St Leonard’s, Chapel-le-Dale

Last updated on March 18th, 2024 at 07:22 pm

St Leonard's, Chapel-le-Dale

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 (pictured at the end of this article), a holloway leading to an upland stone-strewn plain and the whale-back of Whernside filling your horizon. There are both strenuous hikes and effortless strolls in these parts.

Whernside, North Yorkshire

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.

The lych gate at Chapel-le-Dale

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 and extensively renovated in 1869 at a cost of £500 – when the stained glass was probably added.  (‘Ingleborough from Chapel-le-Dale’ is currently in the Yale Center for British Art in the USA, though I note its alternative title is ‘Patterdale Old Church’ – Patterdale is 40-odd miles further north-west, near Ullswater, and I wonder whether some art expert can explain this apparent anomaly?).

Chapel_le_Dale, chapel interior

The chapel in the dale has apparently 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.

Chapel-le_Dale, farming, Furness Abbey

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.

Ribblehead Viaduct

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-cum-national rail enthusiast, Michael Portillo.  Portillo can occasionally be spotted catching trains in brightly-coloured trousers, clutching his copy of Bradshaw’s Guide.  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 and determination.  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.

Memorial, deaths at Ribblehead, Chapel-le-Dale
Cemetery memorial to the dead of Ribblehead

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, graves.  Many died of smallpox during an epidemic that swept through the 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 men, women and children whose bodies lie somewhere under the lumpy ground nearby.

St Leonard's, Chapel-le-Dale

And here’s the boggart –

The boggart at Chapel-le-Dale, North Yorkshire

48 thoughts on “St Leonard’s, Chapel-le-Dale”

  1. I will opt for an effortless stroll. It is sometimes too easy for us to forget how occupational safety and health is a comparatively recent innovation. The same is true of many if not most of manmade construction of the past. Each one comes with a death toll we could probably measure in terms of bodies per cubic yard or metre if you prefer. Now that would be an interesting study, though of course once you go back more than a hundred years or more such statistics were often not kept. How expendable has human life been.

  2. Mike, I’m taking advantage of a rainy day to catch up on reading several of your posts (in reverse order, as you may notice from my comments) and I have to say your excellent writing and photography are really bringing on a yearning for travel, despite the fact that a recent errand-trip to a town an hour away resulted in more than two weeks of joint pain and sciatica, which is just beginning – thank the gods – to abate. Binge-reading your posts may be an unwise approach for me – I should probably pace myself 🙂
    p.s. I noticed that the Yale Ctr for British Art invites input on every artwork page of their site, so…maybe worth emailing them? This could lead to even more interesting research.
    p.p.s. And not terribly relevant, but I wince to think what “prisoners, women in labour and horses” have in common, to share a single saint!

    1. Thanks, Quinn; you’re very generous. I’ll look at emailing the Yale Centre – thank you! I think saints tended to get allocated portfolios on a fairly random basis; or maybe they drew straws.

  3. I have always wanted to (and still do) see Ribblehead Viaduct and am fascinated with the history of it and of nearby places. Isn’t there a film about life in one of those temporary settlements, something called Jericho or so?
    The chapel looks well worth a visit.

    1. Go and see the chapel and the viaduct. Stand under the viaduct and look up and imagine the men who built it up there. Sit in the garden at ‘The Station Inn’ and watch the trains come over the viaduct. , ‘Jericho’ wasn’t really about this area at all. More of a soap. The museum at the station is interesting too. Ride on the train.

  4. The chapel was renovated in 1869 for 500 pounds – imagine what that would be in today’s currency – that’s some serious money. Lovely result. I really like the dark and white scheme that shows off the ‘bones’ of the structure.

  5. I agree with Derrick; your description of the church and its environs is absolutely beautiful! I loved this post; the writing, the photographs and the history. Thank you, Mike.

  6. Hi Mike – looks like John By Stargoose and Hanglands might have helped with your answer re the JMWTurner painting. But what a beautiful area – bleak to put it mildly. Also dreadful conditions those poor men had to work in … 7 years to construct … but what a viaduct … must be wonderful to travel it. I’m glad they’ve preserved it.

    Fascinating post … loved reading it … and would love one day to travel around there … and to see the Chapel. Cheers Hilary

  7. Right from the opening sentence, the first paragraph is pure poetry. The accidents memorial plaque is a real slice of the history of our Industrial Age.

  8. Oh my… It’s sad how many people died there. It reminds me a little of a book I recently read about the US Transcontinental railroad – “Nothing Like it in the World” by Stephen Ambrose. It’s astounding what it took to build those railroads, and at times, it’s very tragic! 🙁 Another wonderful post – that chapel looks beautiful.

    1. Stephen Ambrose of ‘Band of Brothers’ fame? that was an excellent story – and an excellent series. One thing that amazes me about railways in Britain is how quickly they were built, transforming the country. These days, it seems to take decades to get a new line built.

      1. Yes, the very Ambrose! 🙂 I totally agree about Band of Brothers, and he has a lot of amazing books, many of them WWII themed. Let me know if you ever want any recommendations! 🙂

  9. Most beautiful pictures, Mike. But what a sad story. We forget now that the railways were built at the cost of so much human suffering. Navvies died at such a rate – but of course there were more fleeing from even more desperate poverty in Ireland.

  10. Rolling my cursor over the photo tells me that is “The boggart at Chapel-le-Dale,” but that doesn’t really answer my question of, “What the heck IS that thing?” I assume it is a modern sculpture, but I would like to be sure.

    1. Yes, it is a sculpture. A curious thing to find on a country path. At one time, some idiot(s) threw the thing into a nearby cave and it had to be hauled up. A ‘boggart’ is a tricky, perhaps nasty, spirit – one made an appearance in the Harry Potter books, I seem to remember.

  11. John @ "By Stargoose And Hanglands"

    I’ve been up there in mid-winter and it can be mighty bleak; I certainly wouldn’t want to live and work up there all winter. JMW Turner did do another painting called “Patterdale” which shows the old church there (at least it’s not the same church that is in that valley today), so presumably it’s just a case of someone confusing the two pictures.

    1. Yes, I looked at that. You’re probably right, though it does seem an odd mistake. I certainly couldn’t find any reference to Chapel le Dale being called ‘Patterdale’ at one time.

  12. This is so sad – all the children and families. The bridge looks amazing but such a cost. The countryside there is really beautiful! ❤️

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