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Tuesday, 15 May, 2001, 11:15 GMT
Tale of two constituencies
There may be a political gulf between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, but geography has made them neighbours. BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley visits Sedgefield and Richmond.
Watching Tony Blair and William Hague sparring over the Westminster Despatch Box during Prime Minister's Questions is only a delight for those politics buffs who insist on calling the event "PMQs".
How much more popular would be the confrontation if the two leaders squared up to one another chest-to-chest where the A167 crosses the River Tees?
The middle of this imposing, grey stone bridge marks the point at which Mr Blair's County Durham constituency (Labour majority 25,143) meets the North Yorkshire seat of Mr Hague (Conservative majority 10,051).
Standing at the Checkpoint Charlie of modern British politics, it is tempting to hunt out evidence of a stark divide.
True blue Croft-on-Tees has an air of gentility and is what your mum (and American tourists of myth) would call "quaint". Its final outpost before the bridge is a fine Norman church at which Lewis Carroll's father was once rector.
Sedgefield, the village which gives its name to Mr Blair's constituency, is not without its own rural charm. The sound of leather on willow welcomes those approaching from the racecourse.
Over a lunchtime pint at the cricket club bar, locals are lukewarm about their local political celebrity. "He's all right," shrugs one. "Not really my cup of tea," admits another.
Hardly bowled over
"You can tell when he's here, all right. About once a month the village is crawling with police."
At the village green (where a TV crew lounge), the busy estate agent seems keener on the PM's presence, perhaps seeing him as a selling point. "He eats at the Dun Cow quite regularly," she confides.
Those wishing to find out should arrive before lunch service ends at 3pm (quarter past "on a sunny day") or go hungry. The chippy (fish and chips is the PM's favourite food, according to an interview in the local rag) and tandorri (chicken tikka masala, anyone?) don't open for a good few hours yet.
Around the corner from the Dun Cow's smart outdoor tables, residential Sedgefield spreads out - boxed-hedged and quiet. On cup final day, the blare of TV coverage comes from just one open window.
"In the mid-range, around £50,000, it's gone mad in Sedgefield itself," the estate agent had said. Indeed, the healthy crop of 'For sale' and 'Sold' signs easily outnumber placards supporting the local boy.
In the blazing afternoon sun, drinkers spill out of the pubs. Here, it's football shirts (or bare, tattooed skin) rather than cricket whites; ratty bar stools on tarmac, instead of the Dun Cow's street cafe umbrellas and teak furniture.
Trimdon Colliery boasts a Chinese takeaway, though "English dishes" comes before "Chinese food" on the sign.
The scars of mining may have disappeared, but it is unclear what employment prospects have replaced the industry which gave these streets of two-up-two-downs their raison d'Ítre.
Though not especially threatening on a bright spring day, a local paper recently reported a near-by line dancing venue had to employ a doorman to keep rampaging juveniles at bay.
"Vote Hague" shouts from billboards in farmers' fields on both sides of the busy arterial road.
Richmond, which advertises itself as an historic Georgian market town, sits right in the middle of the Tory leader's sparsely-populated, rural constituency.
Hague's castle keep
Cottages give over to neat semis and pristine bungalows on the town's outskirts. Streets of townhouses in the cobbled centre wind their way to the imposing castle ruins.
In the shadow of its ramparts sit two elderly women. "William Hague? He never comes to see us. No, we're the local celebrities, not him."
Though not a "dyed-in-the-wool" Tory, he admits to liking Mr Hague. "He's here quite a lot, walking around without minders. He's a very fit 40 and his wife ... real film star looks."
The MP is said to dine regularly in a neighbouring cafe. No linguine, but its menu does boast an Islington-esque wild mushroom capelletti.
The jaws of defeat
Respect for Mr Hague has not stopped the petshop owner from stocking squeaky dog toy likenesses of the party leader. He snapped up a job lot of the rather unnerving busts, along with ones depicting Tony Blair.
At present, sales of the Hague toys are streaking ahead. Though winning the approval of slavering hounds may not be exactly the Tories' idea of poll success.
In Richmond itself, there are few other visible signs of support for the local MP. Even the Conservative Club is conspicuously without campaign posters.
Indeed, the differences between affluent Richmond and blue-collar Sedgefield are perhaps not as obvious as their polarised election records or the available demographic data would suggest.
A casual observer could not be blamed for missing the county line markers, the subtle shift of accent, nor even the differing architectural styles.
Perhaps the divide between the two communities indeed measures just a few feet across the floor of the House of Commons.
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