We have found yet more evidence for late seventeenth century cowhouses in the Muker Manorial Court Books in the shape of the cowhouse on Jordan Close near Thwaite which changed tenant in 1688.
This field took a bit of hunting down as the transcription we have for the 1841 Tithe Map had no field with that number shown. However after a careful search back through the original Tithe Map photos we found what we were looking for just north of Aygill; field no 549 Jordan Close with the cowhouse marked with a red cross below, the tiny field west of it was called Piece and the field west of that was called Jordan Head. In 1841 they were owned by a James Alderson and occupied by one Nanny Alderson – the same family name as the 1688 tenant.
The cowhouse still stands at the end of the tiny field called Piece – whether it is the original 1688 building will need checking by an expert of course. Our Historic Environment Record suggests that it is eighteenth century but enlarged later on.
None of the cowhouses out in the fields around Muker parish had a water supply so at least once, sometimes twice a day during the winter months, someone had to go round every one and let the cows out so they could drink at a nearby well or stream.
“….we had to let them out in a morning to let them go find some water, and then give them some more hay and then go and bring them in again…twice a day, morning and night . [Did they come back in willingly?] Well, mostly! You had to give them a bit of time… they obviously wanted a bit of exercise as well, but by the time you got your little jobs done, it was probably time for them to come back anyway…we’d no electricity or anything like that, so you had to do it before it got dark.”
Elsie Metcalfe (nee Scott) (83) formerly of Park House Farm, Keld
Once you know what you are looking for it’s worth trying to spot the water source near each cowhouse. Here are a few we’ve photographed recently:
“He kept a couple of cows at Lile Hill cow-house, which lies in the direction of Crake Nest and Love Lane. Whenever he went to milk or fodder them he had to pass Pith Hill cow-house, and this is said to be haunted by an unmusical choir of fiendish imps, whose sole plea for existence is to terrorise the countryside with their unearthly songs”
Arthur Harwood Brierley Leeds Mercury 1879
We’ve now (rather excitingly) managed to track down the cow’us itself. A bit of research on the 1841 Tithe map found two fields side by side called Far & Near Pithill with a cow’us still standing – in fact we’d walked past it last week when doing some research for our walk leaflets.
It does look a little imposing doesn’t it? The lane the story calls Love Lane is the one which now carries the Pennine Way north out of Muker and it takes you past this cow’us and a field called Crows Nest which we assume is the Crake Nest in the story.
So, which cow’us was Lile Hill, the one belonging to Raymond? There are two candidates: the first is indeed up on a little hill, to the left hand side of the lane, but the field it sits in was called Spring Brow in the nineteenth century. The second candidate lies at the end of the lane in a field called Little Long Ings. We may never know but we’d like to think it’s the ruined cow’us up on Spring Brow – left deserted after the imps drove Raymond to his death there.
Keld Resource Centre are keen to spread to word about the Every Barn… project and encourage people to come and stay in the Muker area, so we have bought them a really useful and portable display unit from CleverFrame which has just arrived. We’re very pleased with it and can’t wait to have a play with it.
A designer is on with creating the panels to go with it and then the full display will be ‘on tour’ over the summer. We will also adapt it to show videos about the project towards the end of the year – more news on these soon.
“We’ve always had them, these buildings… Used to have cows in… They were tied up by the neck…chained, weren’t they, round the neck… And next door there was hay…there was hay at one side and mebbe on top, on baux, hay on that as well, above the cows, there was a little bit.”
Sidney & Betty Reynoldson (82 & 81), of Thwaite
For farmers Sidney and Betty Reynoldson, the stone cowhouse has been part of the landscape of Upper Swaledale for ever. But this of course isn’t true and one of the strands of the project is to try and work out when the stone cowhouses first started appearing and what people used before they were built.
A really useful source of information is the early Court Books for the manors of Muker & Healaugh. A researcher has painstakingly transcribed them all and the Swaledale & Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group has helpfully made this work available online here . This is an absolute goldmine because every time a copyholder transferred ownership of land, it was recorded in the Court Book and these parcels of land were named and the cowhouses also recorded.
This extract is from the book for July 1696 and shows that there was a cowhouse on a Close called Willy Green in Keld & Angram at that date. It seems very likely that this is the field called Willy Greens today which still has a cowhouse on it. Our Historic Environment Record (HER) dates it to the middle of the eighteenth century but suggests that it may have had its roof raised – often a sign that a roof was once thatched. The alternative suggestion is that the cow’us recorded in the 1696 Court Book might have been a much earlier timber and stone cruck building with a thatched roof and that the current stone cow’us was built to replace it in the eighteenth century. We now need to send a historic building specialist out to give it a closer look.
And what is the earliest evidence for a cow’us that we have found so far? It’s one on a meadow called Mell Becks in Thwaite recorded in the 1686 Court Book.
We hunted for this field name on the 1841 Muker Tithe Apportionments lists. A job made much easier through the work of the guys on the Gunnerside.info website who have transcribed the whole thing. Up until now we’ve been struggling through the microfiche copies which look like this!
Mellbecks turns out to be a meadow with a cowhouse on it still, as yet undated in the HER. Another one that we need to take a closer look at!
