Dating early cowhouses – Willy Greens

One of the questions we are hoping to answer during the project is when the first cowhouses appeared in Upper Swaledale. We’ve already found written evidence for cowhouses built in meadows from 1686 to 1701 in the Muker & Healaugh Manorial Court Books . Yesterday we went out with Sue Wrathmell, our historic building specialist for the project and with the kind permission of the owners explored two of the earliest cowhouses that we found in those Court Books, Willy Greens and Jordan Close.

Willy Greens was the first building we looked round. We have recorded the memories of Billy Hutchinson who milked cows there with his father:

 “Well, they’d be in in September and they’d be right in I would think until first of June …we had to milk them by hand of course in the early stages, and then we got a milking machine and that made life easier …[so you milked the cows in the stalls, tied up?]…yes, tied up all the time…milked them just once a day. We had water bowls in…for the milk cows anyway. The other ones, the young stock had to go to the beck round about.”

Bill (Billy) Hutchinson (81) formerly Cathole Inn & Keld Green

It was therefore fascinating to go inside the building and see how the Hutchinsons had made improvements to the milking area, concrete boskins, whitewashed walls and the baulks above boarded out.

The building itself seemed to fit the mid-eighteenth date given in our Historic Environment Record, the evidence for a raised roof mentioned in the original survey is probably evidence of a replacement roof being added at some point later in its life, and not a sign that there was an earlier thatched roof. The building sits on a massive stone plinth which might be evidence for an earlier cowhouse on the site (the one recorded in the Court Book dates to 1696). However, even more interesting was the piece of timber used as a lintel over the forking hole. With the use of a strong torch we discovered that it had a joint cut into it and even more exciting, it had carpenter’s marks. This means that it was a piece of wood reused from a much older timber-framed building, probably medieval or Tudor, a time when timber was plentiful and people were able to use huge pieces to construct buildings with. The timber frame was assembled off site, marked up, disassembled, taken onto the building site and reassembled using the marks as a guide.

The question is, did this timber come from the cowhouse recorded as being there in 1696, a timber-framed one, which was then demolished and rebuilt in its current stone form during the eighteenth century?

Example of a cruck-framed barn

Or is the building we see today actually late seventeenth century and built using timber parts from a much older house nearby? The seventeenth century is known as the period of the Great Rebuild – all over the Yorkshire Dales timber cruck-framed houses were torn down and rebuilt in stone. The timber from the cruck-frames was often reused in the roofs of these houses, by that time big bits of timber were too precious to be simply discarded.

So many questions! We then moved on to look at Jordan Close – see the next blog post…

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