Medieval meadows and wood pasture

Our research into the Rievaulx Abbey documents has thrown an interesting light on what farming looked like in Swaledale in the medieval period. Hay and the meadows it was  grown in were clearly important but so too was the right to graze animals in what we call ‘wood pastures’ on the hillsides and this included cutting branches off trees so animals could eat the leaves.

Ivelet Wood just across the river from Muker has been identified as an original piece of wood pasture which  was ‘common’ or shared land where, from the earliest times, commoners had the right to graze their stock and also have access to woodland to supply firewood and sometimes timber. As grazing pressure has reduced on this relatively remote steep valley side, the trees have become more dominant.

Footpath through Ivelet Wood

Part of the grant of land in Swaledale to Rievaulx was the right to lead cattle to and from the wood pastures so long as they avoided going through cornfields and meadows [segetibus et pratis]. Given that they were also given the right to catch wolves it’s possible that cattle were only grazed out during daylight hours and brought back into the safety of  shelters called lodges in the document [logias]. 

A party of national park staff went out on a working holiday to a village in Romania earlier this year and they found that the villagers look after their cows in exactly the same way – leading them out in a communal herd in the morning and then bringing them back and letting them make their own way to their individual cowhouses at night. They even cut branches off trees as fodder. There the danger is from bears as well as wolves!

Find out more about historic woodland in the Yorkshire Dales on our Out of Oblivion website.

Rievaulx Abbey in Swaledale

Part of the work we’re doing on the project involves trying to find out when the first cowhouses were built out in the fields. We managed to find one of the earliest written documents for the area this week – the Rievaulx  Cartuliarium – transcribed and published in 1899 and now available in facsimile  online. We found the original grant of the ‘whole grazing lands of Swaledale’ to the Abbey  by Gilbert de Gaunt in the thirteenth century

Original grant to Rievaulx Abbey dated 1251

Our medieval Latin isn’t great but we’ve attempted a translation of the relevant part as follows:

“To the Abbot of Rievaulx.

A donation by Gilbert de Gaunt of the whole pasturage/grazing ground of Swaledale divided (set out?) below and measured on paper (mapped?) by the same Gilbert, from whom the same monk henceforth holds having been named, with the folds and lodges [faldis et logiis] of their animals and houses [domibus] of the brothers, servants and their animals, gardens [ortis], closes [clausaris]  and all necessary/requisite to houses, fences, hearths, folds, lodges, and also their easement (access to) the forest of Swaledale. ”

This is fascinating because it seems to imply that there is housing – folds and lodges – of some sort – for animals, separate to the housing [domibus] for the lay brothers, servants and other animals.

We then had a look at the confirmation of the grant of lands in Swaledale which was issued during the reign of Edward III (1327-1377)

Fourteenth century Rievaulx Abbey grant confirmation

This is even more interesting because here the term ‘animalis‘ is replaced with the term ‘pecoribus‘ which our research tells us usually meant larger herd animals but not beasts of burden like horses or oxen so we are possibly looking at cattle,  ‘faldas et logias pecoribus‘ may therefore mean ‘folds and houses for cattle’ rather than (or as well as) sheep which is what has been assumed up to now. There is also again the distinction between these, and the housing for the lay bothers, servants and their animals which we might assume are the nucleated farmsteads we still see today often with animal housing under the same roof as the farmhouse itself.

We’re now hunting for a Latin scholar who can check what we think we’ve discovered!

Intake fields

Many of our cowhouses lie in what are called ‘intake’ fields such as the one in this photo near Keld.

Broken Intake cowhouse

The name ‘intake’ has a particular meaning. It refers to land that has been literally ‘taken in’ from rough hillside pasture and moorland. It would have been drained, the largest stones picked off, mowed, spread with lime burnt in lime kilns on the hillside above and manured. Eventually, after a lot of hard work the coarse moorland grass, rushes and heather would have been replaced by sweet meadow grass and flowers. We think that the meadows on the opposite side of the dale at this point (where the main road and farm houses lie) were the first to be farmed. The intake fields on this side of the dale are later, turned into meadows maybe sometime in the late seventeenth or eighteenth century  when using lime to improve pastures became widespread.

View from near Aygill of intake fields with lime kiln above

Chris Calvert’s uncle farmed these fields from Thorns across the valley. Chris remembers looking after cattle in these cowhouses when he was younger and why they are now mostly redundant.

