It’s beginning to look a lot like cow’us

Today is the 1st of December and it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas especially with the scattering of snow on the ground. Advent calendars were opened all over the Dales this morning and we thought we would celebrate the beginning of Advent with 24 barn facts and features.

There are over 6000 barns in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, with over 1,044 field barns in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Barns and Walls Conservation Area alone. Upper Swaledale is recognised as being one of the most distinctive agricultural landscapes in Western Europe.

1 – Field Barns

Field barns, or cow’uses as they are known in Upper Swaledale, are dependent upon the landscape in which they sit. A field barn functions in a cyclical nature with its surrounding landscape, most importantly with the hay meadow. The hay would be cut and dried in the meadows, then stored in the field barn to be used to feed the cattle over winter, and the muck collected from the cows was then used to fertilize the meadow.

2 – Vernacular

Vernacular buildings are ‘local’ buildings that were built in accordance with local custom from locally derived raw materials to suit local needs. This differs from ‘polite’ architecture which are designed by professional architects. Field barns are vernacular buildings. These are very much local structures that were designed for the landscape they are situated in. They are constructed from coursed (locally quarried) sandstone and limestone, with usually sandstone roof tiles in diminishing courses.

3 – Field Barn Plan Types

There are roughly 4 types of field barns plan types found in Upper Swaledale and Arkengarthdale. These plan types are categorized alphabetically (A-D), with Type A subdivided into 3. The 1990 to 1993 Use and Condition Survey identified the internal arrangements (with identifiable byres and mews) and plan forms for 723 field barns. The most common plan form is Type C – this has a partition wall between the byre and mew with external access openings to each section.

The plan types of field barns. Copyright White and Darlington, 2004

4 – Mew

The mew is the larger section of the barn where loose hay is stored.

5 – Forking hole

Forking holes are small window like openings high on an elevation to enable hay to be pitched through. They also provide light and ventilation.

There are 2 forking holes on this elevation. One would have been used to get out of after the mew was filled.

6 – Shippon

The shippon is the part of the barn used to house the cattle. Also known as the byre.

7 – Skelbuse

A skelbuse is the wooden or sometimes stone-built division between the mew and the byre.

This is a wooden skelbuse

8 – Baulks

Baulks refers to the storage loft above the byre sometimes used to store hay or tools.

9 – Muckhole

A muckhole is a small opening that the muck is shoveled through out of the barn to the muck heap outside. The muck would then collect in a heap to be spread on the meadow as fertilizer. A muck heap outside a barn over winter is a good indication that the barn is being used to house cattle during this season.

10 – Booses and Boskins

Booses are the stalls that the cattle are tied in, and usually house 2 cows, with just a post to stop them bumping into one another. The divisions between the booses are called boskins and are often made from wooden panels or large vertical flagstones.

Large flagstone boskins divide these booses

11 – Rudster or Rudstick

A rudster or rudstick is the wooden post which cattle were tied to using a chain or rope.

12 – Foddergang

A foddergang is the passage-way used by farmers to feed the cows, situated between the mew and the byre.

13 – Groop/Group

The groop is a stone-lined channel behind the booses, where cow muck was collected.

14 – Limewash

Walls of the shippon are often covered with a thin layer of lime plaster, this was done to improve light and hygiene in barns. The introduction of limewash and concrete happened to many shippons due to hygiene regulations that came in to force in the 1950s and 60s.

15 – Multiphasing and evidence of previous construction

Barns often undergo many phases of construction as needs might change. This can be in the form of additional construction including extensions, outshots and leantos. It can also be blocked in openings, in some cases done to adhere to hygiene regulations. Interestingly, evidence of previous rooflines can often be found on field barns in the Yorkshire Dales, especially in Swaledale. Field barns would have traditionally been thatched, normally with heather. The use of thatch meant that the pitch of the roof was steeper as the load was heavier, less wood was also required. Evidence of this steeper pitch can be found on gable ends.

This gable end shows previous steeper thatch lines.

16 – Watershot masonry

Watershot masonry was a technique widely used between the late 18th and mid-19th Centuries. Dressed stones or squared rubble are laid at slight angles to shed rainwater outwards from the joints. More than a quarter of the barns in the Swaledale and Arkengarthdale conservation area are recorded to have watershot masonry.

17 – Quoins

Quoins are found on the corners of buildings and help strengthen the walls, they are also used to make a feature of the corner, and in some cases reinforce structural permanence to viewers. Quoins vary in size but often diminish in size towards the roofline. Quoins can often be good indicators to see if a barn has been extended at some point, as there will be a line of quoins not at the corner of a wall.

Fairly small size quoins can be see on the corner of this barn

18 – Through Stones

Through stones are long stones binding together the inner and outer skin of the walls. The barns are constructed of two skins of face stones with a rubble and mortar infill or core. The through stones usually project in parallel, coursed lines on the outside of the barn.

There are 5 lines of through stones on this elevation. There is one ventilation slit on the right section of the barn suggesting that the mew is at this end of the building, as well as 2 lines of putlog ventilation holes.

19 – Ventilation slits and putlog ventilation holes

Barns characteristically have ventilation openings. These allow ventilation into the building and stop the hay rotting. They are most commonly in the form of ventilation slits and putlog ventilation holes. Ventilation slits, vertical openings, are usually found at the mew end of a field barn. Putlog ventilation holes were created during the construction of the barn to hold the wooden scaffolding, they were then retained to allow ventilation.

20 – The roof

In Swaledale the most common form of roof is a pitched roof. This is where a roof slopes downwards in two parts at an angle from a central ridge. There are also other forms like a mono-pitched roof where there is just a single slope downwards from a central ridge and a catslide roof where the roof continues down below the main height of the eaves (often found on outshots where the main roof has been extended).

21 – Coping

We all know that the weather of the upland Dales can be wild, the coping on a cowhouse can help to protect them from damage. The coping is an additional row of flat stones that lie on top of the edge of the gable end roofing flagstones to reinforce their strength. The coping can be found on both ends of the gable, but if found only on one end it is usually found on the end where wind is most often strongest

There is coping on both gable ends and kneelers on the corners

22 – Kneelers

Kneelers are horizontal projecting stones at the base of each side of a gable to support the inclined coping stones. They can be decorated. Not all barns have kneelers, and those that do don’t necessarily have them on all four corners, for instance if the barn only has coping on one gable end there will only be kneelers on those gable corners.

23 – Lintels

A lintel is a horizontal beam or stone above an opening. They can be decorated or (re-used) datestones.

A re-used datestone has been used as a lintel for the small opening on this barn near Keld

24 – Drip mould

Projecting moulding above an arch or lintel to throw off water. Over openings these are particularly referred to as hood moulds.


We hope you have a Merry December, and if you’re exploring Upper Swaledale and its cow’uses this christmas time please stay safe, keep warm and stick to the public rights of way (or follow our very own ‘Every barn…’ walking packs).