We stepped down the lane in the dappled sunlight of a still frosty winter afternoon. It has an ancient, lived-in, feel to it, does the hamlet of Chapel-le-Dale. Sitting astride a Roman road, evidence of long-vanished communities are shown on the Ordnance Survey map with the word ‘settlement’ printed over various places close-by, in old English script. Hints at modern domesticity, like washing hanging on a line, seem a little incongruous. It’s a moss-covered rock-green world, with the mass of Ingleborough looming to the south and, to the north, beyond Hurtle Pot cave with its boggart, a holloway leading to an upland stone-strewn plain and the whale-back of Whernside filling your horizon.
But we had come to see the church - the chapel in the dale – partly because it just needs to be done, and partly because of its association with a railway.
This was once a chapel of ease – a kind of subsidiary – for the parish church of St John the Baptist in Low Bentham, about 8 miles away, which was too far for the farmers of the upper dales to go for regular worship. St Leonard’s is a small building with strong lines, no blurred edges, built of mortar-covered limestone under a stone slate roof. Inside several wonderful stained-glass windows come to light, of mysterious provenance and surprising in number for a relatively remote place - and achingly beautiful. The colours contrast with plain whitewashed walls and timber pews. The building is thought to date from the 16th century, though a fertile imagination could wonder whether something earlier once stood on the same spot, at this convenient junction of Roman road with ancient trackway. It was painted by Turner from sketches he made around 1808 (‘Ingleborough from Chapel-le-Dale’ is currently in the Yale Center for British Art in the USA) and extensively renovated in 1869 at a cost of £500 – when the stained glass was probably added.
The chapel has never been formally named. The first reference to it is in a document dated 1595, which refers to a John Eamondson being reader at the ‘Chapel of Wyersdaile’ (Weyesdale). It was subsequently called the ‘Chapel of Witfalls' and by the 18th century was generally known as the ‘Ingleton Fells Chapel’, the village of Ingleton being just 4 miles downhill to the south. It has only been known as St Leonard’s since the 1940s, when a reference to St Leonard’s in Ingleton (now dedicated to St Mary) in an old will was mistaken for a reference to the chapel. In fact, the chapel has never been officially dedicated to St Leonard, the patron saint of prisoners, women in labour and horses, though the name continues to be used.
The land hereabouts was once owned by Furness Abbey and you feel for the men and women that lived and farmed in this often harsh climate, in what can still be a relatively lonely part of England. A sense of the people and families who were the movers and shakers of their day – the Ellershaws, the Kidds, the Metcalfes, the Willans – is gained from the memorials in the chapel and the gravestones that are still legible. But this most rural community, for a brief moment in its history, found itself a role in the thrusting drama of Victorian socio-economic revolution when the railway came.
Just up the road from Chapel-le-Dale is the Ribblehead viaduct, still carrying trains of the Settle-Carlisle Railway having been saved from closure in 1989 by Conservative politician turned TV presenter Michael Portillo. Intended as an alternative route between the English Midlands and Scotland, the Settle-Carlisle Railway was constructed from 1869 to 1876 and includes 14 tunnels and 22 viaducts through some of the most austere parts of northern England. It is a triumph of 19th century design, engineering and determination, but there were countless fatalities during the project. Many of the 6,000-strong labour force were itinerant navvies, housed in temporary camps along the railway’s route, including in the shanty towns of Batty Wife Hole, Sebastopol and Belgravia at Ribblehead. This bleak complex was home to the workers who built the ¼ mile long 100 feet high viaduct with its 24 massive arches, and who blasted and hacked one end of the mile and a half long Blea Moor Tunnel, lining it with bricks made on site. The settlements included shops, taverns, a school, post office – even a library – to help cater for the men and their families.
More than 200 workers, their wives and children are buried at Chapel-le-Dale. They were so numerous that the churchyard had to be extended to contain their poor, unmarked, unremembered, remains. Many died of smallpox during an epidemic that swept through the flimsy timber huts in 1870, but many were victims of dreadful construction accidents – some men even drowned – at a time when life was cheap and any sense of health and safety primitive. So, inside the chapel you’ll find a marble Victorian memorial to the men who died. And outside, in 2000, a memorial stone and plaque was more widely dedicated to the nameless men, women and children whose bodies lie somewhere in the lumpy ground nearby.
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