The Wind Mill Methodist Chapel near West Auckland will close

A tiny country band that has witnessed for 154 years – most recently under the direction of the founder’s great-great-great granddaughters – has held its final service.

The church in the hamlet of Wind Mill, on a quiet country lane off the A68 above West Auckland, has been described by Rev Richard Bainbridge as a ‘classic rural wayside chapel’.

It was assumed that Wind Mill, like the famous London theater of the same name, would never close.

The Northern Echo: Wind Mill Methodist Chapel, near West Auckland, which has held its last service in 154 yearsWind Mill Methodist Chapel, near West Auckland, which has held its last service in 154 years (Image: MIKE AMOS)

The Northern Echo’s “At Your Service” column once described it as “traditional, nostalgic, as comfortable as a winter coat” and suggested it was one of the old-fashioned chapels where Mint Imperials were secretly served before the sermon began became.

It is ending because Methodist leaders have decreed that churches must have at least 12 members. Windmill had 11.

“We had 12 but one died and unfortunately we couldn’t replace her. It’s very disappointing and very, very sad,” said chapel administrator Joyce Simpson.

The Northern Echo: A section of the congregation at the chapel's final serviceA part of the congregation at the last service of the chapel (Image: MIKE AMOS)

Methodist churches in South Church and Auckland Park – less than a mile apart near Bishop Auckland – were also recently closed under the same decision.

However, Joyce acknowledged that the building is in need of an update, adding: “It’s getting older, we all are. It’s not the people who come here that led to the closure, it’s those who don’t.”

Primitive Methodists in the hamlet formerly known as Pit Green and before that Railley Fell originally met in a room above the mill from which the site is named.

The 1851 census described it as “a place of public religious worship”; In the chapel’s anniversary brochure, it was described as a “place of religious power”.

William Hodgson, a direct descendant of Joyce Simpson and her sister Hazel Gaskell and her cousin Sheila Plant, donated the land for the chapel in 1869 and helped other villagers with the quarrying and construction.

In 1938 there were 12 girls and 14 boys enrolled in the Sunday school. To mark the annual anniversary, a platform was set up for the children to perform their plays. “It felt like you were talking to the whole world, not just half of Wind Mill,” someone once recalled.

Before the closure, however, none of the regulars were under the age of 60. There are usually around ten, but many more with annual performances by artists such as the Beltones, Station Town Centenary Singers and the Brancepeth and Aycliffe Brass Band, as well as the Harvest Festival.

“Harvest festivals were legendary, tables full of produce,” said Mr. Bainbridge, who is himself credited with “leading the chapel from the 19th to the 21st century”. He oversaw the installation of a flush toilet.

Since there will be no more Thanksgivings at the windmill, they sang, “We’ll plow the fields and sprinkle anyway.”

Others, like retired headmaster George Dixon, 89, recalled having chapel tea at a nearby farmhouse called Auntie Winnie’s. “No matter how long your arms were, you couldn’t reach the middle of the table. There was so much food.”

Among other speakers was local preacher Gerald Bell of Stanhope who, on the occasion of the chapel’s 150th anniversary, recalled that 1869 was also the year of the first Sainsbury’s shop, the first issue of People’s Friend and the first meetinghouses.

The Northern Echo: Church leaders say they must have at least 12 members - Wind Mill had 11Church leaders say they must have at least 12 members – Wind Mill had 11 (Image: MIKE AMOS)

On Sunday, he noted that he was usually invited to Wind Mill for the band’s anniversary celebrations in November.

“It’s so nice to be here when it’s snowing now,” he added.

Rev. David Payne told a packed church they were sorry they had to close but were closing in a positive way. “We are the itinerant people of God and we will continue to travel with God.”

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Outside, he said, there was a traffic jam. “You don’t get that often in Wind Mill.”

Afterward they gathered again to feed the five thousand, or so it seemed, and recalled anniversaries long past when they were allowed to play postman knocking or a game called Winky, which sounded very similar.

The chapel is expected to be converted into a private home, but for now – what goes around comes around – Wind Mill is blown out.

Read more of Mike’s writings on his blog at The Wind Mill Methodist Chapel near West Auckland will close

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