Ewan Allinson explores Teesdale and the Gaunless Valley chapels and churches.

Ewan is one of the Northern Heartlands’ Ambassadors

On a chill January morning, myself and photographers Louise Taylor and Richard Glynn embarked on a tour of chapels and churches in Teesdale and the Gaunless Valley. We are working on a project to document, artistically, the values at the heart of family farming in the rural west of Co Durham.
A multi-media exhibition is planned for summer 2019 which will tour 6 churches across the area and offer real insights into the deep nature of the covenant farmers have with the land. The purpose of the trip was to see the sheer variety of spaces so that we can plan the exhibition in a way that can respond to the particulars of each church.

At Cotherstone Methodist Chapel, we toss around ideas about how we would respond to its particulars. Its windows bring in so much light and I think we all started to settle into the calming spirit of the chapel. A flat cap on the hat stand was a reminder that the peace in this space has as much to do with the resolute spirituality of generations of worshippers as it has with the architectural character.
We head up the dale to St, Mary’s Anglican church in Middleton-in-Teesdale. The Good Shepherd motif appears in stained glass and in a splendid oak carving, leaving nobody in any doubt as to the connection between worship and farming in the dale.

The next stop on the itinerary is a chapel that I have seen from many angles while dry-stone walling in the vicinity, but have never entered. At an average elevation of 1200 feet above sea level, surrounded on all side by high fells, Forest-in-Teesdale is the roof of the world, with barely a tree to its name. Handsome white farmhouses and cottages stud the open vistas.

The key-holder arrives to let us in. Forty minutes later, I’m thinking to myself that we should be recording the testimony of the dales’ womenfolk. They are libraries of local knowledge. The conversation could have run and run without ever losing its interest.

Hanging on the chapel’s wooden panelling is a magnificent fabric hanging, depicting the landscape of Forest and the houses, chapels and farms dotted across it. Simple in concept, it is rich in meaning, a wonderful expression of the power of place and the lives that drive it.

At Bishop Auckland Methodist church, we jump into the electric car of Rev. John Purdy for a trip to three churches in Dene Valley. This rural conurbation, along with many others along the coalfield, was once targeted by county planners for a process of accelerated decline and ultimately, complete removal. The villages remain, in defiance of planning logics, but all is not well. John lets us in to see Auckland Park chapel, The Valley chapel and South Church chapel, driving us through Coundon Grange, Eldon, and Coronation. In the post-coal aftermath, the churches do their best and have never abandoned these communities. But there is nothing happening here, John explains, that provides for the communities’ needs.

In terms of our project, we are adamant that we bring our farming exhibition to these villages and begin to foster a fellowship between the uplands and lowlands currently lacking. If things happen here, little things, that’s at least a start.

John brings us back to Bishop and though we could squeeze in trips to the Anglican churches in Cockfield, Staindrop and Gainford, we realise we have enough material to be going with and return to Barnard Castle, much inspired by all that we’d seen and heard.

Many thanks to Richard Glynn for the photographs that illustrate this blog.