Dairy Days, an exhibition at the Dales Countryside Museum looks at the history of dairy in Wensleydale, the legacy of its infamous cheese and the role of women through time.
Emily Ashworth speaks to Karen Griffiths, interpretation officer behind the idea...
It is said that about 6,000 years ago, the first farmers began to arrive in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire, finding fertile soil and woodland.
With most families keeping Northern Dairy Shorthorns, their animals were kept for milk as much as meat, using the milk to make cheese which could be salted and kept as stored food over winter.
Now, sheep scatter the moors and there are hardly any dairy farms left in the surrounding area. Yet for a long period of time, cows were the main economic providers.
But cheesemaking is integrated in Wensleydale’s story, and helping to continue that is Karen Griffiths, interpretation officer for the Dales National Park.
Karen has been running the Dairy Days project, which ends with the current exhibition displaying the timeline of dairy farming and cheesemaking in the area.
There are a series of historic displays which showcase milking equipment from times gone by, and written records from the sales of cheese from the 1800s, plus the integral roles of families and individuals from across the Dales.
Looking at women in the industry, however, was also something Karen wanted to focus on.
She says: “There is a story to be told about dairy which hasn’t been told yet, and I felt there was a lot more to be said about women who worked in the industry in the past.
“A typical Dales farm is a family farm. The men managed the cattle, but it was the women who turned that milk in to butter and cheese and that’s what brought the cash in. They also did a lot of the selling.
“We can only go back as far as historical records allow, but by the time you get to the 18th and 19th century, there was very much a division of labour.
“Even looking at auction photographs now, you see a lot more women than you would ever have done in the past.”
Part of the project is to also help boost businesses in the area, and Karen is doing a lot of work with farm businesses, providing them with materials to share with their visitors, such as leaflets and display boards to help increase awareness of farm products and practices.
The exhibition touches on the future of dairy and cheesemaking in the area, looking at farms who are operating various businesses such as homemade ice cream or chutneys for cheese.
But the art of traditional cheesemaking is a diminishing skill.
“The actual magic of cheesemaking was lost a long time ago,” she says.
“You can read about the origins of Wensleydale cheesemaking,but the story is much more complex than anything you will find by just Googling.”
Significant changes happened during the 1920s, as women travelled further afield to go and be properly trained as cheesemakers.
“You’ve got the women in the farmhouse with this incredible knowledge passed on from their mothers and their grandmothers, and when cheesemaking moved in to factories, women went to be trained in colleges and came back with the latest scientific knowledge,” says Karen.
As era’s passed, people’s tastes changed too, and most farmers switched from their trusted Dairy Shorthorn to British Friesians during the 1950s, which produced a less fatty tasting milk.
That adaptability is something Karen admires about the farming community and a trait highlighted throughout her research.
“I’ve listened to these men whose fathers and grandfathers farmed before them, and I’ve spoken to the last generation of men who remember a farm that could make a good living from a dozen cows,” she says.
“You might think farmers are stick-in-the-muds, especially in the Dales, but the revolutions they had to go through, from hand-milking to pumping it through a line, and the changes in the parlour, that’s all within living memory and it shows incredible adaptability.
“There is a massive pride in these stories and history.
“It’s a very progressive [industry] and when people come on holiday, they think it’s always been like this, but it hasn’t.”
The exhibition also connects visitors to the produce, as they can wander around the exhibition, read about the area’s rich dairy history and then go and taste the cheese for themselves.
Karen says: “This museum is about the effect this landscape has had on the people, and the people’s effect on the landscape.
“They might go away notice churn stands or cheese press stones – there’s evidence everywhere about dairy.
“People think the Dales are about sheep but that’s only a recently relevant thing. Cows were your money and by far the most valuable asset you wold have had on your farm.”