Cowhouse Stories: William Calvert

The daily round, all winter long, of letting the cows out for water, feeding them, mucking out and so on, usually twice a day is remembered by many of the project’s older participants. William Calvert worked at Crackpot Hall farm as young man.

Crackpot Hall

They had the deserted houses converted into cowhouses that once formed the scattered settlement called Hartlakes, near Keld. Even on a sunny day, it’s quite a spooky spot.

Hartlakes (Mat Robinson)

It was quite common to find tramps sleeping in the hay mew of a cowhouse and the young folk of Muker were scared to death of them. William recalls one gloomy evening at Hartlakes when he thought his worst fears had come true:


Scouting film locations

Now the sun is shining and the hay meadows are coming to life we have started to scout locations for a series of six short videos about the cowhouses around Muker. We’ll be featuring the story of the imps of Pith Hill ; the amazing rescue of the two Dutch tourists from a hay shed one snowy winter as told to us by Jennie Harker along with fascinating stuff about the history of cowhouses and the stories of how they were used to store hay and overwinter cattle until relatively recently. Andy Kay from our Comms Team was out last week investigating the Hartlakes area and the location of the Pith Hill imps story near Muker. He sent along these wonderful images of his day for the blog

Ruined cowhouses

A tumbled-down ruin has a story to tell all of its own. It might be about a family tragedy or it might be  about widespread economic changes. A short walk along the Pennine Way north of Muker offers tantalising hints of some of these stories.

Leaving the Corpse Way as it winds up the side of Kisdon Hill towards Keld, you enter an old lane, that was once hedged.

Remnant hedge near Muker

Below you are fine views of Muker Meadows and their cowhouses. The large flat meadows produced lots of hay so the cowhouses were built big to store it all. Interestingly, the farmer has adapted them by removing the stalls and other fittings and still keeps his cattle in them over the winter.

View of cowhouses in Muker Meadows

Walk on a little further and look up to your left and you see a very different picture – small, steep fields each one with a tiny ruined cowhouse in it. Some are being reclaimed by scrub and all the fields are full of woodland flowers such as primroses and dogs mercury.

Waistell Close cow’us
Crows Nest cow’us
Spring Brow cow’us

Such tiny marginal meadows must have been cut out from woodland, their walls built from stone cleared out of the fields themselves by hand – a back breaking job. They would then have needed plenty of hands to help cut the hay each year and spread the muck – look at those steep slopes. One has to admire how tough and hard working the families who survived here must have been.

The cowusses are small but substantially built with well-cut masonry. Many locals particularly from the nearby deserted settlement at Hartlakes probably earned part of their living working in the leadmines across the Swale. Some would have  developed masonry skills as a result which may explain why these cowusses are so well-made.

When that industry began to fail towards the end of the nineteenth century, small, marginal farms were no longer viable and these little buildings were eventually left empty and uncared for as the families that once used them left. The woodland has now begun to creep back and reclaim their meadows and the roofs of the cowhouses have fallen in.

Hartlakes’ cow’usses after dark

Anyone who has walked from Muker north towards Keld through the deserted settlement at Hartlakes will know how atmospheric the place is with its encroaching dark woodland and derelict houses. Many of the houses had been turned into cow’usses by the end of the nineteenth century and William Calvert remembers just how creepy  those buildings could be at nightfall.

“I always tried to get those jobs done [at Hartlakes], cows and so forth, before dark. One day, it didn’t work out that way, it was getting dusk. And I was nervous. And I went down, the first building I came into, I let cows out, did what [was] necessary, went to get hay, and I felt some leather of some sort, where hay was [supposed to be] . And I panicked, I thought, it felt like a [suit]case. And I whipped out, got cows in, I went like blazes. Everything was done very very quickly that night. And when I came back the following morning, I said to Percy [his boss] a bit o’story, and he started to laugh. He said ‘well, I left the horse gear there, I’d been doing something wi’t’horse that day and left the horse gear there just where the hay was,’ and of course, I felt it and panicked…I thought it was a suitcase, I didn’t know what the heck it was…I mean I was only just in me very early twenties and nervous in dark anyway. It’s creepy down there at night as well. It frightened me.. [the cows got a] very quick do, I don’t know whether one or two was missed to be honest [laughter].”

William Calvert (83) formerly of Greenses, Keld