The massive miners' chapel in Hetton-le-Hole is directly across the road from The Commercial pub... though mercifully few of the Methodist congregation have given in to temptation.

UNTIL they sank the Lyons colliery in 1821, just 276 country folk lived around Hetton-le-Hole and not a house, they reckoned, within a mile of the shaft. Ten years later the cheek-by-jowl population was very nearly 6,000.

They'd built a chapel in 1824, quickly outgrew it, planned another in the 1850s. Hetton, said the pit manager, was going to be the centre of a large mining community: they'd better build a big chapel.

The Big Chapel it became; the Big Chapel, locally and colloquially, it remains. "Big?" someone says before last Sunday morning's service, "it's absolutely massive."

Built by the miners for the miners, it opened in 1858, the faithful already planning 150th anniversary celebrations. The long word's a sesquicentennial. "I know that," says chapel stalwart Tom Soulsby, 86, "because I read it in one of your columns."

Tom, immensely fond of the Grade II listed building, had sent the invitation to attend. Hetton born and raised, he now lives down the road in Houghton-le-Spring but returns every Sunday.

"He wouldn't dare do anything else," says Marie Tweddle, one of the stewards, cheerfully.

The chapel was erected in Union Street, the local brewer so annoyed (so the story goes) that he built The Commercial pub directly opposite.

A more reliable anecdote concerns the Good Friday oratorio, performed at the Big Chapel every year since 1870, when the choir was to sing the Messiah.

In the second half there's a rather splendid piece called The Trumpet Shall Sound, for which a local trumpeter had duly been recruited. Having little to do in the first half, he nipped across to The Commercial to wet his whistle at the interval and promptly fell prey to temptation.

Wherever the trumpet may have sounded thereafter, it wasn't in Hetton Big Chapel.

The Commercial's gone - "we outlived it," says Tom - but the Crown, the Caroline and the Prince of Wales still stand nearby. That the Prince of Wales is known universally as Number 9 is said to be because, whichever way you came into Hetton, it was the ninth pub you passed.

Tom also remembers when the colliery railway would rattle past the road end, the flag man halting traffic outside and the preacher having to shout to make himself heard above the percussion.

Built on coal, the chapel was constructed from magnesium limestone. The mine owner provided materials, helped build a light railway to carry them from the quarry, loaned a horse and cart. The volunteers turned up still black from their shift, their women arriving with their dinners.

"The owners really tried to look after the miners," says Tom Soulsby. "That way they thought they'd work better."

Described in an 1858 Durham Chronicle as "a beautiful stone structure", the chapel had three levels and could seat 850 with room for 600 children in the Sunday School downstairs. Later additions, including a gallery, increased the main capacity to more than 1,000.

It prospered. When the Rev WR de Winton died in 1903 - killed by a chimney stack which fell through the roof as he slept - Hetton's pubs were closed and shuttered as the funeral procession passed.

Legendary Liverpool FC manager Bob Paisley was a Hetton lad, too, a plaque in the town centre marking the association. They never shut the pubs when Bob died, mind.

HETTON-le-Hole is six miles east of Durham, long in the County Palatine but latterly annexed by the City of Sunderland. Once it had its own Methodist circuit, now the Union Street chapel is one of ten in the East Durham circuit, membership ranging from 110 at Houghton-le-Spring to four at East Rainton.

Hetton has 90 members, maybe 60 present on Sunday. A chap outside is smoking a tab and looking after the lift which enables the disabled to avoid the steps. "Best thing we ever did," he says, "especially for funerals.

"We still get a lot of old miners coming back for funerals. They still regard it as their church."

Perhaps surprisingly, there's an Independent Methodist church two streets away, both signposted from the centre. Both have morning and evening services, both at exactly the same time.

We're outside the Independent church, reading the notice board, when a minister called Shaun Newton emerges. "We're truly independent, we don't have to answer to anyone at headquarters," he says - earthly headquarters, anyway.

The Big Chapel's service is led by the Rev Chris Kettlety, a former health visitor with a marked Bristol accent, her final r's rolling like the Northumberland Miners' Picnic.

Inside it's remarkably handsome, more polished woodwork than Binns' furniture department, the Elemore Lodge "Eventide" banner hanging poignantly on one wall.

Beneath the pulpit is a little hidey-hole, like a six foot seam, where the choir used to gather. Some call it the black hole, others the tunnel. It's quite cosy in there.

They used to have miners' services too, the pitmen always choosing to sit downstairs, as if they believed they knew their place. "When this chapel is full," says Tom, "it takes your breath away."

Only the speakers - that is to say the public address system - are a bit iffy. The speaker isn't iffy at all.

Part of her address concerns the need to relax. "We have to love ourselves enough to know when it's time to rest," she says, but there are plenty of hard workers in Hetton.

Tom Rennie, who works for Harrison brothers in Durham, has been organist for 40 years - "assistant organist before that," he says. Marie Tweddle is credited with the determination to keep the place open when the roof had to be replaced.

Others suggested something smaller. Marie stood firm. "It's like your home," she says, "all the years that's it's been here, all the things that have been done and the work which has gone on.

"Being a listed building is a bit of a bane because we have to do everything through English Heritage but moving away would mean taking away everything that people had worked and striven for."

The service is old fashioned Methodist, old fashioned Methodist hour. A dozen bairns perform a jolly little number about Father Abraham - wasn't he the chap who looked after the Smurfs? - before heading down to their Sunday School.

"I accept it's not modern," says Tom, "the building doesn't lend itself to it."

Marie says she hopes that a nice write-up might persuade a few more to give it a try. That's the Big idea, anyway.

* Services at Hetton-le-Hole Methodist church are at 10.30am and 5.30pm. The Rev Chris Kettlety is on 0191-581 3339.