We had photographer Stephen Garnett out with us yesterday taking promo shots for us to use in future publications for the National Park Authority. The meadows in Upper Swaledale were looking magnificent in the sunshine – won’t be long before the hay crop is ready to mow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We are lucky enough to have copies of several old maps for the parish with field names. A cowhouse is often (but not always) called after the field it is in. When we interviewed Sidney & Betty Reynoldson of Thwaite they called one of their cowhouses ‘Dungeons’:
“I know it’s a lot better nowadays, when buildings are all together…you had to go there and here, there…there was one building where we had up at Moor Close, it was quite a way to go to that, we mebbe just mebbe used to go in the once to that…there’s a lot of these buildings, they all had a trough near…all near water, such as our Dungeons and over there and all them, within feet of byres they had water…well some of them had a yard round with water in corner. So they’d build them where there was water. That’s what I always thought.”
We’ve found an old map with a field and cowhouse called Dungeon shown on it near Thwaite but it’s not the one that the Reynoldsons showed us on the maps we had at our open day so we need to do a bit more research on that one, as well as wondering why it had that name in the first place?! Interestingly, we do know that the word ‘Ing’ which can be seen in the next door field, is from the Old Norse and means a meadow, especially one near a river.