and Fraser Kemp were whistled up, consulted the Heritage Department, agreed the indubitably ingenious idea that the cree should be listed, and no matter that the official document calls it a dovecote.

“That’s just southern talk,” says Maurice, a man equally unlikely to call his pigeon palace a loft.

The term “loft”, he supposes – perhaps apocryphally – originated because that’s where the Belgians, big pigeon men, hid their birds when the Germans invaded. Maurice pronounces “Germans” almost as Stan Boardman did.

In 2007 the owners again tried to reclaim the land, offered the allotment holders £250,000 between them, were reminded by MP Kemp of the import of listing. There was talk of bailiffs, and of barricades. “Any damage to a listed building is a criminal offence that can lead to a prison sentence,” warned Kemp.

Maurice was more brutal, perhaps more pitmatic. “If them bigshots want a fight they should come down to the gardens and take their jackets off,” he said at the time.

There was a debate in the Commons – “The government has a very clear and strong view on pigeon fancying and that is that we are wholly in favour,” said Harriet Harman, leader of the House – a lot of press, another victory.

“A very British coo,” said the Mirror, rather magnificently.

In 2011 the cree was part of an English Heritage open day, alongside places like Durham Town Hall and Darlington Civic Theatre. “I made about 200 cups of tea and coffee, gave people taties, onions all sorts,” Maurice recalls.

“One woman even took me nettles, I thowt she was mekkin’ game but she said she wanted them to make tea. The next few days, people were coming back with pies and all sorts for me. Folk are lovely if you only know where to look.”

AS luck again would have it, Saturday’s a racing day, Graham anxiously rattling a tin of corn as pigeon men do. “Divvent thoo worry, they knaa where they live,” says Maurice, though his birds have had a disappointing season.

“They’re good enough, they’re bonny enough. They just seem to have nee luck.”

Among the retired birds pecking at their feet is one – the Owld Hen, they call her –which won a major race from Lille. “Only one eye, got a bat or something, lovely bird,” says Maurice.

Visitors have included Robbie Coltrane – “queer bugger, him” – and Grayson Perry while researching a North-East tapestry. “Canny feller, cross dresser, all right, though,” says Maurice.

Labour ministers Tony Banks and Andy Burnham also came; a BBC crew spent six weeks there on and off. “They said they had about five hours of stuff but had to cut it down to an hour because of the swearing,” Maurice adds.

He also told the BBC that he’d had a cuckoo clock but that the cuckoo was deed. The website felt obliged to translate.

Beamish Museum have expressed interest in the cree when Maurice is no longer racing – “I’m not so sure how they’ll shift it” – though he hopes to be fleeing, as he puts it, for several years yet. Fewer are ready for take off.

“Ryhope used to be the biggest club in the North-East, 56 members. Now there’s 21, only two on these gardens and owld John’s retiring next year. I can still remember my first race, 680 away. My brother won.

“At one time if you worked at the pit that was it – bed, work and pigeons, that was your life. Now the sport’s dying, getting dearer and dearer. Once you could send a bird away for a few coppers, now it’s a few pound. Then there’s the big teams, mekkin’ it hard for lads like me. If you enter 20, they enter 60. They make pigeons a business; it isn’t right, they should enjoy it.”


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