A history of Keld
In 1789 a young preacher called Edward Stillman walked into the ruins of an earlier chapel at Keld. He planted his stick among the weeds and rubble, saying: ‘Here will I have my chapel and here will I preach the Gospel.’
Although a chapel of some kind is recorded in Keld as early as 1540, little is known of it. An unendowed chapel of ease with no preacher was reported to a survey of Grinton Parish in 1658. Clearly it was little used because by 1706 it was in ruins. One reason for this could be that nonconformity of all persuasions was strong in Swaledale from the time of the Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660.
Independency (later known as Congregationalism) was one non-conforming tradition which became established in the dale in the late-17th century, when the persecution of nonconformists was at its height. It was under the protection of Lord Wharton of Kirkby Stephen.
A century later Edward Stillman was preaching in barns and homes in upper Swaledale. He became so highly regarded by local people that they promised to rebuild the Keld chapel if he agreed to stay among them. The chapel, with two adjoining rooms, was built. It cost £700.
Stillman raised the money himself. He walked from Keld to London, asking for contributions on the way. He made the same journey again in 1818 when the chapel became too small for its congregation and had to be enlarged.
He ministered in Keld for 48 years till his death in 1837.
2. NINETEENTH CENTURY HEYDAY
These years were the heyday of the lead mining industry which was at its peak in Swaledale in the mid 19th Century: the scars it left on the landscape are still to be seen. In 1851 there were twice as many lead miners as farmers. Miners still formed a significant proportion of the Swaledale population in 1861 but decline is evident from 1871 to almost nil in 1901.
Keld was a busy place during those years, and much village life centred on the chapel, enlarged again in 1861, which flourished under the leadership of James Wilkinson. A farmer’s son from the village of Howgill, he was self-taught, studying alone, often late at night after a day’s work on the farm, to equip himself for his chosen vocation. From the age of 25 he had been determined to be a preacher. In 1838 he came to Keld and stayed for the rest of his life.
It is easy to see from Wilkinson’s own story how it came about that education was - after the Christian ministry - so important to him. After establishing the Keld day school in 1845, he started a programme for adults in 1854, recruiting thirteen young men (mostly miners and farm labourers) to form the Keld Mutual Intellectual Improvement Society. There were 40 active members in the 1860’s. The classroom and library the members built for themselves in 1861 proved too small and the Institute was enlarged to its present size in 1867.
3. Twentieth Century:
With the end of lead mining, life in Keld changed and for most of the first half of the new century it relied once more on farming. (Coal mining continued at Tan Hill till 1935 but was never a big employer.) The two wars brought significant change. The memorial records the names of four young Keld men who died in the first world war so the farms were without their men in the 1920s and 1930s. There was no electricity before 1953; communication with neighbouring towns and villages was difficult.
It is possible to get an impression of an isolated community much focused on its own concerns. Indeed tensions between different groups in the village came to a head in 1913 over dancing in the Institute on New Year’s Eve, and as a result an additional community meeting place, the Public Hall, was built in 1926.
And so there Keld might have rested, but for two things: the extraordinarily beautiful scenery and, from the end of the second world war, changing attitudes to leisure. In the last 60 years Keld has become a significant destination for outdoor recreation: for example, it is the crossing-point for the Pennine Way (1965) and the Coast-to-Coast walk (1973) and attracts many less ambitious walkers. It features the highest concentration of significant waterfalls in England. Many of the historic meadows are sites of special scientific interest.
- and Renewal
In the mid 1970s the school and the Institute finally closed, leaving two vacant buildings. In a far-sighted move, the church made them available for use, bunk-house style, for groups mainly of young people who came from all over the north and further afield. The Keld Centre only closed when foot and mouth disease closed the countryside in 2001. It never reopened.
The Institute and School, together with the former manse are now in the care of the Keld Resource Centre, a charitable trust working to restore them to fit a 21st century purpose.
The Manse is a comfortable holiday home for up to six, and produces income to support the charity’s work. The Countryside and Heritage Centre in what was the minister’s stable and gig room is very popular, as is the Well-being garden created from an unused part of the graveyard.
After 15 years of disuse, the Institute's former assembly room above the visitor centre was restored in 2016 as a beautiful, modern events and activity space. Groups following their own programme or one organised by the Centre now use the room, which is well suited to study days, seminars, retreats, musical, craft and other creative activities. Accommodation and catering are provided in partnership with existing local providers, ensuring that the Centre contributes to the area’s economy.