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

Old photographs

We’ve already shared some of the wonderful family photos that local people have let us scan for the project, here on this blog. We’ve now found a whole load more evocative old photos in the collections at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes. Not all of them come from Swaledale but they are pretty special as some are really early. Here are some of the the highlights. Firstly some dairying pics, probably from Wensleydale.

And next, some haymaking images, some we know are from Swaledale, others may be from Wensleydale or elsewhere in the Yorkshire Dales:

Yorkshire Film Archive visit

A major part of the Every Barn Tells a Story project is the production of videos recording the best memories and some of the history of the cowhouses around Muker parish. We have already appointed a film maker to help our in house staff and they have been out and about capturing the glory of the haymeadows before the rain set in.

Yesterday we travelled over to York to visit the team at the Yorkshire Film Archive to have a look through some of their footage with a view to incorporating archive clips into our own footage.

We’d already viewed a film in the collection called Dale Days online here . This was filmed in 1940 by Charles Chislett and shows a group of four children on an idyllic holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. They seem to have been based in Bainbridge in Wensleydale, but make at least one trip over the Buttertubs Pass into Swaledale. We loved this clip of a farmer carrying a rather heavy backcan full of milk up Hunger Hill, Faw Head, near Gayle in Wensleydale.

Screenshot from Yorkshire Film Archive website

Later on there is a long sequence showing a farmer handmilking Northern Dairy Shorthorns in a cowhouse and then following the milk in churns to the creamery in Hawes where it is made into cheese. Scenes that would all have been very familiar to our farmers in Swaledale in the 1940s.

We also saw some superb sequences of early haymaking in the Dales including some on original film stock from an old collection which we have arranged to have digitised for the project. All very exciting, so a big thank you to Graham Railton and the team at the YFA.

Early tourism and local milk

We had a look round the little village of Thwaite last week. It features on one of our trails and we wanted to check out how many agricultural buildings you walked past on the proposed route. This little cow’us caught our eye, right beside the roadside.

Painted milk sign, Thwaite

We assume that in days gone by, tourists staying perhaps at local campsites, could call into the farm here and buy milk fresh from the cow. Those were the days!

We also love this little anecdote (there is a well-known campsite at Usha Gap farm):

“The stories used to be…if a young farm lad had had a rough night, the night before, hard work getting up, but get up, go out into the warm [in the cow’uss], get his head into a cow, sat on a stool milking, able to nod off again…just milking the cow, the warmth of the cow”

Annas Metcalfe (73) of Usha Gap Farm