120 years to find a home

Providence Chapel
A long time coming... Providence Chapel at Baybridge.

It's nearly 20 years since the last service was held at Providence Wesleyan Chapel, Baybridge, after 124 years of worship on the spot where the founder of English Methodism, John Wesley, had captivated the local inhabitants with his sermon in April 1747.

Wesley recorded the al fresco service at Blanchland in his diary: "I stood in the churchyard, under one side of the building, upon a large tombstone round which, while I was at prayers, all the congregation kneeled down on the grass. They were all gathered out of the leadmines from all parts; many from Allendale... The whole congregation drank in every word with such earnestness in their looks, I would not but hope that God will make this wilderness sing for joy."

Little did those early Methodist converts of Blanchland know, but they'd be worshipping in the great outdoors for some time to come; it took them a further 120 years after Wesley's visit to find a place they could finally call their own.

The very early Methodist services were actually held at the Lord Crewe Arms - clearly not an ideal arrangement; as the numbers of worshippers grew, the upper room became increasingly cramped and stuffy. The Methodists gave a vote of thanks for the kindness of the landlord who'd given the room free of charge, but the gasping congregation had to find alternative accommodation. Relief came with services held at an assortment of farmhouses such as Shildon, Allenshields, Newbiggin House and Rope Barn.

By the mid-1800s, Blanchland Society - part of the enormous Dales Circuit - had three daughter Societies at Ruffside, Ramshaw and Winnows Hill. Ramshaw in particular was a thriving group with many devout lead mining families meeting regularly (for more information on the Primitive Methodists at Ramshaw, click here).

Joe and Margie Short outside Providence in 1989
Joe and Margie Short outside Providence as part of a 1989 newspaper article. Click on image to enlarge.

Barns or outbuildings commonly served as makeshift chapels. A prayer meeting must have been a chilly affair in winter, but to the earnest Wesleyans, location didn't matter; it was the forge-hot passion of a powerfully-crafted sermon that warmed their hearts. One prominent local preacher, John Brown, was preaching so fervently at Ruffside that to emphasise a phrase he brought his fist down on a chair seat and split it 'karate style' clean in two!

And at Ramshaw, in the little room that had been set aside by the lead mining company for the Wesleyans and the Primitive Methodists to share week-and-week about, prominent preacher Peter Mackenzie became so animated during his sermon that he leapt up and down in the pulpit, smacked his head on the ceiling, and brought down a shower of lime and plaster on himself and the people sitting in the front row. Almost like a keepsake from one of today's 'celebs', the congregation apparently treasured the hole in the ceiling for years.

The great annual event for local Methodists was the Love Feast which was held in the barn at Winnows Hill, now near the Derwent Reservoir. People travelled from Weardale, Allendale, from all over the dales to pray, sing and bear witness, and the barn grew so packed there would be standing room only outside. Not to be defeated, the ones who had failed to cram into the barn would take it in turns to speak of their religious experiences by pushing their heads in through the windows.

This make-do-and-mend situation couldn't go on; the Blanchland Society had to find somewhere to put down roots. But there was a major stumbling block to setting up in the village itself - Lord Crewe's Charity.

It wasn't that the Methodists encountered any animosity from the Anglicans, it was simply that the Lord Crewe Trustees' hands were well and truly tied. Because of the conditions of the charitable trust, set up by the Bishop of Durham Nathaniel Lord Crewe to manage his estates on his death in 1721, they couldn't give, sell or even lease a site which would be occupied by a Methodist Chapel.

The Methodists did come close to acquiring a site at Baybridge from the Rev Daniel Capper, owner of the neighbouring Newbiggin and Hunstanworth Estate. He had offered to give land - stones and lime were actually bought to build the chapel - but unfortunately members got into a squabble over the style of the proposed building. The moment was gone, and Capper withdrew his offer.

A 1991 Evening Chronicle article on Baybridge Chapel's closure
A 1991 Evening Chronicle article on Baybridge Chapel's closure. Click on image to enlarge.

It wasn't until Daniel Capper sold his estate to the Joicey family in 1865 that the situation changed for the better. Edward Joicey presented the Wesleyans with a huge cheque for £50, and that revived their determination to establish a place they could call home. The late Fred Wade, local historian wrote in the 1960s: "Wesleyan Methodists of both sides of the Derwent, who had so long been without a settled and stationary house of prayer, rose to the occasion of raising the necessary funds, and those who were able to send horsed and carts and give their services, did so voluntarily."

While they were raising funds for the chapel, the Blanchland Methodists worshipped in a barn loaned by landowner Jasper Stephenson of Newbiggin. It's clear there was huge local support for the project; a bazaar held by the ladies in the barn raised £320, and it was through sheer hard graft like this that the chapel was finally built at a cost of £1,100 in 1867, called Providence because the Blanchland Society had had 'so many difficulties and deliverances'.

An Evening Chronicle article from 1991 tells us that Providence had a fine 'send-off' with more than 300 people saying farewell, including Marjorie Hale who had travelled from Australia for the occasion as her late father had often preached at Baybridge.

The remaining 10 members of Providence's congregation went to join the C of E worshippers at St Mary's in Blanchland, bringing to an end nearly 250 years of Methodism in the village.