Swaledale’s butter & cheese

From the earliest times, the farmers of Upper Swaledale relied on exchanging or selling butter in order to make up for the fact that they couldn’t grow staples such as oats that high up the Dale. Cheese seems to have been made and stored mostly for their own use, though by the end of the nineteenth century it seems to have replaced butter as a sale item, some of it going to feed miners up in the Durham coalfields. In the twentieth century, road and rail transport improved to the point that liquid milk became the item to sell and by 1950 the last Swaledale cheese in Muker had been made for sale. Read more on our earlier blog post about cheese-making.

We would love to know what that cheese was like. Some of our project participants remember their mothers making cheese in the farmhouse dairy of course but we’ve not recorded any recipes or memories of how it tasted. It may have been a pale crumbly cheese a bit like modern Wensleydale.

We were rather pleased to come across this description of local cheese and other dairy products written by Arthur Harwood Brierley  and published in the Leeds Mercury newspaper in 1897:

“Wherever you go in this part of Yorkshire, you are reminded of the state of the German and Russian peasants, whose cries of woes are lusty and endless. It is however quite cheering to hear from the elders over your nip of pale Swaledale cheese at Muker or Keld, “made on the premises,” that Swaledale can supply the market with cheese equal, if not superior, to the widely famous Wensleydale brand. All the way from Keld to Gunnerside the pastures are fairly rich with trefoil and clover, and when spring drops her vernal blessings on the land they bubble up again in yellow cowslips and buttercups all over the pastures. Although Muker has abundant allotment pastures along the Swale, agricultural crops cannot be grown in the parish: straw, wheat and turnips must be carted in from abroad. The greater part of the land is absolute waste, belonging exclusively to sportsman and shepherd.

However, both at the King’s Head and the Queen’s Head I have had plenty of that thick cream “on which a penny would float”: and dishfuls of ham and eggs to perfection. And the living is so cheap that on one occasion I felt ashamed to pay my bill as it stood. The dale farmer lives by his butter and cheese, mutton and wool. “

The tradition of making cheese further down the dale has continued however and the Swaledale Cheese Company claim they preserve the original taste as learned from a Mrs Longstaff from Harkerside above Reeth.  Read more on the Swaledale Cheese Company website.

Swaledale Cheese Company cheese storeroom

The imps of Pith Hill – update

We loved tracking down the locations for Arthur Harwood Brierley’s nineteenth century story about the unmusical imps of Pith Hill cowhouse. Will Swales who first alerted us to the story has now done some further research and seems to have identified the real person behind the unfortunate schoolteacher in the story and why it was that he was so unpopular in Muker. Read all about it on his Swaledale history blog. 

We wondered how people in those days would have pictured an imp and found this wonderful stone carving of a mischievous imp on Lincoln Cathedral – very scary!

Lincoln Cathedral imp

Display panels for businesses: update

All the businesses that ordered our indoor display panels wanted them framed. We’ve chosen a plain oak-style frame which we think looks really nice. We spent yesterday getting the posters all framed up and they are now wrapped in bubble-wrap ready to be delivered to various holiday cottages and tea rooms around Upper Swaledale. Each one has different photos and quotes from our project participants, so they form a unique record of the project for each separate venue.

Cowhouse stories: Dorothy Brown

Sunny days out mowing, drying and bringing in the hay or ‘haytiming’ as it is known up in Swaledale sound like a rather idyllic way to spend your childhood. Years ago, the whole family helped out , it was often a race against the weather to get the mown grass dried off sufficiently and into the hay mew of the nearest cowhouse, so it was all hands to the deck, from the smallest child upwards as this photo of the Calvert family taken in the 1930s shows.

Kit & Mary Calvert of Hoggarths, Keld having their hay time tea in the shelter of Purse Cow’us.  Courtesy of Chris and Raymond Calvert, Keld

The children of the family usually ended up in the hay mew trampling down the loose hay. This was in fact far from an idyllic job  – it was hot, dusty and dark in there. Dorothy Brown (nee Clarkson), formerly  of Scarr House farm, has less than fond memories of one particular occasion inside Banty Barn, as she tells our interviewer Glenda Calvert here:

Banty is a large cowhouse – the first one after the Buttertubs pass.  Dorothy must have spent quite a long time in that hay mew!

Banty Barn

Cowhouse stories: Jennie Harker

At the heart of the ‘Every Barn tells a Story’ project are the audio recordings that Glenda Calvert collected for us from around 30 local people. We are sharing many of these as transcripts on lots of different pieces of interpretation but we would also like people to hear the authentic voices of Upper Swaledale so we will be installing various audio posts in exhibitions and also putting them online here. One of our absolute favourites is Jennie Harker’s tale of how her late husband Clifford and his dog Fly saved the lives of two Dutch tourists one winter’s day:

Heavy snow sometimes seems like a thing of the past and it’s can be hard to imagine just what it was like struggling through blizzards every day to feed and water cattle in their distant cowhouses.

Heavy snow at Cathole Inn, Keld. Courtesy of Billy Hutchinson

Walk booklets

We were rather excited to see the layouts for the first of our six project walk booklets today. After months of research, writing, route testing and taking just the right photograph of every single stopping point, it’s lovely to at last see them taking shape. Packed full of stories and memories as well as lots of interesting historical information, photographs and drawings, we think that they will really enhance a visit to this part of Upper Swaledale.

Walk Booklet – first designs


Two gloriously sunny days at the start of the week meant just one thing in Upper Swaledale – haytime! There were lots of happy farmers out yesterday turning , rowing and baling hay as fast as their machinery would allow them. The whole dale was filled with the thick sweet smell of drying hay – delicious!

Hay rowed up and ready for baling. Near Muker

We saw some small rectangular bales being made using some venerable old machinery, but much more popular were the machines that produce the large round bales. You can see clearly why our little cowhouses are no longer much used for storing hay given that you wouldn’t fit one of these big bales through a doorway.

We were also reminded of one of the memories we collected when we saw the steeper, harder to mow parts of fields left untouched .

“No, a lot of the fields up there are full of rushes now, but they didn’t used to be because they were cut. If we couldn’t get it with a machine we’d get it with a scythe, and Irishmen used to go round the sides and do the gills and that. They’re just left now because they can get all they need without.”

Richard Campbell (75) formerly of Ravenseat farm

Part-mown hay field near Muker

It’s also very noticeable how the number of fields that are haytimed has reduced, the higher fields are now permanently used for grazing, with their lonely cowhouses a reminder of the past.

Field with cowhouse no longer used for hay. Near Muker