“These off buildings, these cow’usses are very labour intensive. It was twice a day, every day but it was the only way to do it until people got modern buildings at home and the cattle wintered in those. And you had to bring the food to them at home as well. But now, I remember it very well, these cow’usses and wintertime with the cattle…that’s what they were designed for yes…Now, they’re all just in modern sheds  in the yard, loose housing, bedded up with straw and like, silage in big round bale feeders… A lot of our cow’usses now just get used for storage, for example, storing fencing stakes, all sorts of bits and bobs that just need to be undercover and kept dry.”
Chris Calvert (57) of Pry House farm

Hay Meadows

Photographer Steve Garnett in action

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.

Smithy Holme

We were out checking yet another one of our proposed walk leaflet routes – this time right up towards the west end of the parish of Muker. Haymaking and raising dairy cows must have been a tough business this high up, but the evidence for lead mining and processing showed us how many of the smaller farms got by with one or members of a family off working in Keldside smelt mill or down the mines themselves. We have a probably nineteenth century map of a small farm called Smithy Holme which we took along to see if we could spot the various cowhouses marked in the fields around it.

Nineteenth century map of Smithy Holme

These two cowhouses both lie in meadows called Smithy Holme, one south of the farm and in a lower position, the other higher up, right next to the intake wall separating meadow from moorland

The land is no longer farmed from Smithy Holme itself but the house is clearly well-looked after with a magnificent home cowhouse which is almost as big as the house itself.

Smithy Holme farm

On the way back we spotted yet another cowhouse from the map – now just a ruin, placed in a meadow with the unusual name of Quey Holme.  Spot the ruin on the skyline in the photo and also the fine limekiln below – an essential part of the process of turning such marginal land into productive haymeadow.

Ruin of Quey Holme cowhouse with lime kiln below

Cheese-making

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

Let there be light!

Exploring the interiors of cowhouses is not recommended without the owners’ permission. It can also be a bit hazardous given how little light there is inside. There are also a LOT of cobwebs and the occasional dead bird or sheep so it can sometimes be a bit creepy.

Cowhouse interior near Thwaite

Imagine visiting these buildings at night with only a candle in a lantern to light your way? Some cowhouses have little niches where a lamp or lantern could be placed. In others you might see a hook for hanging a lantern from like this one.

Hook for a lamp, Jordan cowhouse

We interviewed a group of women who grew up on farms around Muker parish, they have clear memories of how dark the cowhouses were.

“See, when they went to milk in these cow’usses it was always candlelight …I don’t know about your cowusses but ours always had a little hole in the wall for the candle to go in…wasn’t likely to set hay on fire you see…and then little lamps came that you used to carry…and then what you called a tilly lamp, paraffin, had to prime it. That was a big step.”

“Ah but tilly lamp never came to High Frith… we had candles all the time”

“You’d get heat off it as well…You did, off a tilly lamp”

“Used to have a flashlight that you could hold in his mouth…when he had two calf buckets he held the flashlight in his mouth…not like a head torch now, they’re grand!”

“They’d milk in the dark in’t winter “

Developing the project walk leaflets

Our intrepid Dales Volunteers have now completed the task of assessing the six walk routes we have chosen to showcase the Muker area’s amazing cowhouse heritage.  They have highlighted some of the issues that ranger Michael will be fixing with funding from the project and also made careful photographic records of all the cowhouses of interest along each of the routes – far too many to post here but we thought we’d share a few of the highlights. We’ll leave you to try and guess where they are!

Digital Photogrammetry

At a recent workshop volunteers learnt the merits of using digital photogrammetry to record traditional field barns (as well as other archaeological features). They had the opportunity to get out to a nearby field barn to have a go at photographing a barn themselves. Unfortunately the weather was changeable and the differing light levels made it difficult to get pictures without lots of contrast. However, with a bit of practice (and some editing) the product was a successful model of a local field barn (cow’us), Shot Lathe, near Keld.

 

 

Jordan Close cow’us

We have found yet more evidence for late seventeenth century cowhouses in the Muker Manorial Court Books in the shape of the cowhouse on Jordan Close near Thwaite which changed tenant in 1688.

Extract from 1688 Muker Manorial Court Book

This field took a bit of hunting down as the transcription we have for the 1841 Tithe Map had no field with that number shown. However after a careful search back through the original Tithe Map photos we found what we were looking for just north of Aygill; field no 549 Jordan Close with the cowhouse marked with a red cross below, the tiny field west of it was called Piece and the field west of that was called Jordan Head. In 1841 they were owned by a James Alderson and occupied by one Nanny Alderson – the same family name as the 1688 tenant.

Muker Tithe map 549 Jordan Close

The cowhouse still stands at the end of the tiny field called Piece – whether it is the original 1688 building will need checking by an expert of course. Our Historic Environment Record suggests that it is eighteenth century but enlarged later on.

Jordan Close cow’us – looking east