REETH Methodist Church – almost 200 years old, Grade II listed, rich in hope and in history – officially closes today. A misty, moisty morning, its last service was on Sunday.

“It doesn’t matter if you raise the roof because we don’t need it any more,” the Rev Kathleen Wood tells the congregation as, one last time, they sing Love Divine.

Reeth’s the largest village in Swaledale, part of Methodism’s North Yorkshire Dales circuit which also embraces Wensleydale and Arkengarthdale. When last I attended a service there, July 2011, the circuit had 28 churches across 400 thinly populated square miles.

Five years later there are 17, others certain to face the last Amen, not a single Methodist church in the 20 miles between Richmond and Gunnerside, where the chapel was built for 700 and which now, once a fortnight, attracts six or seven.

The media cries into its beer over pub closures, beats breasts at the demise of the High Street. More quietly, another way of life is disappearing.

Among Sunday’s gathering is Joan Jackson, 86, whose husband Keith – Reeth born and raised, water board engineer, Methodist minister – dearly loved the church. He died in June.

“I’m just glad that Keith isn’t here to see it close,” she says. “There just weren’t enough people, enough interest. Times change; I don’t know what the answer is.”

JOHN WESLEY visited Swaledale several times, thought the hills “horrid” – he was on horseback – but the faith “deep and lively.”

Many thousands were lead miners and their families. Others were shepherds or what became known as the “terrible hand knitters” of Swaledale, the adjective a reference to their great output. Almost every village had a chapel.

Reeth’s, half-hidden at the top of the green, might in latter days have attracted a dozen, mostly elderly, though Keith Jackson told the tale of giving communion to 28 Roman Catholics. “I’m not sure if the Pope knows about that,” he added.

The final service is positive, thoughtful, often cheerful. “God isn’t finished with you yet,” says the Rev David Wood. Both downstairs and in the giddy gallery, the church is almost full. Mr Wood even essays a couple of jokes, including the one about what you give to a woman who has everything – antibiotics – though he confesses plagiarism from The Dalesman.

Kathleen Wood, his wife, acknowledges “a pivotal moment in our lives”. A reading talks of the old order changing, commands not to live in the past, urges almost simultaneously to forget and not to forget former things.

“How can you tell that the prophet Isaiah was a man?” asks David. “Easy, he can’t make up his mind.”

Barbara Place, 85, the longest serving member of a Methodist society formed exactly 250 years ago, reads an elegy. “In this secular world two or three gathered together cannot maintain the practicalities of faith,” she says.

They haven’t even enough money to pay the insurance and the electricity, Barbara adds afterwards.

The building will now go onto the property market, for the first six months offered for community use. The Rev Les Nevin doubts that, locally or otherwise, there’ll be a rush to buy.

“It’s going to be a heck of a challenge,” he says. “The energy is no longer there. They are good people, but the building has become a liability for them.

“This building will probably remain empty for years and still need to be maintained, a liability not an asset for the Methodist Church. It is all very sad indeed.”

n Winston Methodist church, opened in the village between Darlington and Barnard Castle in September 1902, holds its final service at 2.30pm this Sunday.

THESE columns have become pretty familiar at Reeth Methodist church – from services to brass band concerts, talks on the weather by Michael Fish and on lavatories by Lucinda Lambton.

They called the talks Reeth Lectures. Not what you’d suppose hurricane force, Michael Fish was up there two years ago. “I never grow tired of researching the weather or presenting the weather, I just grow tired of being blamed for it,” he said.

He was 70, included “grumpy old man” among his hobbies, warned of climatic armageddon, insisted that weather men are traduced. “Between 85 and 87 per cent of forecasts are correct – of course, that’s based on information from the Met Office.”

Scion of the great Durham land-owning family, Lucinda Lambton took her subject seriously, though inevitably with toilet humour and potty puns. What other might have been supposed from someone whose books included On the Throne: A History of the British Lavatory.

“The galleried church is considerably fuller than on a normal Sunday morning, though not what a cisterns analyst might consider overflowing,” the column incorrigibly observed.

Married to former Fleet Street editor Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, 20 years her senior, she hinted at poverty because – as with the Duke of Westminster – the law of primogeniture bequated the family fortune to her male siblings.

For the column, as for Lady Lucinda, it was simply something to go on.

IN search of the old chapel, we also head to Hurst. Like the island of Barra, in Private Fraser’s goggle-eyed memory, it is a wild and lonely place.

Across the moor north-east of Reeth, the village in the 19th century was home to 3,000 lead miners and their families – though the Romans found lead there, too.

“Hurst is a broken village, left bewildered, its reason for being gone,” wrote Ella Pontefract in her classic, 1934, book on Swaledale. “There are ruins everywhere, and the houses which are left behind seem to weep with them.”

The column had last climbed the forgotten road to Hurst in 1974, when 70-year-old Harry Chamberlain had returned to England after 15 years in Trinidad in an attempt to breathe fire into the blacked-leaded old pub that was the Green Dragon, built in 1739.

He was also advertising for a helpmate though not, definitely not, a wife. “I want a good woman to help me relax, not to punish me,” he said.

Harry died in 1977, the Green Dragon with him. Though much evidence of lead mining remains, the resident population may now be fewer than a dozen. It is a place of ghosts.

Next to the little cemetery, the chapel had four members when it closed getting on half a century ago. Like the handsome old school, it’s now a private house. Ere the winter storms begin, before they think it’s all over, Hurst compels a visit.