Ravenstonedale Kirkby Stephen Cumbria

Talk by Wendy Hunter. Final Service at High Chapel, Ravenstonedale, 29th April 2006

Contributor and Copyright: Wendy Hunter

We finished the previous remarks at the end of the Edwardian era. Much work had been done to make the church suitable for the coming century. The Reverend George Manning, who had overseen all this, left the Dale for the time being in 1909.

He was followed by the Rev. John Arthur Patrick, from Manchester. A man of great intellect and an excellent preacher, Mr Patrick did not confine his interests to the church alone but took part in many activities in the Dale, endearing himself to all. During his ministry the church became part of the Bradford District of the Yorkshire Congregational Union. Early in his ministry it was decided that weekly collections should be taken on Sunday mornings but only during the months of July, August and September.

In 1914 High Chapel hosted a conference of the Congregational Churches of Craven & the Dales. It lasted for three days. 33 ministers attended and members of the congregation provided bed and breakfast. Mr Patrick’s unexpected death from a heart attack in 1926 after 17 years service was mourned by people far and wide.

In 1927 the Rev. George Manning returned to his beloved Ravenstonedale for the last three years of his ministry but due to failing health he retired in 1930. His two great-grandaughters are part of our congregation today. In 1931 he was succeeded by a close friend of his, the Rev. James Giffin, from Frizinghall Church in Bradford. Throughout the years there have been many visits from members of that church to Ravenstonedale and we are pleased to have two of their members with us on this occasion.

During Mr Giffins ministry, in 1936, it was decided to electrify both the Chapel and the manse at the vast expense of £14 for each building! 1940 saw petrol rationed and as a consequence Frizinghall’s Choir’ visit proposed for the Good Friday service was cancelled and the Rev. Arnold and Mrs Mee of Keld and their singers were invited instead. This visit was to have some pleasant consequences a few years later.

After ten years faithful service to the church and the wider community Mr Giffin died in 1941 and was quickly succeeded by the Rev. Harold Leatherland. He remained minister during the difficult years of the war. In the Minute Book it records that the Library in the vestry should be opened on Thursdays rather than Sundays. The long-established library was open to the general public and a special evening called the ‘Soiree’ took place each autumn to raise funds for new books.

In 1945 Mr Leatherland was called to Headingley Hill in Leeds. His successor, the Rev. Latham was appointed at a salary of £225 per year. During his first year nineteen people were accepted into membership, some of whom we are delighted to see here today. The church’s Sale of Work took place annually throughout his ministry - admission was thrupence and tea was 1/-. Modernisation took place when an electric blower was purchased for the organ and the lighting fitting which we see today in the centre of the church was given by Mr Bunny of HWITH in memory of his mother.

Now you will remember the Rev. Arnold Mee, who visited the church in 1940. In 1954 he came permanently to Ravenstonedale. Mr Mee was a scholar of some renown and with many wide interests. His health was not robust but was most ably supported by his wife Jeannie. They did not own a car but together walked the parish and were soon familiar with the Ravenstonedale and Newbiggin people.

They organised concerts, suppers to commemorate particular events, the Sunday School and its annual Anniversary, and the church became rejuvenated. Upon Mr Mee’s death in 1966 Mrs Mee, although not ordained, continued his work for the next four years before ultimately living in Bedford near to her daughter Joan and family, and it is a pleasure to see Joan & her husband and daughter here today.

For the next five years the Manse was occupied by the Rev, Gordon Smailes and his wife. A man of jollity and good humour, he soon made his mark and was particularly easy with the young. It was during his ministry in 1972 that High Chapel became part of the United Reformed Church, some Congregationalists and the Presbyterians having united after several years of discussion. We welcome part of his family here today to share in this service of thanksgiving for the work of Mr Smailes and the many other ministers who have served the church so ably.

Dr Alec Whitehouse arrived in 1977 having spent many years in universities as a lecturer in Religious Studies. An erudite man, not a natural parish priest, but a man from whom one could learn a great deal and his services were a joy to attend. He retired after five years to live in Gloucestershire but never lost his love of Ravenstonedale.

A year later, in 1983, the Rev. Desmond Owen left Bristol and became our minister. He loved music and, when we were without an organist, played the organ as well as conducting the service. He was of Welsh descent and he and his wife Joyce retired in 1993 to Wales but the north drew them back and they returned to live at Sedbergh.

During an Interregnum the Rev. Brenda Willis was appointed as Interim Moderator and in 1994 Rev. Mary Cock became Minister with a view to using the manse, renamed High Chapel House, as place of retreat for ministers and their families. After a year or two it became obvious it was not viable and that aspect of High Chapel ministry ceased to operate.

Mary Cock took up another ministry in Hereford in 2000. John Willis, husband of Brenda, became the Interim Moderator and also during this period we had a student preparing for the Ministry, Ruth Dillon. Young and enthusiastic she settled into Ravenstonedale remarkably quickly. We would have liked to keep her but she had to go back to finish her course.

Before Mary left work had commenced on renovating the building. The wiring was renewed to bring it to modern standards and a plan drawn up to make good the effects of wear, tear and our local weather over the years. Because of the importance of the structure, it is a Listed Building of course, all the work had to be approved by English Heritage and appropriate materials used for repairs. The architect’s estimate was around £50,000 - by splitting the job up and doing it as and when we could afford it we managed with £25,000. Many of the people here today helped most generously in the project, as did the Frieda Scott Trust at Kendal which gave over half the amount. It is sad that now events have overtaken us, but the good news is that the URC has promised that half of the receipts from the sale of the properties will go to the repair of other churches in the Province. So the money will pass along the line to continue the good work. Incidentally, we understand that the other half goes to the training of new clergy - a cause I am sure most people here will support.

2003 came and in spite of being told that we never would have another minister we were fortunate in attracting the Rev. Anne Gray who has served us well during her three years in Ravenstonedale. Sadly we were not able to anticipate that changes to the congregation would mean that High Chapel would close so soon after her arrival.

A church is not only its ministers however and over the years a huge number of people have served this chapel in one capacity or another. For some it has been a major part of their life and we remember in more recent years the total commitment as Treasurer and Secretary of Hugh Handley and Bobby Hayton.

As Wendy is not giving this talk I am also able to add High Chapel’s thanks to Wendy and Alan Hunter who have been a mainstay of the church as Secretary and Treasurer respectively. They are also elders, as is Margaret Atkinson, and I think it is fair to say that virtually the entire lay-persons load in the congregation has been carried by these three.

As an aside, although Alan says he cannot trace a direct link, it is worth noting that a Hunter was in the very first group of worshippers as well as the last - some sort of record I should imagine even in an isolated area such as this.

And so we come to today, a day of celebration for all the years of witness here in our lovely dale, but inevitably a day touched by sadness that the time has come to say farewell to High Chapel and all that it has meant to so many people throughout its history.