« In Wesley's Weardale Footsteps »
By  H.K. (1898)

[original liberally illustrated with black-and-white photographs -- see below]
[visual emphasis added e.g.

«We found the people in Weardale as usual, some of the liveliest in the kingdom; knowing nothing, and desiring to know nothing, save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.» - Wesley's Journal

JOHN WESLEY was a frequent visitor in the dales of the North country. But of one visit there is no record either in the Journals, or, so far as I am aware, in the biographies of the Arminian Magazine. It is a tradition handed down from generation to generation, and yet it is, perhaps, one of the best authenticated facts in that unwritten story of the Evangelical Revival which is almost as interesting as the written records.

One day John Wesley, by this time somewhat advanced in life, riding up the steep hill from Ireshopeburn to Ling Riggs -- almost within sight of High House, the mother chapel of Weardale Methodism - caught sight of a young fellow walking through a field to the left of the road. He had known the lad as child, and loved him as he loved all the children, boys and girls, in the beautiful dale. The field through which the lad was walking overlooks a cuplike hollow in the hills through which the burn babbles on its way to the Wear. It is one of the daintiest bits of scenery in the dale, and is very precious to the Methodist Church, for from of old it has been a centre from which have radiated gracious influences reaching far beyond the limits of County Durham. Like so many other of the cottage hamlets of the dales, it has recruited the ranks of the ministry, and has never been without its representative among the of workers of the Methodist Societies. At present you will only find a single farmhouse, which is occupied by the leader of the choir in High House Chapel. Near the farm, among the trees there is an unroofed ruined cottage in which the late Rev. Thomas Nattrass was born.

When Wesley saw his young friend walking over the fields towards his home at "Hole", by which name the cuplike hollow is known, he called him by name - "Aaron !" But Aaron pretended not to have heard the voice that called. His quickened footsteps as he hurried down the field, however, betrayed the guilty conscience. Wesley lifting up his voice called the lad more loudly. Finding that he did not mean to her, Wesley dismounted, fastened the bridle of his horse to the stone post of the gate (which still remains, and if you have seen it you cannot doubt its identity), and followed down the field. The lad took to his heels, but instead of running into his cottage home to the right, the ruin of which I spoke, he turned to the left, and ran towards the stile at the very bottom of the field, and then through a second field, and along the burn side until he came to a cavern-like entrance to a disused lead mine, which is now filled up and overgrown with brushwood (the exact spot is marked in the photograph by Mr. John Thompson and
Mr. T. G. Watson, whose figures may be seen among the shrubs). Wesley pursued the conscience-stricken lad into the mine, caught him, reasoned with him, and kneeling down besought the Lord's mercy for the backslider. Aaron broke down in penitent tears, and Wesley there and then led him back to the Master's feet in a consecration which proved to be lifelong.

