Even the bracing North-East winters couldn't deter John Wesley, born 300 years ago next month, from from falling for Newcastle's charms

EVEN before the Bigg Market became obese, before little girls strutted half naked and young men and worse had unceremoniously to be scraped from the pavement, John Wesley was a bit worried about Newcastle.

"I was surprised," he wrote in his journal. "So much drunkenness, cursing and swearing (even from the mouths of little children) do I never remember to have seen and heard before in so small a compass of time."

It was May 1742 and they were the first impressions of a popular preacher.

"Surely this place is ripe," Wesley added, "for Him who came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

Around 20,000 then lived in Newcastle, mostly treading water by the river, and Wesley grew quickly to love both the people and their town. With London and Bristol it became one of his three missionary centres, a place he might have stayed yet more frequently but for the North-East winters.

"I never felt such intense cold before," he wrote in December 1742, when 39. "In a room where a constant fire is kept, though my desk was fixed within a yard of the chimney, I could not write for a quarter of an hour together without my hands being quite benumbed."

He returned around 50 times in the following 48 years, working in a humble, 11ft square "study" erected atop the "Orphan House" chapel built near Pilgrim Street.

When the chapel was demolished in the mid-nineteenth century, the study was re-erected in a back garden in North Shields, though the purpose has never been revealed.

An obelisk on Sandgate - "the poorest and most contemptible part of the town" - marks the spot where, at 7am, he first preached in Newcastle. When he returned ten hours later, the crowd almost trampled him under foot "out of pure love and kindness".

What particularly surprised him, he wrote later, was the kindly colliers' habit of clapping him on the back.

Wesley was born 300 years ago next month, followed his father into the Church of England priesthood in 1725, might have remained in spiritual second gear but for an experience at a church "society" meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, on May 24 1738.

He'd gone most unwillingly, he wrote, but felt his heart strangely warmed - a phrase now known to all Methodists. Wesley had moved into top.

It was that conversion experience, Aldersgate Day as they call it, which hundreds of Christians gathered in Newcastle's Anglican cathedral - and throughout the land - to commemorate last Saturday.

The service began at 11am, the column in town by 10. Though the cathedral bells clamoured "Wake up" and "What fettle", like brass bands on Big Meeting day, the city seemed still to be slumbering.

It gets to bed quite late, after all.

We were welcomed, "honoured and delighted", by the Rt Rev Martin Wharton, Bishop of Newcastle, and by the Rev Leo Osborn, his Methodist counterpart. The service began with O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing, for many a generation number one in the Methodist Hymn Book but now curiously coming in at 744.

The couple alongside wondered how they'd get from the cathedral to Brunswick Methodist Church - "canny walk, mind" - where the reception was to be. John Wesley would have had a horse waiting, and read the Bible as he journeyed.

Bishop Martin looked forward to the growing partnership between the two churches; Mr Osborn recalled that Wesley had "been one of yours before he became one of ours" but in a sense belonged to them all.

(The chairman, it should perhaps be explained, was identified on the order of service as the Rev Lionel E Osborn. Quickly, acronymically, he long since became Leo.)

They'd to find more seats, share service booklets, murmured in appreciation at the end of a wonderful address by the Rev Dr Neil Richardson, president-elect of the Methodist Conference.

Wesley, Dr Richardson recalled, was "a strange little man", a sentiment echoed by one of his many biographers - "a lifelong compulsive, obsessive neurotic whose religion never really cured his neurosis."

He could be dictatorial, undemocratic, had an entangled love life, married disastrously - thanks mainly to his brother Charles's meddling - but after Aldersgate he was a changed man.

"Wesley decided he couldn't be half a Christian," said Dr Richardson. "He wanted to be an altogether Christian."

He continued to travel Britain, remarking on his 71st birthday - spent in Stockton, after travelling from Newcastle - that his health seemed to have improved over the years.

The cause, he wrote, was the "good pleasure" of God, the "chief means" were rising at 4am every day for 50 years, usually preaching at 5am - "one of the most healthy exercises in the world" - and travelling, by sea and land, no fewer than 4,500 miles each year.

That he could also sleep on a clothes rope, or at least catnap on a convenient kitchen table, probably did him no harm, either.

He'd written that he would happily spend all his summers in Newcastle - having never forgotten the winters - and paid his last visit in June 1790. The preacher who claimed that the whole world was his parish, had developed a singular affection for that small and coaly corner of it.

"Having dispatched all the business that I had to do," he wrote, "in the evening I took a solemn leave of this lovely people, perhaps never to see them more in this life, and set off early in the morning."

John Wesley died, aged 87, on March 2 1791. He was well remembered last Saturday.