Mill Gill meadows and cowhouses

The hot sunny weather means that cutting and baling winter fodder is now in full-swing in Wensleydale. We were reminded during a walk up Mill Gill in Askrigg, of how important the old stone barns or cowhouses once were for storing the summer hay crop in order to feed the cattle tethered inside over the long winter months.

Of course nowadays the field barns are mostly empty and it’s more likely to be silage being made rather than hay.

Dairy Days: oral history trainer appointed

We’d like to welcome Dr Tracy Craggs to the Dairy Days team. She’s been appointed to help us train a small number of people to conduct the oral history interviews which will form the backbone of the project. We’ll be posting the training dates shortly so watch this space.

Tracy has sent us a short bio:

Dr Tracy Craggs has worked in the field of oral history for more than twenty years, both interviewing a wide variety of people with different stories to tell, and training others to capture memories. She has worked for the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association for ten years, recording survivors and their families, interviewed members of the armed forces, young and the not so young, and worked extensively with a large number of organisations and community groups including English Heritage, the Royal Armouries and the Oscars. Her most relevant experience for this project is working for the Yorkshire Museum of Farming for three years, being fortunate to meet and interview farmers and their families about their working lives and their hopes for the future. Despite not knowing one end of a cow from the other, after three years she could discuss the problems of slurry disposal with a dairy farmer! Tracy is really looking forward to working with staff and volunteers and to contribute towards the success of this exciting and worthwhile project.”

A Wensleydale milk maid

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.

Courtesy of Ian Spensley

He writes:

“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.

Read more about Annie in Ian Spensley‘s oral history blogpost.

Training event: researching museum objects

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.

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Stackstands and stackgarths

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.

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Walking the cows to milk

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.

Herding cows, Thornton Rust. Collection of the Dales Countryside Museum
The Allen family children herding their cows down to be milked, Scaur Head Farm, Sleddale 1990s. Photo by John Forder. Courtesy of Debbie Allen

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.

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Wensleydale Dairy Days Project training event

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.

Let us know if you plan on coming along as places are limited. Contact Karen Griffiths on 01756 751619 or

Milking in the fields

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:

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An old milk cooler from Askrigg

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.

David Hodgson with his milk cooler
Manufacturer’s mark on milk cooler








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.

Bradden Sunrise, son of Lowlands Sunrise

We look forward to spending  time with both David and Andrew hearing about their prize-winning pedigree animals.


Women in the dairy

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.

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Traditional cheesemaking

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:

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Shielings and summer pastures

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.

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Early cattle farmers in Wensleydale

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.

Burton Moor settlement

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Dairying folklore

We have been doing a little research into the superstitions surrounding dairying after we read this in Marie Hartley & Joan Ingilby’s book ‘Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales‘:

“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)

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The First Dairy Farmers

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 Middle 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.

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Cheese fit for a Queen

Redmire Pastures 1910. With permission of The National Archives

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:

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National Lottery players win cheese!

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!


Dairy Days Launch Event

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!


New Dairy Days logo

We are delighted to say that the project now has a easy-to-use logo designed for us by the talented Mike Lewis over at The Archipelago Leeds.

We sent him lots of ideas involving grass, buttercups, churn stands, old milk bottles and milk kits and in the end he chose the latter, along with a font based on one used on a local milk bottle.

Photo of an old milk bottle from collection at Dales Countryside Museum

The drops of milk spilling out also reminded us a little of buttercup petals.

Look out for the new logo appearing all over the place soon!


Dairy Days Project Launch

We are launching our new Dairy Days project on Tuesday 24 April, 10.30am to 3pm, at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes.

  • Was your family involved in dairying and have you got memories, photos or stories that you’d like to share?
  • Are you interested in finding out about archaeological sites, old buildings or even going on a dig?
  • Do you have dairying bygones you can tell us about? Come along and see some of the ones we have at the Museum
  • Do you make your own cheese, yoghurt or kefir? Share your favourite recipes, hints and tips
  • Do you run a visitor business selling, making or serving dairy-based food? We’d like to work with you!

Continue reading “Dairy Days Project Launch”

Dairy Days

Welcome to our new blog for the Wensleydale Dairy Days project.

Follow us over the next two years as we discover and celebrate the importance and longevity of dairy farming in this iconic valley.