Cowhouses were usually just seen as places of work around Muker and although people tell us that they could be a bit creepy as night fell, we weren’t really surprised that we haven’t come across any stories of supernatural happenings ………until now, that is, when we stumbled across this old story recounted by Will Swales on his informative Swaledale blog.
Muker schoolmaster’s ghostly adventure, by Arthur Harwood Brierley
Raymond was a fair specimen of a village pedagogue. He exhibited many peculiarities, though none of that gross cruelty which characterised Squeers, of Dotheboys Hall, at Bowes. He would, for instance, have his boys reciting verses at his desk while he himself daubed away at pictures. He kept a couple of cows at Lile Hill cow-house, which lies in the direction of Crake Nest and Love Lane. Whenever he went to milk or fodder them he had to pass Pith Hill cow-house, and this is said to be haunted by an unmusical choir of fiendish imps, whose sole plea for existence is to terrorise the countryside with their unearthly songs, which can generally be heard at midnight, and always on the anniversary of the murder of a venerable grandsire of the dale.
On one occasion, when Raymond was going to fodder his cattle, the sprites of Pith Hill surprised him by issuing from the door and windows. The schoolmaster, logician and philosopher as he doubtless was, and exorcists as he professed to be, took to his heels, and covered the distance back to Muker in about as much time as it take me to write, when he swooned away on his own doorstep. Two or three nights later he picked up courage to venture again in the direction of his famished cattle at Lile Hill, wisely resolved to bring them nearer home at the very first opportunity. The impish choir saluted him in more swarming numbers than ever. They probably threatened to give him chase in the direction of Lile Hill, but it was not long before he outdistanced them.
That night his friends missed him, for he did not return. Next morning, moved by suspicion, they began to search for him. They found him lying dead between his two cows. Truer fact never was, and all Muker knows it. Pith Hill cow-house is still a spot to be dreaded on dark nights, and it requires more courage than ever a six-foot man can usually muster to pass the spot.
We now just need to see if we can identify the cowhouses mentioned in the story!
Will publishes the full Arthur Harwood Brierley 1897 article about Muker here and it’s well worth a read.
We’ve noticed these little buildings in and around Muker and have been told that they are called ‘step-ups’ – a sort of mini-cowhouse. We’re not so sure, they look a bit more like workshops to us or maybe stables for a horse below, with a hay loft above, up the steps – more research needed!
We had a look round the little village of Thwaite last week. It features on one of our trails and we wanted to check out how many agricultural buildings you walked past on the proposed route. This little cow’us caught our eye, right beside the roadside.
We assume that in days gone by, tourists staying perhaps at local campsites, could call into the farm here and buy milk fresh from the cow. Those were the days!
We also love this little anecdote (there is a well-known campsite at Usha Gap farm):
“The stories used to be…if a young farm lad had had a rough night, the night before, hard work getting up, but get up, go out into the warm [in the cow’uss], get his head into a cow, sat on a stool milking, able to nod off again…just milking the cow, the warmth of the cow”
A tumbled-down ruin has a story to tell all of its own. It might be about a family tragedy or it might be about widespread economic changes. A short walk along the Pennine Way north of Muker offers tantalising hints of some of these stories.
Leaving the Corpse Way as it winds up the side of Kisdon Hill towards Keld, you enter an old lane, that was once hedged.
Below you are fine views of Muker Meadows and their cowhouses. The large flat meadows produced lots of hay so the cowhouses were built big to store it all. Interestingly, the farmer has adapted them by removing the stalls and other fittings and still keeps his cattle in them over the winter.
Walk on a little further and look up to your left and you see a very different picture – small, steep fields each one with a tiny ruined cowhouse in it. Some are being reclaimed by scrub and all the fields are full of woodland flowers such as primroses and dogs mercury.
Such tiny marginal meadows must have been cut out from woodland, their walls built from stone cleared out of the fields themselves by hand – a back breaking job. They would then have needed plenty of hands to help cut the hay each year and spread the muck – look at those steep slopes. One has to admire how tough and hard working the families who survived here must have been.
The cowusses are small but substantially built with well-cut masonry. Many locals particularly from the nearby deserted settlement at Hartlakes probably earned part of their living working in the leadmines across the Swale. Some would have developed masonry skills as a result which may explain why these cowusses are so well-made.
When that industry began to fail towards the end of the nineteenth century, small, marginal farms were no longer viable and these little buildings were eventually left empty and uncared for as the families that once used them left. The woodland has now begun to creep back and reclaim their meadows and the roofs of the cowhouses have fallen in.
We’ve already mentioned Kierton (or is it spelt Kearton?) cowhouse and how it got the nickname ‘Lightning House’ when it was struck by a bolt of lightning in a previous blog post. Researcher Glenda Calvert has been out and about talking to the local farmers and she has discovered that it actually has a third name – ‘Burnt Down Spot’.
Several people still remember the day it happened:
“I can remember, there was thunderstorm, and we were having tea in the kitchen and we see’ed, like a bolt of lightening come down, just up on Kisdon there. Then after, not very long after, see a plume of smoke going up. So we went up to see what had happened. It [the barn] had been struck. Then fire brigade came and knocked windows out, then…it went faster than ever! [laughs]…slates were exploding like…yeah, y’didn’t go so near!”