The poster on the wall of the Swaledale Museum invited one and all to a ‘Shortest Day Celebration’ at Gunnerside Methodist Church on December 21st. An intriguing prospect four days before Christmas with its own message of new life and light. The poster dated from the mid years of the last century and can be found in this excellent small museum housed in the former Methodist Sunday School Room in Reeth, the largest village in this most northerly of the Yorkshire Dales. At one time each village in the dale boasted an impressive Methodist chapel, but despite its rich non-conformist heritage, only one remains in use today.
Visitors are lured to Swaledale by its rugged beauty and grandeur, and on a long, warm summer’s day there is hardly a better place to be as experienced over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend. But the midwinter solstice is likely to be characterised by very poor weather and transport problems. The nearby A66 is one of the first major roads to be hit by snowdrifts each winter and the Tan Hill pub, just up the road at 1,700 feet above sea level, prone to being cut off.
So what is there to celebrate at this nadir of the year, especially with Christmas just around the corner? The museum offered no explanation, but other posters hinted at celebrations of the rhythms of rural life, springtime and harvest festivals for example, and so perhaps this celebration was about the certainty that things could only get better over the coming months. Our hymnology is full of references to light shining out of darkness and its promise of hope and joy.
The image of a candle has been prominent in the presentations used to illustrate the learning from the Past Cases Review. One survivor likened the process to enabling some light to come into their world, offering a beacon of hope. Farmers in Swaledale could no doubt celebrate the shortest day, sure in the knowledge that the seasons would roll around again. Sadly for many who have experienced abuse, it’s not at all clear for them when that corner will be turned. Looking for lighter days remains a challenge.