It takes stamina to do God’s work on the roof of the Dales. Yvette Huddleston and Walter Swann report.
The Swaledale and Wensleydale scenery brings flocks of tourists every year, but what also lends them appeal is the loveliness of the churches which provide a focal point for their communities, some of which are tiny.
Many of these churches are administered by just two vicars and what they have in common, apart from living and working in beautiful surroundings, is that they are both women.
Caroline Hewlett is the Vicar of Swaledale with Arkengarthdale (or as her Facebook page jokily has it, she is “Vicar of Dibley with Ambridge and Camberwick Green”) and she lives with her husband Alex in the vicarage on the outskirts of Reeth.
“I started off with a little saloon car, but quickly realised that wasn’t going to work,” she says. She bought a four-wheel drive and took a course in off-road driving which has come in handy this winter. She was due to be at a joint Anglican/Methodist carol service at Arkengarthdale Methodist Church whose minister usually leads the service. She was greeted by the organist who explained that none of the other ministers could get there and that Caroline would have to lead the service.
“So, at two minutes notice, with no robes or books, and with one service sheet between us – the rest were snowed in at someone’s house – I led a carol service for about 70 people who had walked there from the village in the snow.” On her way home she stopped to help a delivery van driver who was stuck in a snowdrift. “I was only able to stop because I knew how to get going again in those conditions.”
Ordained 10 years ago, Caroline was a curate at St George’s in Leeds and had her first taste of rural ministry in Boroughbridge before a secondment to Swaledale. That was supposed to last for three months.
She deliberately chose to arrive in winter to see the territory at its most demanding and loved it so much that she will complete five years in the job in May.
The sense of community struck her immediately. “Looking out for each other is a way of life in Swaledale. When the weather was bad this winter the elderly were well provided for – they’d get their shopping done for them. You have to have something about you, I think, to live here.”
No two weeks are ever the same for Caroline, but her schedule generally includes a morning service and two evening services in each church on a monthly basis. The scattered population of her four parishes is about 1,200 residents, all of whom she has visited at home. “I know all the families,” says Caroline. “You can just turn up uninvited and be made very welcome. However, this is Yorkshire, and people have their ways of letting you know if a return visit is welcome or not.”
She is keen to encourage inter-denominational relations, frequently arranging meetings with other church groups and organisations to co-ordinate Christian worship and fellowship.
Funerals (20 last year) far outnumber weddings (four). The average age of farmers in Yorkshire pushing 60 and incomers to the pretty villages tend to be retired folk. Church regulations also require couples to prove a link to a particular church before they can get permission to marry there.
“I like to make weddings memorable,” says Caroline, “and I’m also very aware that a lot of people who are at the ceremony are not necessarily churchgoers. So I try to tailor the sermon to make it relevant to the couple getting married.”
Caroline says the four churches she looks after are distinct from each other in personality. St Mary’s at Muker, she says, is informal and generally only has local people attending services. The church perches on a ledge of hillside in one of the loveliest spots in Swaledale.
Melbecks, the church at Low Row, belongs to the Small Pilgrim Places Network, a group of about 30 churches nationwide defined as “spiritual oases, somewhere to take stock and take breath”.
Arkengarthdale’s church, St Mary’s near Langthwaite, was built a few years after the Battle of Waterloo and is one of around 600 churches constructed at that time (so-called “Waterloo” churches) to encourage church-going at a time of ferment in the countryside due to bad harvests.
St Andrew’s at Grinton has a history dating back 900 years.
“There’s never a dull moment in my job,” says Caroline. “There’s just so much energy and commitment from local people. All kinds of repairs to the churches get carried out without me ever knowing how or by whom. I do work hard to learn about the things that matter in Swaledale – I know a lot more about sheep now! This is a very beautiful place to be and it’s a real privilege to work here.”
For the past year, the Rev Ann Chapman has lived in the vicarage at Hawes, the “capital” of the dales and one of the largest communities in Swaledale and Wensleydale. Ann’s parishes include Stalling Busk, a tiny community above Semer Water. The church, St Matthew’s, is hemmed in by roadside walls in a small plot that was made available after the former church fell down. Another church, St Mary and St John’s, is at Hardraw, close to the village pub, the Green Dragon, at the entrance to England’s largest single-drop waterfall, Hardraw Force.
Ann came to Wensleydale in 2001 from an inner-city parish in Sheffield. “I didn’t know how long I’d stay – this was my first rural ministry,” says Ann.” It might have been just for a few months – and I’ve been here nearly 10 years.”
Home was the nine-bedroomed vicarage at Askrigg, next to the church of St Oswald’s. The house has since been sold but Ann has happy memories of parish parties on the front lawn in summer. “We’d have food, children’s games and a raffle. It was a thank you to everyone in the parish for looking after the church throughout the year.”
She is a former science teacher, so feels at home in the local schools and is happy to field challenging questions from the children. “They love to talk about Darwin and Creationism,” she smiles.
She is studying for a PhD, concentrating on the theology of preaching and sermons as performance. “We do need to teach people how to preach. I often ask questions in my sermons. I like to encourage people to ask themselves exactly why they come to church and what they are hoping to find.”
Ann has also been a social worker, youth care worker and worked with young offenders but after a religious conversion in her thirties, she felt a calling to enter the priesthood. She became a deacon in 1995, a year after the first women were ordained into the church, and was herself ordained the following year. Like Caroline, Ann has very little free time. “I love what I do and I feel very lucky that my job involves me driving up and down Wensleydale.”
From time to time she escapes in her camper van up to Scotland or to visit friends. Her nearest church, St Margaret’s in Hawes, regularly has a congregation of 50 or so parishioners. At remote Stalling Busk Ann might occasionally have only two or three people attending a service.
“When that happens, we just have a discussion,” says Ann who admires the charity-raising efforts of Stalling Busk residents. Through Christian Aid, they have provided flocks of sheep – very appropriate for this community – to farmers in Africa and also paid the salary for a teacher working in the Third World.
The Vicar of Dibley effect continues to be felt. The first wave of women were ordained in 1994, the year that Dawn French first appeared on TV as the Rev Geraldine Granger. More women are now appointed to the priesthood year on year than men.
Caroline and Ann have become familiar and very friendly faces in these huge wide-open spaces. Both insist that being a woman has never been an issue in their work or affected the welcome they have received.