The wind may be chill but the column finds warmth aplenty at Forest and Frith parish church.

ONE and a half thousand feet above the sea, and thus perhaps closer to heaven, it's a bit parky for the 6.30pm harvest festival in the little parish church of Forest and Frith.

Lord Barnard, 81 now, is there in mohair top coat, waistcoat and watch chains; the Middleton and Teesdale Silver Band arrives to time in green jacket and black tie; there's a chap in a red jersey. "It makes me feel warmer having a red jersey on," he says, an interesting example of colour co-ordination.

Forest and Frith is at the top end of Teesdale, the whitewashed homesteads of the Raby Estate thinly scattered against the darkening skyline, the congregation gathered safely in from far beyond those foreshortening fellsides.

"Forest", not necessarily wooded, was simply an Old English term for a hunting ground, happy or otherwise. "Frith", so they reckon, was a no-go area, a place where the does might rest in peace.

Those vast and empty acres embrace two stupendous waterfalls, two pubs, a tiny school, a youth hostel, no shops, few folk and an awful lot of sheep.

Once there was also a telephone exchange, numbered round the clock by the Misses Allie and Dolly Redfearn - never such devoted sisters - and with a total of 39 subscribers. Now more people are on the telephone but there's not even the clock to speak to.

Harvest festival, said to be redolent of Thomas Hardy but perhaps also of a Hovis commercial, is one of two annual ecclesiastical highlights. The other is the 8pm Christmas Eve service of lessons and carols with Middleton band, also in agreeable attendance.

"It makes you feel that Christmas is really here," says Neville Turner - band chairman, retired vet and accomplished writer - though last year they'd almost to celebrate in the dark when a power cut hit the upper dale as the band was about to strike up Silent Night.

"We had a few torches, a couple of oil lamps and a fell rescue chap with a light in his helmet," recalls Neville, thus proving once again Teesdale's indebtedness to its fell rescuers.

The church, humbly dedicated to St James the Less, was built in 1845 with funds from the Duke of Cleveland and has long withstood all that the North Pennines could blow at it. It was more seriously threatened in 1988, however, when the Diocese of Durham proposed that the parish should cease independently to exist and the church should be downgraded to a "chapel of ease". "Rationalisation" the diocese called it, though it might not have been the first word which leapt to Teesdale tongues.

A framed cutting from the Daily Telegraph records their "characteristically discreet" but ultimately joyful victory, led by the delightful Gregory Linden, then the Rector of Middleton and Forest and once affectionately described by the AYS column as looking like a cleric from a Giles cartoon.

Old hands also recall "the Reverend Prior", said to break the ice twice daily so that he might still swim in the frozen Tees, and the Rev Hugh Procter, Forest's last resident priest, who held three services every Sunday and might be lucky to total ten between them. "Sometimes there was just him and Clarrie Beadle," it's recalled, "and Clarrie Beadle was a Primitive Methodist."

Now around a dozen attend the monthly service - "depending on the sheep and the hay" - and since Middleton and its neighbouring parishes are presently without a priest, Sunday's service is led by Astley Fenwick, a lay reader up from Barnard Castle on his first solo mission since being licensed.

"Be gentle with me," he asks the congregation, but they are as gentle, as generous and as warmly nostalgic for the autumnal occasion as it is possible to imagine.

The single bell tolls briefly, so as not to disturb the sheep, the band plays Our Blest Redeemer Ere He Breathed, the service begins with Come Ye Thankful People, Come - as probably it has done for ever.

Mr Fenwick, referring to the feeding of the five thousand, estimates the attendance to be "a 65th" of that, making it 76.9. It's probably something they teach them at theological college.

There's also a charming presentation by the 11 children of Forest-in-Teesdale primary school, once home to 90 pupils in a single classroom measuring 38ft by 24ft and itself once faced with threats of closure.

"This isn't a rich area by any means, but we have a lot compared to others who have nothing," says their teacher.

"The poor countries may be a long way from here but they are just as close to God," says one of the children.

"Our Christian duty is to share our gifts," says Mr Fenwick. There's also a song in which "syrup of figs" appears to rhyme with "pigs", but may have been a mishearing. It is, on any argument, preferable to the harvest song about jet planes.

Afterwards the band offers a snatch of Strauss and an American medley - Streets of Laredo, Yellow Rose of Texas, Big Rock Candy Mountain - the sound of music accompanied by the counting of the collection at the back.

That no one appears in the least hurry to leave may also be because of the probability that there's six feet of snow outside and because they all know of the fruits of the Forest, the handsome harvest supper which famously follows.

There are brawn sandwiches and prawn sandwiches, mince pies and quince pies, fruit cake, lemon cake and Mattie Bainbridge's cream cake, anticipated all year like a child longing for Father Christmas.

If it has been the Hovis harvest, then truly it is a harvest home from home.

THE concluding event in a year of celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of Crook's Roman Catholic church - dedicated to Our Lady Immaculate and St Cuthbert - takes place on Thursday (7pm). Former priests and sisters associated with the parish as well as church and civic leaders are expected to attend. All are welcome.

* Dr Stephen Hatcher, originator and curator of the Museum of Primitive Methodism in Englesea Brook, Staffordshire, talks on "The Radical Ranters" this afternoon (2pm) at Trinity Methodist church, Eaglescliffe, near Stockton.

The lecture, accompanied by "magic lantern" slides, will be preceded by half an hour of community hymn singing of old Primitive Methodist favourites. Once again, all are welcome.