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Burtersett field barns

Tuesday 5 November, 2019, by Karen Griffiths

We had an unexpectedly sunny morning last week taking the final photographs for the Dairy Days walk booklets. We also needed to check whether some of the farms whose stories we wanted to tell were actually visible from the routes we’d chosen. Along the way we made a record of other interesting features such as cattle drinking troughs and this delightful cow mosaic in Gayle.

Large stone cattle trough near Burtersett

We thought we’d share on here some photos we took of a whole series of barns along the route between Gayle and Burtersett. They lie on a sort of geological ‘bench’ above the valley bottom whose flatness meant it was perfect for higher level hay meadows. Of course, the Old Norse origin of the village name ‘Burtersett’ meaning an upland summer grazing camp, tells us that in the early medieval era, these flat fields were probably used as summer grazing pastures not as hay meadows. The farmers at that time would have utilized the valley bottoms for growing hay but as populations grew and valley bottom land became harder to acquire people spread higher up the dale and settled permanently in these summer camps and turned their old grazing fields over to growing hay. The cows were then grazed on the steep pastures above the new hay meadows in the summer

Image shows the sun beaming down on  rolling haymeadows between Gayle and Burtersett
Hay meadows between Gayle and Burtersett, summer grazing pastures rising up beyond

The hay at first must have been gathered and dried in simple hay stooks or on raised platforms – archaeologists have identified stackgarths nearer to Burtersett. It was then brought back to the farmstead and stored inside wooden barns for winter fodder.

Image shows an art piece of a family building hay stacks on stackstands in sixteenth century
Building hay stacks on stackstands in sixteenth century Wensleydale. Artist: James Innerdale

By the seventeenth century we read that the first permanent barns, or ‘outhouses’ as they were often called in old documents, were being built out in the hay meadows themselves in Wensleydale. By the eighteenth and early nineteenth century these barns were substantial stone built structures, roofed in huge stone slates quarried in local quarries such as those in Burtersett.

The barns we photographed last week range from very small ones for overwintering three or four cows through to a huge nineteenth century shippon at the head of Shaws Lane, converted into a milking parlour for up to 20 cows some time in the last century. We peered through open windows and doors and managed to take photos of some of the older interiors with their rotting skelbuses, rudsters and baux, but we were very careful not to go inside any of them. Apart from the fact that they are private property, many are also extremely dangerous to enter given the state of their roof timbers.

Parts of a typical Dales field barn
Parts of a typical Dales field barn

We noticed that several of the smaller barns had lean-tos added to accommodate more cows. We can imagine a point in time towards the end of the nineteenth century, after the Wensleydale Railway had arrived, when farmers were realising there was a ready market for liquid milk and cashing in by cramming in two or three extra cows into their field barns.

Another reminder of progress was the abandoned bit of machinery we photographed outside one of the barns. It was a hay tedder or strawer (pronounced ‘strower’). It tossed the hay high in the air, fluffing it up and drying it out prior to it being rowed up and then baled. The original ones were horse drawn, then converted to be pulled by tractor. They went on being used until the late 1960s we understand from farmers we asked. What a difference in terms of hours saved it must have made to that particular farming family.

Abandoned farm machinery
Abandoned hay tedder or strawer
Image shows an old photo of a farmer using a hay tedder attached to his tractor to aerate the hay
Hay tedder in action, Wensleydale, 1947. Ann Holubecki collection
Image shows an old photo of the Lambert family using rakes to turn a whole field on hay
The Lambert family turning hay by hand using wooden rakes, Edgley, near West Burton, 1930s. Ann Holubecki collection
Picture of Karen Griffiths

Karen Griffiths

Interpretation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority


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