The column climbs up Swaledale to join a congregation celebrating its chapel’s 200th anniversary.

LOW Row, like all things, is comparative. In truth it’s quite a climb up Swaledale, beyond Reeth, a hilly, stone-built little village with a well-regarded pub, a village hall that was funded by the Carnegie Foundation, an attractive Anglican church and a URC chapel that last weekend celebrated its 200th anniversary.

Julie Martin, the 20th minister in those two centuries, reveals the two bits of advice she’d been given upon arrival three-and-a-half years ago.

The first was always to carry a torch – it gets awfully black up there at night – the second never to preach about sheep.

“The congregation,” said the interim moderator – the gaffer – “knows far more about sheep than you ever will.”

It’s breezy outside, sweltering – sheepskin temperature – within.

Daffs still dance in the churchyard.

A lady in front is taking notes. Surely there can’t be two of us?

The first church had been built in 1690, above the village on the exposed hillside at Smarber, serving the lead miners and their families. Then, they were simply the Dissenters, legitimised because there was no Anglican church within five miles. Later, they became Congregationalists, now the United Reformed Church.

Once a year, as eight days ago, they still ascend the steep and rugged pathway – rejoicingly, as the hymn writer would have it – for a service within the ruins. We’d accompanied them in 2004.

Five years ago, the 25 minute service had started precisely at 7.30pm, thus perfectly synchronised with Coronation Street – though at that time, we’d added, the open air worship was altogether more watchable.

The column also noted that a gentleman had asked if he might sit on a nettle, next to a young lady. “It’s probably a URC courting ritual,” we said.

Unable to make this year’s Smarber gathering – it had been cold and damp service, as usual – we turn up for the Sunday morning service at the 200- year-old chapel, at once asked by the welcoming Mrs Sue Alderson if a hymn book with tunes would be preferred.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I reply, as discordant as discourteous.

It’s a glorious little place, greatly cared for, organ recently restored.

The architect may have been a Methodist. Old posters at the back recall events in the church’s history – meetings, bazaars, lectures and all attended by a public tea, price eightpence.

A gathering of 80 or so – none young, few youngish – includes former ministers Gillian Bobbett and Peter Poulter and the robed parish choir, largely Anglican, with the accomplished Mr George Lundberg on the piano. George is on a diet, he says.

We shall see.

There, too, is Edward Brown, church secretary for 41 years until recently, whose family have held that office for more than half of those two sedulous centuries.

Mr Brown reads from a Lord Wharton Bible, given (but hardly given away) in memory of Philip Lord Wharton – the first chapel’s founder – to Sunday School children who could, by heart, recite Psalms 15, 25, 37, 101, 113 and 145, 111 verses in total.

He’d got his in 1949. “I think the minister must have been very lenient that day,” says Edward.

“You should be thankful that it wasn’t Psalm 119,” says Mrs Martin.

Psalm has 150 verses.

The minister also has a confession.

The day’s appointed psalm is number 23, The Lord’s My Shepherd; the theme of the appointed readings is no less ovine. The address is to be on the theme once forbidden her – confident, lucid, not sheepish in the least.

“I thought to myself that I may not know a lot about sheep, but I know a bit more than I did three-and-a-half years ago,” says Julie.

She’s the 28th minister since 1690, also responsible for the URC churches in Keld, top end of the dale, and in Barnard Castle, where she lives.

Teesdale and Swaledale are joined by The Stang, heady in summer and treacherous in winter. “When it’s bad I go the long way around, by Richmond,”

says Julie.

There are prayers for “the shepherds of this world – the real shepherds and those sometimes given the title shepherd”, hymns like Who Would True Valour See.

ANDY Bottomley, four years in Swaledale after working with the Aviation Mission Fellowship – ground staff, he flew a desk at 18 inches, he says – has written Bricks and Amazing Grace, a catchy song to mark the occasion.

History behind them, vision up ahead They could see forever from this place.

They were standing in the place Of bricks and amazing grace.

Afterwards there’s some of the finest baking that Swaledale may have seen in 200 years, even when charged eightpence for it.

Edward Brown recalls that when he became church secretary in 1967 he was charged – “sort of pressed into it” – with helping to find a minister for the dale.

“We were struggling a bit, didn’t know if we’d manage, but we got Kenneth Wadsworth and after that there’ve been some wonderful people.

We’re still in very good heart up here.”

It’s been a memorable, happy, united service. Low Row greatly on a high.

■ The Swaledale festival service will be held in Keld United Reformed Church at 2pm on Sunday, May 31 – the first time that it’s ever been held in a URC church.