Armed with hymn books, a group of 30 early risers gathers at Pen Hill to take part in a special Easter Sunday service

UP FOR it, it has become almost an annual tradition that the At Your Service column attends a dawn service on Easter Sunday. Sometimes they're called "sunrise" services, the only problem that the sun's usually inclined to pull the blankets over its head and have another couple of hours in bed.

We've been windblown in Weardale, white-knuckled at Black Hambleton, all-at-sea on Redcar beach.

Last Sunday was different. From 2,000ft atop Pen Hill, in Wensleydale, we watched the sun ascend as certainly and as solaciously as if it had first checked the expected moment of its appearance in the previous day's paper and decided that on such a morning there wasn't much point in arguing.

Insomniacs and parents of fretful children may recall the opening sequence of TV-am. It was a bit like that, a red moon barely having clocked off before the day shift began. We sang Be still, for the Glory of the Lord is shining all around.

Wensleydale's Methodists have saluted Easter from the summit of Pen Hill for around a quarter of a century now. Such celebrations appear almost entirely Methodist. We'd first joined them in the year 2000, a group of 20, including semi-retired farmer Tom Stephenson. "Round here they say that if you can see Pen Hill it's going to rain and if you can't, it's raining," he'd said.

This time around 30 gather before 6am on the high road above West Witton. They include Mr Brian Clough, veteran Northern Echo photographer and country music connoisseur, dressed sensibly for the steep assault and brandishing a walking pole as Little John might a staff.

"It's the first time I've ever seen you without cowboy boots," says the lady of this house.

"They're in the car," says Brian.

As they had done seven years previously, Easter's early risers include Methodist local preacher Howard Thomas, from Carlton-in-Coverdale, and our old friend George Tunstall, from Spennithorne. Someone else is up from Gloucestershire.

Howard, who's brought his dog, Millie - said to be a Swaledale gamekeeper's work-shy reject, a sort of canine Bobby Thompson - recalls that on another occasion we'd written about him the headline, predictably, was "Howard's Way."

"Better than doubting Thomas," we suggest, which reminds him of a Christmas card in which someone throws a lifebelt to Jesus, walking on the water.

"I bet that's doubting Thomas," he says.

Half way up, the dawn bright breaking, we're passed by a feller hurtling down the fellside in the opposite direction. "He must have forgotten his collection money," says Cloughy.

The sheep bear an expression most benevolently described as quizzical, an intersecting footpath is said to be permissive, which is probably what they say about society.

Howard suggests it's a bit too early in the year for Easter. How about July, we suggest? "I think that might be considered a trifle on the late side," says Howard.

There's a bounce about the group, an enthusiasm, a God's-in-his-heaven sort of feeling. If it can't happen on Easter Sunday, when can it?

The "stone man", marking the summit, is reached with varying degrees of difficulty. The hymn about the steep and rugged pathway comes to mind. The cairn, someone says, looks like it could blow down in a half-decent wind.

"Aye," says George Tunstall - as Yorkshiremen presumably do - "it's only cockled together."

The service is led by Henry Dubois and Richard Harris, Wensleydale's Methodist ministers. Both carry rucksacks, holding bibles, sermon notes and things, but probably not a restorative nip of brandy. Both wear dog collars.

Millie wears a rope, one of the younger celebrants is in shorts and a T-shirt. Very monastic.

The wind's whipping from all directions, Mr Harris's cap remaining in place either by some great act of grace or by some wrinkle - a hat trick, as it were - made known only to country folk.

He tells his congregation, high indeed, that it's the best Easter morning since he came to the dale. "Usually we rise in the mist. We don't even know who's here until we get to the top."

The first hymn's Open Our Eyes Lord, which seems pretty appropriate, followed by Be Still For the Presence of the Lord. The wind makes the pages of the opened notebook clatter clamorously, attracting a look from a lady alongside of the sort with which a Victorian schoolmistress might have fixed a vexatious child.

Mr Harris takes his cap off to preach. "I'm not usually up at this hour of the morning, much less on top of a hill," he says. Sadly, much of the rest of the sermon is also lost to the mighty rushing wind and by the naughty noise of a notebook. No pectoral microphones up here.

The reading's appropriately familiar, too: "On the first day of the week, very early in the morning..."

Even the dogs, by now grown to kennel club size, seem hushed by it all. They also seem not to feel the cold.

A wonderful service ends after about 40 minutes with the hymn Thine be the Glory, Christendom's greatest, the descent yet more precarious than the going-up. The Gadfly column has been going on about the Geordie phrase cowping creels; there's a danger that someone will dramatise it.

In the event, all arrive back safely at the high road, near the Middleham gallops. It's still barely 7.30am, Easter Day, and though many joys may lie ahead, impossible not to suppose that already we've hit the peak.