In the Journals there is a curious restraint in the naming of persons. But the many notices of Weardale contain interesting exceptions. For the most part, they are perfectly familiar to those who have even the slightest acquaintance with Weardale Methodism. There is one interesting passage - Wesley quotes it from an account written by John Fenwick, of a wonderful work of God which took place in Weardale - in which Aaron's name appears. Fenwick says that of the one hundred and sixty-five members he met at High House, forty-three were children, and that of these thirty were rejoicing in the love of God. These children were under the care of Jane Salkeld, a young schoolmistress, who is more than once referred to in terms of profoundest respect by John Wesley, and is here described by Fenwick as "a pattern to all that believe." The names of several of the children in Jane's class are given - «Phoebe Featherstone, nine years and a-half old, a child of uncommon understanding; Hannah Watson, ten years old, full of faith and love; Aaron Ridson (originally the name, it is believed, was Richardson, then Ridson, and finally Ritson), not eleven years old, but wise and staid as a man; and Sarah Smith, eight years and a-half old, but as serious as a woman of fifty; Sarah Morris, fourteen years of age, is a mother among them, always serious, always watching over the rest, and building them up in love.» Aaron Ritson in this list was the hero of the story I have told. He became a leader in the High House Society. Mr. Thompson, who told me the story, says that he remembers being taken by his parents, when quite a young lad, to Aaron Ritson's class. He was more than ninety years of age when he died. People still remember «Old Aaron» in the later years of his life when he was accommodated with a seat up the pulpit stairs at High House Chapel, where, with long flowing silvery locks, he sat listening to the words of life. Aaron Ritson was the grandfather of the Rev. Thomas Nattrass.
Standing one evening last summer in front of the gatepost to which Wesley fastened the bridle of his horse, I could not but think of the wonderful results flowing - and still flowing in many a refreshing rill - from that faithful, resolute, and loving treatment of one erring lad. The field beyond the gate was gleaming in the evening light with grass ripe for the mowers. Below among the trees I could see the ruins of Aaron Ritson's cottage. In the second of the two fields down which Wesley ran a splendidly-built young dalesman, with his bonnie wife, was working among the hay. On the hillside overlooking the burn was the cavernlike entrance to the lead mine. The whole scene lived before me. I could picture the great evangelist of the Methodist Revival, his silver-buckled shoes flashing in the sunlight, his shovel hat covering the long grey locks - neat, clean, a perfect little gentleman - running that he might speak to that one young man - the ruddy-faced shepherd-prince of the new Israel, rescuing the one soul, as David rescued the lamb, out of the jaws of the lion. Wesley was a preacher to thousands, and the evangelist of crowded cities, but he never neglected the villages, the hamlets, the cottage homes, the scattered farmsteads of England, and he never lost an opportunity of dealing with individual souls. We think of him as he figures in his strangely-antiquated treatment of Kingswood boys, a treatment which froze the School into a conventual severity abhorrent to our modern ideas; but in personal contact with boys and girls and young people John Wesley had another side, a side which made him the darling of Methodist households. As I have followed in the footsteps of the evangelist I have again and again been impressed by the extraordinary influence he wielded over the young and by the loving care he bestowed upon "the children of our people." There can be no doubt that this concentration of effort upon the boys and girls he met with had its own mighty effect in rooting Methodism in the affections and family traditions of many a country side. The early Methodist preachers followed Wesley's example. The increase in the membership of the Methodist Society was probably more indebted to this influence than to the revivalism of more public efforts. The little lad who had the memory of a loving hand laid upon him and a kindly word spoken to him by the Methodist preacher could not forget it, and the little girl who sat on Wesley's knee or touched his beautiful hand cherished the memory of the good man's loving words and told the story in after years to her grandchildren. These are little ways of doing the Master's work, simple and homely, but they have been amongst the most potent of the many gracious influences which have made the history of Methodism.

Although the history of Methodism in Weardale, strictly speaking, must be located lower down the dale, at Westgate, it is the region round about High House Chapel which seems to be richest in Wesley associations and in earliest memories. There are now, in this special region, three chapels in line along the high road which, as tourists know, follows the course of the river. The first is at St. John's Chapel, the home of the late Joshua Dawson, and of many other notable men in modern Methodist history. It is here, perched on the summit of a hill which commands a magnificent view of mountain and dale, that the superintendent minister lives. Within easy walking distance, close to the bridge which was built across the Wear in the year of the Queen's accession to the throne, stands High House Chapel. A few miles higher up the road, at the point where railway travel ceases and the river forks into two branches, and you begin to feel that you are nearing the verge of civilization, there is a third chapel, about which a long story might be told. The village is known as Wear Head. There are smaller village chapels beyond in the same direction. These, however, I have not visited. The circuit also includes other important chapels beyond St. John's in the other direction - Westgate, Eastgate, Stanhope; but of these I must not in this article be tempted to say anything at all. Let us for the moment limit our thoughts to the central chapel of the three first named - High House.

