Dairying has been at the heart of the Wensleydale economy since records began and is still thriving today. The legacy of this dairying heritage is all around, from barns and milk churn stands to cheese press stones and dairies. Evidence from prehistoric farmsteads and field boundaries hints at the farming of cattle since at least the Iron Age.
Visitors come from all over the world to enjoy Wensleydale’s beautiful scenery and also sample the products of the famous local dairying industry, from the eponymous cheese through to ice creams, cream teas; curd tarts and locally churned butter.
The Dairy Days project aims to research and share the story of the industry that helped shaped Wensleydale’s landscape and which still plays such an important part in the local economy. The project is funded by the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority with a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Follow the Dairy Days blog to find out how we get on and how you can get involved.
For further information, contact the Dairy Days project manager on 01756 751619 or email@example.com
In our recent blog post Milking in the Fields we decided that, at least from the nineteenth century, men and boys were most likely to found hand milking the cows out in the fields in Wensleydale, while the women of the farm ran the dairy.
However, there are always exceptions to any rule, and local historian Ian Spensley has just sent us this wonderful photograph of his grandmother Annie Spensley, off to milk her cows at Castle Bolton some time in the 1930s.
“My grandmother was in service during the 1890’s first at Fountain Farm in Booze in Arkengarthdale and then at Yorescot near Bainbridge before marrying and settling in Castle Bolton. Like many other young women she spent much of her time in the dairy.”
She has a typical Dales backcan or budget made of tin on her back and carries two metal milking pails. Notice that she is also apparently wearing wooden-soled clogs, a vital bit of equipment when the ground was muddy or covered in cow muck.
Our first training afternoon took place last Monday at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes. Five people joined us, with one other not able to come but interested in coming along on another day.
The aim of the session was to introduce people to the dairying collections at the museum and then look at the ways we might research the stories, people and places behind a selection of them.
We started with a brief introduction to the Dairy Days project and then we had a look round the ‘Life and Tradition’ exhibition and discussed the materials and makers behind items like the tin back can and a pottery stand churn.
We also had a look at the permanent displays and talked about the farms and families associated with some of the items.
Most of us are familiar with the idea of a haystack, even if it’s just the idea of looking for a needle in one. However, it’s been a long time since outdoor stacks of loose hay have been seen in Wensleydale. Ensuring a sufficient supply of nutritious sweet hay to feed cows and sheep with over the winter has been a problem from the earliest times for Yorkshire Dales farmers. The winter weather being what it is, stacks had to be protected as much as possible to prevent the hay from going mouldy and rotting.
The stone field barns we are so familiar with had the dual purpose of both housing cattle in winter and protecting their winter feed supply in the large hay mew.
Have you ever been held up by a herd of cows being slowly walked up the road to be milked? It’s still a common sight in Wensleydale during the summer when the cows are grazing outdoors. Twice a day, come rain or shine they are driven to the milking parlour and then brought back out to their pasture. A hundred years ago however, and this would have been a rare sight.
The development of mechanised milking parlours centralised the process of milking after the Second World War along with increasingly stringent hygiene rules and regulations, but one might have expected that walking cows to the farm to be milked, even by hand, would have been much less hard work than carrying gallons of milk back from the cows in the fields, as was actually the case during the summer months in Wensleydale in times gone by.
Monday 18th June 2-4pm
Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes DL8 3NT
Join us for an afternoon delving into the stories behind the dairying objects held at our museum, finding out how they were made and used and how we might connect them up with the descendants of the families that once owned them.
We’ll be exploring the MacFie and Calvert archive with the research room team at the museum, looking round the exhibitions and chatting about the various ways that you can help us research these stories for the project.
Most of us know a version of the folk song with the line “…it’s dabbling in the dew that makes the milk maids fair” and we may imagine that in the distant past, groups of sleepy girls in mob caps and white aprons would be seen heading out on summer mornings to hand milk the cows in the fields.
However, from the evidence we’ve gathered so far, this does not seem to have been the case in Wensleydale at all. It was much more likely that you would have seen men and even boys heading out with their milking stools and tin pails. Marie Hartley & Joan Ingilby describe ‘the men who graze cows’ on Preston Pasture:
Farmer David Hodgson has been in contact to tell us about an old milk cooling device that he still has on his farm in Askrigg. Fiona from our Dales Countryside Museum went out to see it and to have a chat. It turns out to be rather a fine bit of kit – milk straight from the cow was cooled by running it over a ribbed metal surface – water was pumped through the inside of the device to keep the metal cool on the outside.
From the manufacturer’s mark we can see that the cooler was manufactured by R A Lister & Co Ltd of Dursley in Gloucestershire and that it was known as the ‘Mor-Na-Les’ . Gloucestershire was of course one of the great dairying counties of England. The company was founded in 1867 and also manufactured a popular cream separator known as the ‘Alexandra Cream Separator’ along with wooden butter barrels and milk churns.
The Hodgsons were famous for their ‘Lowlands’ pedigree Northern Dairy Shorthorns and we snapped these pics of some of David’s photos of their prize winning animals.
Semen from the bull calf in these photos is still stored in the Rare Breeds archive apparently. He was called ‘Lowlands Sunrise’ and is listed on the online Shorthorn Register as having sired 17 progeny so far, the most recent in 2016, and called ‘Bradden Sunrise’. Farmer and cheese-maker Andrew Hattan, from Nidderdale sent us this recent photo of him. He’s hoping to use this bull’s semen on his own shorthorn cows.
