New life for Swaledale’s ‘thin place’ at Keld

Keld 554x415The Revd Stephen Collinson, one of the Ministers of Word and Sacraments at Tees and Swale Pastorate, tells how new life was breathed into a historic Yorkshire site.

Keld United Reformed Church, Upper Swaledale, is one of a cluster of church-owned buildings with a long and special history. Often people describe this cluster, in its beautiful setting, as a “thin place” – a phrase borrowed from Celtic spirituality to convey the sense of a location occupying a fine line between earth and heaven.

Alongside the chapel, there is the old manse, institute, and schoolroom; all of them built thanks to the inspiration and work of previous ministers. The schoolroom housed the village school until the latter part of last century and, for a period afterwards, church groups – especially youth groups – from further afield made good use of the schoolroom, neighbouring institute and manse. However, the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic with its accompanying travel restrictions in the countryside, put an end to the practice and the institute, schoolroom and manse began to fall into a state of disrepair. The chapel, however, continues as the home of a URC worshipping community.

But the place maintained its hold on people, with a group of them deciding that they would try to build on its history. The Keld Resource Centre was formed as a registered charity; the aim was to preserve the redundant buildings as a community resource and provide a base for a programme it called Group Work at Keld. In consultation with the URC’s Northern synod, all the buildings except the chapel were leased from the church. Funds have been raised (largely by grants from various trusts and Northern Synod itself) and a few years ago, phase one was completed – upgrading the manse to a self-catering holiday let, and establishing a visitor centre in part of the institute.

At the end of April 2017, the Keld Resource Centre held a festival weekend to celebrate the completion last summer of phase two – the conversion of the rest of the institute into a versatile meeting space for small groups, together with a serving area, toilets and a lift to the upper floor. The festivities included the official opening of the refurbished upper room in the institute building, a celebratory service at Keld URC, a concert by Muker Silver Band, an exhibition, and a series of themed walks on the birds, lead-mining and waterfalls of Upper Swaledale.

The Revd John Proctor, General Secretary of the United Reformed Church, was a guest at the festival and he led two sessions of Bible study on the book of Job. During his visit, he also presented a certificate to Mrs Daphne Clarke, an elder at nearby Low Row URC, to mark her 60 years as a lay preacher. She started preaching in Hull in 1957 as a member of the East Riding Congregational Youth Council Lay Preaching team and has since taken services from Blyth in Northumberland to Poole in Dorset, and Wirral to the Yorkshire coast. In congratulating her, John Proctor said that he thought it was the first time anyone had achieved a 60-year certificate.

The hope is that Keld’s new facilities will be used by a growing number of all manner of organisations, including church groups. Meanwhile work on the schoolroom begins the next phase which will see disused buildings transformed into areas to offer life and community.

As well as Sunday services, Keld Chapel welcomes visitors to pray, meditate or simply to rest in a sheltered and peaceful atmosphere after a hike across the fells. Keld Chapel decided to take this further a few years ago when it was awarded a grant by the URC’s CreateTalk initiative to facilitate church projects and activities through the creative arts.

Thanks to CreateTalk, we produced a leaflet and display three large canvas prints – known as the Swaledale Triptych – to encourage meditation and reflection. The Triptych features three images of Swaledale sheep which link to Bible passages: the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:6, CEV); the Good Shepherd (Psalm 23), and the Lamb of God (John 1:29, CEV). Accompanied by a leaflet to pick up, they are designed to help people reflect on biblical themes surrounding this familiar breed from the area.

When we launched the Swaledale Triptych, I’d make sure that I’d got to the chapel once a week where I’d “loiter with intent” in case anyone wanted to chat about it. Only a few people came in to the church while I was on site and the conversations were a bit more general but the triptych material, and another leaflet we produced specifically for walkers, was used in different ways.

For five weeks of the year at Keld we have a minister-in-residence (in the old manse) and they lead prayers morning and evening. When I am the minister-in-residence I use photos in the meditations. I also run two or three creative quiet days during the summer encouraging the creation of images as a form of spiritual reflection. Hopefully, many more people will be able to share in the “thinness” of Keld’s unique spaces and places.

Keld URC Chapel:
Keld Resource Centre:
Keld Resource Centre Ltd, Keld, Richmond, North Yorkshire, DL11 6LJ
07790 401476