When you reach the chapel you are likely enough to wonder what possessed our forefathers to build in so lonely a neighbourhood. You will most of all wonder that they should have built on so large a scale, and that, as time-worn marks on the walls and the contrast between the front and the rear of the chapel indicate, they should have found it necessary from time to time to enlarge and improve the building. Here and there you may see a few cottages, as they would be called in other parts of the country; they are really farmhouses, and larger perhaps than they look. For the most part they are far away on the hillsides, conspicuous objects among the evergreen fields of the beautiful dale. To protect the houses from the winds of winter that howl fiercely down the dale, clumps of trees have been planted near the houses, and these very often so overshadow and conceal them that you scarcely see them until you stand at the garden gate.

Near the chapel there are two cottages, lifted above the roadside, which, like nearly every house in the neighbourhood, have Methodist associations. In one of the two a famous class met for many, many years. Beyond the chapel, on the gently rising hill, there is a small village with the curious and poetic name of Ireshopeburn. It is here that one of the circuit stewards lives; not far from his house there is a disused Presbyterian manse and an old school-house, both associated with the early history of the late Joshua Dawson. South country people would call Ireshopeburn a mere hamlet, and certainly not large enough to justify so pretentious a chapel as High House. But from earliest times the people have gathered from far and near to hear Methodist sermons and to join in the fellowship and prayer of the homely Methodist meeting. The minister told that if I would come in the winter, when the snow hides the roads from view, and the field paths are apparently impassable, and the sleet storms sweep down from the upland moor, I should find a congregation that would be called wonderful if seen within the four walls of a popular London church at a weeknight service. To this day, though chapels have been multiplied nearer the homes of the scattered people, the large central rallying place is still needed.

The first point of interest on this historic ground is a thorn bush which has grown curiously, so that, to all appearances, it forms two trees, and has either allies or descendants close at hand. It stands in a little enclosure near the Coronation Bridge and the railway. Tradition says - and the Weardale traditions are too well authenticated to be at all doubtful - that John Wesley preached under this thorn bush when there was no chapel anywhere in the dale, and also at later visits when the congregation was so large that it could not be accommodated in the neighbouring High House Chapel.

The first time I saw the thorn bush a number of miners were returning from their work. They halted under the tree, as their ancestors had done, and the minister stood talking with them whilst I took a photograph of the tree. A day or two afterwards, in the blazing sunshine of last July, I had the honour of standing under the same venerable tree and preaching to a congregation of leisurely dale folk. There was not a field in Weardale which was not in the possession of haymakers, and as hay is the only crop grown in the valley, and far too precious to be risked even for the sake of a sermon, the men very properly clave to their mowing machines and hayforks. Otherwise, as the people assured me, there would have been on that Friday afternoon a great congregation to hear the preacher under Wesley's tree. No wonder that the people look upon the thorn bush with feelings of veneration. It is for them the monument of Wesley's work in Weardale - a work that saved the dale from moral barbarism and turned it into a garden of the Lord.

In 1894, when the Wear Valley Railway was extended from Stanhope to Wear Head, the dales people were sorely troubled lest the company should interfere with the thorn bush. Happily, the board of directors was not a board of Vandals, but a board of Christian gentlemen, and they spared the tree at the request of the people, and protected it. It is now surrounded by the pretty garden behind the gatekeeper's house, and is, we may assume, for ever safe from injury.

John Wesley's first visit to Weardale was in 1752. The chapel near the thorn bush was built in 1760. Its last renovation took place in 1872. At the centenary of Wesley's death a poem was written on the High House Chapel. The following four verses have a certain interest. The author of the lines modestly conceals his name.

«Though it has changed, the site's the same,
     And it is likely, still shall be,
In honour of that great man's name,
     Who stood and preached beneath the tree.
«One hundred years have passed away
     Since Wesley preached - since Wesley died;
The tree still stands, without decay,
     In beauty by the highway side.
«It seems that long the tree may stand,
     John Wesley's monument to be,
Saved from the woodman's ruthless hand,
     For Weardale's prayer is 'Spare that tree !
«The time how'er, at length shall come
     When it shall wither and decay,
For trees of earth shall cease to bloom,
     But Wesley's work shall last for aye !»

