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


Several of the people we have interviewed for the project remember their mothers making cheese in the farmhouse:

“And we milked, sold milk, and me mother used to make cheese. She was a very good cheesemaker , but she always said it wasn’t the person who made the cheese, it was the field that the cows ate out of and we had a very good cow pasture there, extremely good one”

Bob (72) & Dick (83) Guy formerly of Hill Top Lodge

Some of the cheese apparently went to feed coal miners in County Durham via markets in Barnard Castle. Bob and Dick Guy remembered their grandfather leaving really early in the morning once a month with the horse and trap taking cheese along with any spare butter and eggs to the market there: “Took hours, longer still on way back if pubs open!!” 

Our researcher Sue has just found a little booklet about farming in Upper Swaledale in the late 1940s.

Report on Farm Life in Swaledale dated 1948

This has proved to be a fascinating read as it was written pretty much at the point in time when the last cheese was being made in the dale. The arrival of efficient road transport and the establishment of the Milk Marketing Board meant that liquid milk became far more saleable:

“By now cheese-making has – to all intents and purposes – ceased in the dale. The writers know of only one farm which up to recently still had a flickering interest in making cheese. The heavy work of the actual processing fell to the lot of the female section of the farm family, and there is little doubt that at least some of them showed no grief when milk began to leave the farm by motor lorry. On the other hand a few regret that they have in all probability made their last cheese. Perhaps it is that the departure of the milk from the farm leaves unsatisfied a craftsman’s pride which was originally rewarded by the sight of something developing under their care and attention. One farmer was about to break a long standing family tradition. Cheese had been made and sold to the same firm for a little over a century and he confessed rather wistfully that it ‘seemed a shame’.”

From ‘Farm Life in a Yorkshire Dale. An Economic Study of Swaledale’ (1948) by W H Long & G M Davies.

The coming of the milk lorry provided a small but useful income stream for some farmers as William Calvert recalled from his childhood:

“At that time, milk wagon used to come from Leyburn, gathering milk. And m’father thought, he had a bit o’surplus. Many a time they sold mebbe five gallon at start, to get going, and so, that was added income. And I’ve seen him on a night just say, after tea, ‘well, I’m off to go get a bit o’profit in’, that was milking at night. He normally milked about four cows by hand.”

William Calvert (83), formerly of Greenses farm