There was something about the corrugated iron hut which marked it out from the other buildings around the small, remote farmhouse which stood alone up on the Yorkshire Wolds. It was set slightly apart. It had presence. It stopped you in your tracks and made you stand back and look at it. The door felt like an invitation. It was a little bit too ornate, too special, firmly closed with wild greenery surrounding it. It looked as if nobody had been inside for a very long time. It looked as if it was waiting for something. There were no front windows but when I poked my camera lens under the hole at the bottom of the door I saw something which astonished me when I looked at the screen, something that I had not expected. This is what I saw.
It wasn’t a farm outbuilding at all. It was a little chapel. A tiny tin tabernacle, probably built along with the many others which appeared across the country back in the second half of the nineteenth century when employers believed that their workers had souls and it was part of their duty as an employer to nourish them. Corrugated iron was readily available and cheap to erect as a prefabricated building and it meant that a place of worship was on hand at a time when there was little leisure to allow your workers off site to go and find a church. When we tried the door again it opened and we were able to step back in time and go inside. The fittings were still there, intact, abandoned under a pall of dust and even a list of hymns was posted, hymns which had been silent for decades, waiting for the promised service. The pulpit had also waited patiently for a preacher who would never arrive. It was a place to wonder about, a place for questions. When had those last few services been held? Who came and why? Did they come willingly? Did they believe? Was it faith, duty, coercion or fear which motivated those who worshipped there? Had it been built by the farmer out of religious fervour or a simple desire to do right by those who worked for him? Had he been persuaded by those who told him of the possibility of bringing godliness to his workers along with an accompaying ethos of hard work and servility that would prove useful? The reasons for the building’s existence, reasons which would once have been well known and thought of with pride and satisfaction, are now lost in time. It has been left to speak for itself, a fleeting time capsule from an unfamiliar world.
As I stood there in the half light there were no answers. Only the building itself could have told me but it remained true to the deep silence which it had kept for so long. Something of the quiet contemplation of its past remained in its battered solemnity. It continued to speak of God, even though it was alone and uncared for, even though people were no longer listening. It had kept its dignity. Perhaps that is why it was still there.
A serious house on serious earth it is, In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, Are recognized, and robed as destinies. And that much never can be obsolete, Since someone will forever be surprising A hunger in himself to be more serious, And gravitating with it to this ground, Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in, If only that so many dead lie round. From Church Going. Philip Larkin.