High House was the first Methodist chapel in the dale. It is the Mother Church. When it stood alone, the only Methodist chapel in the district, persons whose names are still cherished were in the habit of travelling long distances to attend the Sunday services, which were held at nine o'clock in the morning and two in the afternoon.

In those days it was the invariable rule that the Methodist preaching should not interfere with «church hours». And to this day the same custom might have survived, as Churchmen know full well to their sorrow, but for the shortsighted and foolish action of the Church itself. Of course there was not sufficient time for worshippers who came long distances to return home for dinner. The custom was to bring provision and make a day of it in the house of God.

An amusing incident is told, on very good authority, of a man in the upper part of the dale who was not considered bright, but who, at all events, had sense enough to bring dinner with him when he came to Chapel on the Sunday morning. His used to hide his parcel of provender underneath an ample old-fashioned waistcoat. His seat was immediately in front of the preacher. One Sunday morning the preacher was vehemently urging his hearers to cast away their bosom sins. He repeated the exhortation again and again with ever-increasing emphasis. The Dalesman with the burden of dinner upon his breast began to think the preacher personal in his remarks. The effect, however, seems to have been less spiritual than exasperating. At last, in hot temper, the man thrust his hand into his bosom, pulled out the dinner, and flung it at the preacher, saying «Tack't, for Ah know thou wants't.»

In the far past, beyond the memory even of the oldest inhabitant, and, as the people themselves believe, since the time when the chapel was built, a lovefeast [1] has been held on Good Friday. At one time the people came to this lovefeast from Teesdale, Alston Moor, Allendale, Derwent, and other places in the eastern part of the district. The circuit, of course, was fully represented, and, as may be imagined, the large chapel was often crowded.

On one occasion a man came from Carrigill, in the Alston Circuit - a distance of nine miles as the crow flies, but how far by road and moor path it would be difficult to say. The man was under deep conviction of sin, and was earnestly seeking salvation. While one and another were testifying to the power of saving grace he saw the simplicity of the plan of salvation, rested upon the atonement of Christ, and found peace. Immediately he rose, and, in thrilling words, gave his testimony for Jesus. At the close of the service several of the members gathered around the saved man and asked him to go with them to tea. But to every invitation he had one answer, «No, I have a father and mother, brothers and sisters, who are out of the way, and I must go home and get them converted as soon as possible.»

Is not this a characteristic story ? Does it not touch one of the secrets of the extraordinary Methodist success of the earliest times ? It is an unconscious reproduction of that which happened in the beginning of the Gospel - a telling over again, in but slightly changed form, of the stories which the aged apostle St. John told on the first page of his history of all that Jesus began both to do and to teach after He returned from the wilderness into Galilee.

A volume might have been written a few years ago, before the venerable survivors of the old Methodist families had passed away, on the homes in which John Wesley lodged when on his evangelistic journeys. Enough information still remains, if only it could be gathered together and illustrated with pencil or camera, to make a picturesque and suggestive addition to the early history of Methodism. Nor would it be merely to gratify pardonable curiosity that one would like to see this information brought together. It might not add any material facts to the story of Wesley's life and work, but it certainly would bring out into brighter relief many features in that history, features which are of the utmost value, illuminating, as they do, the causes of the success of the movement.

So far as Weardale is concerned there are at least two well-known houses in which Wesley was in the habit of lodging. They are both within easy reach of High House Chapel, one not far from the gate that leads down to Hole, and the other off the high road at Ireshopeburn. They are small cottages. The one at Ireshopeburn is still occupied, and occupied, as it always has been from John Wesley's time, by Methodists. When I took the photograph on the summer's evening before preaching in High House Chapel a group of friends, all more or less related, with little children, stood outside in the pretty garden. It was an extremely interesting gathering. Perhaps nowhere else in the country could it now be matched. There were present in the group standing in front of the cottage descendants of the good people who used to entertain John Wesley under that same roof. Moreover, the cottage, with its surroundings, is but little changed. Substitute a thatched roof and leaded windows, with diamond-shaped panes of glass, and the cottage presents the same appearance it did when Wesley walked briskly up to the door after preaching to an immense concourse of people, he himself standing under the shelter of the famous thorn bush.

