ONE of the unlikeliest churchmen ever to grace the Dales retires this week.

The Rev Al Hodge, Upper Wharfedale Chaplain and based at Burnsall, didn't even believe in God as a younger man.

"I wasn't an agnostic, but a full blown atheist. I decided that God did not exist," he told the Herald in a Dales Folk interview back in 1999.

He took up his chaplaincy eight years ago and arrived via a parish in Widnes.

That sojourn came after many years as a policeman in Liverpool, including a stint in the vice squad, which was, indirectly, to lead to him becoming a "man of God".

One night a car was stolen. It was traced to a tinkers' camp and the then Sgt Hodge sent a car off to pick up the vehicle's owner.

Not until they got him home, was it discovered the owner was an Anglican priest and he invited Sgt Hodge and his men round for dinner one night.

It led to a close friendship and then to 18 months of consideration before Mr Hodge decided to retire from the police and take an ordination course at night.

Together with his wife, Anne, he arrived at Burnsall to minister to the needs of a flock spread out across nine parishes in Upper Wharfedale. And he's loved every minute of his time in the Dales.

"I have found folk for the most part to be very warm and welcoming and I would not have missed this for all the tea in China," he said.

One of the highlights was being able to minister at Parcevall Hall, - the Bradford Diocesan retreat, famous for its gardens.

"Life in the Dales has been good. Now I am looking forward to retirement and helping my wife Anne to build up the gardens in the house we have just bought in Bacup.

"And, even though I have retired from paid ministry, I hope to get involved at the church as well," added Mr Hodge.

His farewell service will take place at St Wilfrid's, Burnsall, on Sunday at 10.30am.