We look forward to spending time with both David and Andrew hearing about their prize-winning pedigree animals.
In our last blog post ‘Traditional cheese making‘, we touched on the crucial role that women played in the farmhouse dairy in years gone by. It was their craft skills, industry and attention to detail that resulted in cheeses which, when sold provided a substantial part of a Wensleydale dairy farm’s income. The men-folk stuck to the management of the dairy herd and farmland and seem at least in Wensleydale to have done the bulk of the milking. The dairy and the cheese room were apparently the realm of the women, usually a wife, daughter or well-qualified dairy maid.
We’ve just thoroughly enjoyed watching The Courtyard Dairy’s Cheese Chat Video featuring Lancashire cheese maker Graham Kirkham talking about his family’s cheese making traditions. He describes how his grandmother passed on her cheese making knowledge to his mother and how, after years of cheese making he finds himself coming full circle with a return to the more traditional styles of cheese that his grandmother had been making all those years earlier.
This reminded us of an interview with Kit Calvert that we’ve had passed to us from an unidentified publication.
It’s titled ‘The King of Wensleydale’. We’ll be writing more about the crucial role that Kit Calvert played in saving the Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes later, but for the moment it’s interesting to read what he had to say about traditional cheese making in Wensleydale:
Many of us will have happy memories of reading Johanna Spyri’s ‘Heidi’ published in 1881, where the young heroine joins her grandfather high in the Swiss mountains as he and young Peter look after a herd of milk goats grazing on the sweet Alpine pastures.
In the winter when the snows arrived, the goats were brought back down to the shelter of the valley bottom farms. This is an ancient practice known as transhumance where members of a community or farming family (often the youngsters) took their animals (cows mainly in the UK but also sheep and goats) some distance from the family farm to graze them on remote pastures during the summer months. They lived with their beasts, milking them daily and bringing the milk or cheese made up on the hills regularly back to the main farm or village.
A really important part of the Dairy Days project will be investigating and recording the archaeological evidence for early cattle farming in Wensleydale. One of the most interesting sites we already know about dates to the Bronze Age (c. 2500 until c. 800 BC) and lies on Burton Moor.
The aerial photograph shows this fascinating site really clearly.
“Mr J. Swales, born 1874, of Low Wood, near Pateley Bridge, remembers a family story of his grandfather, born about 1812, going to Ripon to see a wise woman because the butter would not come, and she gave him some horseshoe nails in a bottle to be buried in the churchyard. Similarly, Margaret Little of Lowlands, Askrigg, Wensleydale, used to put a poker across the top of her stand churn to keep witches away” Hartley & Ingilby (1997 2nd ed p17)
We have historic records for dairying in Wensleydale going back to the medieval era but by that time people had already been milking cows, sheep and goats for thousands of years.
The very first farmers are associated with the Neolithic period. People were still using stone tools then, but they gradually stopped hunting and gathering their food and settled down to grow crops and farm animals. The first people to start farming lived in the so-called Fertile Crescent in the Near East, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago (read more in this article from ScienceMag.)
They domesticated wild goats and sheep and also wild cattle known as Aurochs around 10,500 years ago. Archaeologists studying a fascinating range of evidence believe that using the milk from these animals began almost immediately and over the following two thousand years, dairying spread, along with farmers from western Anatolia (modern Turkey) throughout northern Europe.
One of our contacts has forwarded some excerpts from old Yorkshire newspapers about cheese making in Wensleydale. They date to around the turn of the last century and offer a fascinating insight into how seriously the manufacture of Wensleydale cheese and butter was taken locally.
One article titled ‘Blue Moulded Cheese’ dated 27th July 1911 quotes a gentleman called Mr John Benson writing in the Journal of the British Dairy Farmers’ Association as follows:
Our Dairy Days project is funded by both the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and most importantly, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).
This means that if you play the lottery, then you are funding wonderful community projects like this one. We’re very keen to thank the people that contribute to our work so at last week’s Dairy Days launch event we presented a piece of delicious Yorkshire Wensleydale Cheese to the first five National Lottery players who turned up with a recent ticket. We snapped photos of two of them!
We’ve been very busy sorting though all the amazing information, contacts, photos and objects that people brought in to share with us last week at the project launch. We had such a wonderful and productive day with lots of people turning up throughout the day to talk to us.
Just a quick blog about the fantastic launch event we had this week. Lots of fantastically interesting people turned up with photos; memorabilia; stories and some excellent questions for us to investigate.
We took lots of photos and a couple of videos which we’ll share next week. In the meantime here are some pics of the lovely National Lottery players who turned up to claim their free piece of Yorkshire Wensleydale Cheese. Congratulations and THANK YOU!
We mentioned the 50th anniversary reissue of Marie Hartley & Joan Ingilby’s book ‘Life & Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales’ in our last blog post. We got the chance to have a look round the accompanying exhibition at the Dales Countryside Museum yesterday and thoroughly enjoyed seeing their handwritten notes and wonderful sketches about dairying in the National Park.
The Wensleydale Creamery have teamed up with Welcome to Yorkshire to feature artisan cheese-making at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. A little stone bothy will feature traditional cheese-making all set in a Yorkshire Dales National Park themed garden. What a great way to tell the story of our local cheese!
One of the most important sources of information about traditional dairying in the Yorkshire Dales is Marie Hartley & Joan Ingilby’s book ‘Life & Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales’. The pair recorded and photographed life in the area during the 1930s when the last farmhouse cheeses were being made and people still milked by hand.