But a still more interesting lodging place was pointed out at Ling Riggs. Mr. John Thompson, whose historical notes, collected during a long life and most carefully written, have been generously placed at my disposal, was with me during the visit; so also was Mr. T. G. Watson, who now lives at the Market Place, St. John's Chapel, but who as a boy lived in the house where he was born, next door to Wesley's old lodging-place at Ling Riggs. The Watsons are a Weardale clan so complicated in their relationships that I dare not attempt to reproduce a genealogical tree with the accurate family details given to me and, alas ! vainly drilled into my brain. But the reader may take it for granted, if ever he visits Ling Riggs, that every second person he meets is in some way or other connected with the Watsons, and that his life is not worth living if he ventures to say anything unfriendly about any one of them, and that dire disaster will pursue him if, in their presence, he dares to say a single unkind word about Methodism.

Standing back from the high road on the right hand side as you go up the dale there is a row of cottage houses, three in number. The first and third are still occupied. No. 3 has been modernised, refronted, reroofed, and is now a good villa house. But originally it was a plain, stone-fronted cottage like the other two. It was in this No. 3 that Mr. T. G. Watson was born. The houses were built after the fashion of nearly all the old houses in the dale, with a curious arrangement of steps up to the front door and a byre for the cow under the steps. There are gardens in front, and at the back a magnificent view of dale, river, moor, and mountain beyond. In No. 2, the central cottage of the three, there lived in the last century one Stephen Watson. In this cottage, with Stephen as host, Wesley most frequently lodged when he was in the neighbourhood. It is now unoccupied and, I am sorry to say, in rather a dilapidated condition. Probably the farmer, who very kindly lent us the key and allowed us to explore at our pleasure, will put it in repair so that it may again be occupied either by his own family or by someone else. There are at present three rooms on the ground floor and one long room under the ancient rafters extending over the whole of the cottage. Originally, in Stephen Watson's time, there were but two rooms - a large living-room with stone floor below stairs, and the great sleeping place under the thatch. But at a later period a small bedroom was partitioned off from the great house-place. Either then or still later one of the Watson occupiers built a tiny little room behind, also with a stone floor, for the preacher to sleep in when he came round that way. It is a unique little box, too small to photograph, looking now cold and desolate, but no doubt cosy enough in the old days, probably with a bracken or heather-filled bed and a stool and a table and candlestick. One could stand under the low roof and dream of sainted men long gone to their rest, who, coming down out of mountain storms, found shelter and love and oat-cake in that homely little cottage. They were better off than John Wesley, for had they not a room to themselves - a prophet's chamber built by their kindly host ? But John Wesley had to shake down as best he could, either up in the big sleeping-room or in a corner of the house-place. Nor was this any strange experience in his life.

This is by no means the first cottage I have seen in which Wesley used to lodge, making himself quite at home with the simple and kindly folk. So far as I remember, there is never a single word of complaint about either bed or board in the Journals. Was it any wonder that at the faintest sound of a rumour that John Wesley had come the whole country-side would tramp over field, bog and moor to greet the man who brought glad tidings to the people, and, never forgetting that he was a scholar and a gentleman, lived joyfully in their homes, sharing their humble fare, loving their boys and girls, visiting the rich, and caring for all the interests of farmer and labourer and lead miner ?

Accompanying illustrations

~ Hole: Wesley's Gatepost
~ Aaron Ritson's Home
~ The field down which Wesley ran
~ The mine hole in the hillside
~ Wesley's thorn bush (on the right)
High House chapel
~ Wesley's lodging place at
~ Stephen Watson's cottage at
Ling Riggs (Wesley's house)
~ Weardale: from the Superintendent minister's house
~ Weardale miners under Wesley's tree

Source: The Methodist Recorder, No. 2044, 1898


(1)  The "lovefeast" was a type of religious gathering practiced by the early Methodists.