“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!