Oral History Recording: Frances Coates

Frances is one of our younger contributors to the Dairy Days project. She works for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and farms with her husband up at the far end of Widdale. She was interviewed by Stuart Barron late last year.

“ I’ve lived here for about 35 years now, since I got married…I can remember when I first came here that our cows were all in the barns, they were still in the barns, so it was my job in the morning t’let cows out, t’muck them out, t’let them out of the barns t’have a drink, feed them…I had t’walk all round the fields t’do that. So that would be about 35 years ago. Since then, we’ve now got big sheds so they’re all in big sheds so y’don’t have t’do that.”
Frances Coates (56), of Redshaw Farm, Widdale

Frances Coates
Frances Coates

The cows that Frances was feeding when she first arrived weren’t dairy cows however, they were suckler cows used to raise beef animals. The farm did once have dairy cows of course, but they were long gone by the time she came to live there.

“I don’t remember dairying as such on the farm, in the shippons that there are the old air pipelines, so they did milk, many years ago…a shippon is where a cow lives.”

However, Frances was one of the generation of people during the 1970s who were inspired by ideas of self-sufficiency epitomised in the television series ‘The Good Life.’ As a young mum of four she couldn’t go out to work but was keen to save money by raising and growing as much of her own food as she could. High up in Widdale her vegetable plot didn’t always do well but it’s good land for raising cattle so she decided to buy a Jersey cow off a friend. At first it didn’t go well:

“She was called Sandy. I got her home to discover that she had inverted teats, so when I tried t’milk her, it didn’t come out in streams, it came out in a big fan and soaked everything and everyone, didn’t go in bucket. So I persevered for several weeks, trying t’milk this cow. I’ve never milked a cow by hand, I was doing it by hand, before. I’ve usually ended up crying most of the time ‘cos I couldn’t do it!”

Luckily they heard of someone with a small milking machine and unit for sale so they bought that and all then went well. Frances grew very fond of Sandy the cow as she recalls in the following audio clip.

Frances Coates talks about Sandy the Jersey cow

“Because I only milked her once a day, so when she had a calf, we left the calf, we tied the calf…we just sectioned the calf off overnight, so it was away from the cow overnight, and I milked her in the morning ‘cos she’d filled up with milk overnight and then after I’d finished milking we’d let the calf out and she finished off anything I hadn’t got out and we left it with her all day so we managed t’keep the calf with her really, so we did it that way.”

They didn’t have Sandy for very long but quickly brought in a replacement called Rosie. She was a dairy shorthorn and just like in the old days she was docile enough to be milked out in the fields without the need for tying her up.

“… she was a nice cow as well. I could milk her by hand without the machine, so I used t’just go out into the field with m’bucket and milk her in the middle of the field, y’know, through the summer, she was great, just stand there. I’d give her a few nuts in a bucket just t’keep her still and then she’d munch away and I’d milk her as quickly as I could before she’d finished!”

A farmer milking in the fields near Carperby. 1950s. Photo by Bertrand Unne. Courtesy of North Yorkshire County Council Archives

The milk was mostly used in the house but Frances also decided to learn how to make cheese, butter and yoghurt. There was no-one around to tell her how to do it so she learned from books and through trial and error.

…well it’s quite hard actually finding out just how t’do all these things, so initially, I had t’get some sort of equipment. I’d managed to buy a big sort of boiler, which I used t’warm the cheese up t’the right temperature and then the rennet and the starter needs t’go in at certain times, so yes, so I haven’t done it for a long time, I’d have t’look at books again now, but I did make, it was nice cheese. I used t’press it and…y’have t’wait a couple of months before you can try it and it’s really hard waiting, before y’can actually try it.”

It sounds as if the cheese was worth the wait as she discusses the flavour and texture with Stuart in the following audio clip:

Frances and Stuart discuss the type of cheese she produced

Making cheese was complicated and it took a long time to end up with a finished product. Butter-making was quicker but still hard work and for not much reward.

“Y’don’t get an awful lot of butter from it, and you’d need t’skim the cream off the top really, of the milk. And it depends on the weather as well as t’how quickly it turns into butter. If it’s too warm it goes all sloppy and it’s hard, and if it’s too cold, it takes a long time to churn, so y’just sort of want it at the right temperature really, t’get it, well I can’t remember just exactly how much y’get, but y’don’t get an awful lot from the cream really. Y’can use the buttermilk later for making scones and things like that. Plus we had pigs at that time as well, so all my cheese… stuff that was left over…the whey, I used t’feed t’the pigs… “

Frances only ever had one dairy cow at a time. If necessary they would pinch a bit of milk off one of the suckler cows to put in their tea but there wouldn’t be enough to make cheese. When her last cow died she continued to make cheese from bought-in milk for a while.

“I did buy some milk at one point off a friend who lives in Ireby and he has Montbéliarde cows and they’ve got quite a high buttermilk…they’re quite popular among dairy farmers nowadays because you get a good yield off them, and they’re generally brown and white rather than black and white, and you might get a better beef cow off them as well. So for a while I bought milk off him as well and made [cheese]…when I lost my cows.”

Frances has also passed on her enthusiasm for making cheese to friends including the Hattons over in Nidderdale who are now making delicious raw milk Stonebeck cheese commercially from their small herd of dairy shorthorns.

“…they went off and did some big courses…I wouldn’t say that I showed them how to do it but I definitely enthused them and made them think it was possible to do. I think they hadn’t really given it much thought before then. I think they thought, ‘if Fran can do it, so can we!’ “

Although she doesn’t have a dairy cow on the farm now she wouldn’t say no to getting one in the future. She clearly really enjoyed her dairying experiences.

“My first cow, Sandy, I loved her to bits. She was the nicest cow you’ve ever come across, so I did used t’sing to her when I was milking her…I used t’sing ‘Sandy’ out of Grease, I’m not going to sing it [now]. Bit repetitive, I only know one verse! So that’s my experience of cows. I do like cows…I haven’t got a cow now, I haven’t time, because they’re very time-consuming. I’m working too much t’be able to do it really.”

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