Two For The Price Of One

MIKE BROOKE shares a journey north exploring lead mining and the Wesley connection.  


Little did I think that my pilgrimage to the North of England would end up as “two for the price of one.” I had been given 4 days leave by my wife to pay homage to the lead mining district of the North Pennines. Despite having visited most of England and Wales over the last 50 years indulging my interest in minerals and mining, I had never explored the upper reaches of the River Wear – Weardale – in County Durham. This is an area renowned amongst mineral collectors, for the high quality of fluorite specimens that have been discovered over the years.


Several centuries of mining activity have left their mark on the landscape: overgrown waste tips, abandoned quarries, reservoirs and water channels providing power, derelict buildings and rusting head-gear can be seen everywhere.


Today, the Kilhope Museum provides a hands-on experience, including an underground tour. Here the famous Kilhope Wheel, an outstanding example of 19th century engineering, has been fully restored and can be seen driving the machinery in the “jigger house”. Manufactured around 1860 and brought to Kilhope in 1877, it is over 10 metres in diameter.


Weardale is an attractive area, especially when the sun shines, but can be bleak during the winter months. Even in the middle of summer the conditions can be harsh as I quickly found out. The strong winds and driving rain forced me indoors on one of my two full days of exploration.


A welcome break was provided by the “Weardale Museum” in Ireshopeburn, a few minutes’ drive from St. John’s Chapel. Expecting to continue my journey into the history of lead mining, I was not disappointed, for inside the small building was a typical 19th century mining family’s kitchen. Hanging from the ceiling were five large tapestry panels collectively known as “The Weardale Tapestry”. These display Weardale’s history and heritage and were crafted in 2005 by six local ladies who met for coffee, cake, and conversation, a little like our Knit and Natter group. Moving into the sitting room I was intrigued to find a portable piano used by local parishioners in the late 19th centrury when holding services outside. It soon became very clear that this room was actually dedicated to the life and work of John Wesley and the growth of Methodism in Weardale. And so began a second pilgrimage!


John Wesley was born in 1703, the 15th child of a family of 19. He was ordained in 1728 and following missionary work amongst the American Indians during 1735, he spent the rest of his life visiting Methodist societies throughout the United Kingdom. He travelled 250,000 miles in total and preached 45,000 sermons. By the time John Wesley first visited Weardale in 1752, Methodism was already established in the area. In 1748, one of John Wesley’s evangelists, Christopher Hopper, converted Jacob Rowell while he was on his way to a cock fight. Every opportunity was taken to convert the local miners! Such was Rowell’s pioneering spirit that he helped establish the Weardale Society in 1749. In 1750 the society converted two cottages to establish Keenley Chapel in Allendale. Anthony Race, another lead miner, had been licensed to preach in 1779. He spent 5 days working in the local lead mines and then preached at weekends.


One can only assume John Wesley’s first visit to Weardale had a significant impact on the mining community despite at times only preaching to a very few people. He records that on one occasion “I preached under the walls of an old castle. A few children and two or three old ladies attended. They looked at us hard.” In those early days of Methodism in Weardale, congregations met in the miners’ cottages but by 1760 High House Chapel had been built. Today it remains the oldest purpose-built chapel still in continuous use. John Wesley returned in 1761 and was able to preach at the chapel. On this occasion he was forced to preach outside – “I preached at nine but was obliged to stand abroad because of the multitude of people.” This reflects the fact that Weardale, centred on High House Chapel, had become by far the largest society in the Dales Circuit with 266 members from a total of 1032 in the whole circuit. It also contributed over a quarter of the circuit funds.


John Wesley visited the Weardale society 13 times over a period of almost 40 years, making his final visit in 1790 at the age of 87. He died in 1791 but his work lived on.


While ever lead mining remained an important source of employment in the area, High House Chapel continued to flourish. In 1804 a Manse was added to the building, providing a home for a resident preacher. Today it is occupied by the Weardale Museum. In 1842, the Historian, Jacob Ralph Featherstone wrote: "The High House, on a Sunday afternoon is a spectacle worthy of beholding: here you may see assembled from six hundred to one thousand good-looking, fresh-coloured, and well-dressed persons of both sexes." In 1851 1050 people worshipped in High House Chapel. Given the size of the building it is difficult to imagine where they all sat. In 1872 the Chapel was enlarged to cater for a growing congregation but with the cessation of lead mining in 1882 the area experienced a rapid decline as unemployed miners sought work elsewhere. Today, High House Chapel has a small but faithful membership. However, since my visit, I have learned the Chapel is to be sold and that the Museum has been given first option. If successful, renovation work will be undertaken with the aim of creating a heritage centre, saving an important building for the whole community.

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