PITY the poor lead miners of Swaledale, paid out biannually, on the year’s longest day and on the shortest.

Pity their poor womenfolk, for the payout was in the pub. Merry gentlemen, indeed, and a miner miracle if some of them got home in time to carve the turkey.

Thus it was that the wily women of Gunnerside began church services on Midsummer’s Day and on December 21, each followed – in the eternal belief that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach – by a feast to feed the five thousand.

Though the lead mines are long exhausted, as doubtless were the miners, the twice yearly tradition happily survives. So does what they called the love feast.

On a darkest-before-the-dawn evening four days before Christmas, the column headed westwards up the dale. Gunnerside Methodist chapel still calls it the shortest day service and it’s probably unique.

The Arsenal-themed Christmas jumper, Gunners to Gunnerside, seemed a bit of a conversation piece, too.

EVERY Swaledale community once had its chapel, probably more than a dozen dotted across the hillsides. Exactly a decade ago, the At Your Service column told of a review.

Now Gunnerside is the only Methodist place of worship between Richmond and Kirkby Stephen, 35 miles away in Cumbria.

“A beacon in the dale,” says Les Nevin, the minister, who in 2013 had told a public meeting that their church seemed likely to go the same way.

Average attendance is up from five to 15 – “a good start,” says Les – further boosted by the formation of the Friends of Gunnerside Chapel, known as The Frogs, an energetic and independent fund raising and support group.

Built to house 700, the galleried chapel marked its 150th anniversary in 2017. It’s manifestly cared for, festively attired, warmly welcoming.

The stone built village may have little changed in that time. “Grey and stark,” wrote Margaret Batty, in the book to make the chapel’s centenary.

An awful lot of Gunnerside folk seem to be called Calvert. “We’re not all related,” says Jenny of that ilk, though she supposes they might have been once.

The Band of Hope banner is laid up in a corner, on the wall details of the Lord Wharton Challenge to year six of the village school. It involves learning Psalm 15, all five verses, by heart and making a production of the Parable of the Sower.

Philip Wharton was a local land owner, politician and philanthropist. When he first offered Wharton Bibles, in 1690, they’d to learn six psalms, 111 verses.

Another children’s initiative involves lifestyle challenges. “Be a superhero,” says one. Sums it up nicely, really.

THE service is basically the familiar Nine Lessons and Carols. A dozen-strong choir is in the gallery, 15ft above contradiction, maybe fifty gathered here below, below. The choir’s tremendous.

John Waggett, known for his dialect expertise, delivers part of the Christmas story in Swaudle: “And the shipperds says, yan to anither….”

Though the expectation is that While Shepherds Watched will similarly be sung to Ilkley Moor, a tune to which it’s well suited, it’s instead carolled to a wonderfully uplifting but hitherto unheard of tune called Shaw Lane.

The organist plays O For a Thousand Tongues, that great Methodist classic, while the offertory is taken. They may be 900-odd short but it’s a joyous, community-conscious Christmas occasion, nonetheless.

Best of all, or so a worked out lead miner might have supposed, there’s still a love feast – and ever lighter nights – to come.

SANTA Specials on the Wensleydale Railway are among the great treats of Christmas, a bargain even before the Boxing Day sales.

The younger bairns get a colouring pad, Santa biscuits, fruit juice and a very good present; the notionally older bairns enjoy mulled wine, mince pies and a joke from one of Santa’s helpers.

What was the snowman doing in a field full of carrots?

Picking his nose.

Saint Nick himself is pretty perfect, if perhaps a little hard of hearing. “Baby Annabel,” says the two-year-old granddaughter, asked what she wants for Christmas.

“A baby elephant?” says Santa, incredulously.

All that tinges the jollity is the absence of Joem, Britain’s best steam engine, travellers warned in an email – a bit like the Wise Men, only theirs was a dream – of recurring boiler problems. We’re hauled, either end, by what Thomas the Tank Engine supposed a diesel.

It’s the third time in 2017 that hopes of a hurl behind 69023 have been frustrated. Happily, Fred Ramshaw of the North Eastern Locomotive Preservation Group denies that her number is up.

Joem, explains Fred, is due a major overhaul in 2018 – involving the renewal of her 10-year boiler certificate – and after that will be good for another decade.

She’ll be back on the Wensleydale at Easter, perhaps joined in the summer by a class J27, another NELPG steam locomotive on which an overhaul is nearing completion at the group’s Darlington headquarters. A double header? “It’s a nice thought,” says Fred.

THE year’s final Durham Age UK men’s breakfast proved suitably festive, not least because one of us – best nameless – found a water pistol in his cracker.

Thus the men’s breakfast became the overgrown kids’ breakfast, slightly returned to reality when few could crack the cracker joke about what lies in a pram and wobbles.

A jelly baby, for heaven’s sake.

Brian Wilson – “not the one in the Beach Boys,” he explained, perhaps unnecessarily – won the Christmas jumper competition, though some of the humbuggers thought the acrylic had been pulled over the judges’ eyes.

Bravely breakfasted, the second childhoodies adjourned to the Victoria, the North-East’s best pub, run by the evergreen Michael Webster for nigh-on 43 years.

The fires blazed, the ale was excellent, Michael brought out cheese and Christmas cake. There are times, or so surreally it seems, when age doesn’t weary one bit.

TALK in the December 19 column of Tarts in Art – from Lady Hamilton to Christine Keeler – reminded Alan Macnab in Darlington of his days as a junior clerk with Bedale Rural District Council.

Organising an old folks’ Christmas party, the housing officer brought in a note to be typed. “I would be grateful if you would come to Bedale Hall with 18 small tarts,” it said.

The typist was clearly a sensitive soul. They brought 18 small cakes, instead.

….AND finally, Baz Mundy – who has posture problems – reports that for Christmas he got a pair of orthopaedic shoes. “I didn’t think they’d do any good, but I stand corrected.”