Life on a Dales Farm before the 1914-1918 War

(This article is copied from pages 791 - 793 of the January 1982 edition of "The Dalesman", whose kind permission has been granted to us to reproduce it here. The author of the piece was Mr W R (Bill) Mitchell, who has also produced other writings about the Dales and Dalesfolk.

The wording is as originally written, but the layout has been changed to improve its readability. The images in the currently-available photocopy are not of a quality suitable for scanning - consequently they are omitted here.

Keasden is a hamlet on the west side of the Ribble valley, and, although in Yorkshire, is physically allied to the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire's AONB. The Ordnance Survey Landranger Sheet 98 shows Brackengarth as a farmstead at Keasden, map reference SD 372400E, 463700N. On Google Earth, co-ordinates 54 04' 06.63"N and 2 25' 32.60"W show the buildings).

James Swindlehurst made several journeys to Brackengarth before he and his family settled there in the spring of 1896. James who was reared on a farm at Quernmoor - usually pronounced Quarmer - became apprenticed to a butcher at Barrow-in-Furness but was afflicted by rheumatic fever. A doctor said: "Get out into the country."

There was certainly plenty of countryside at Brackengarth, which is one of a string of little farms extending up the hill from Keasden crossroads to Bowland Knotts. The farm had been owned by some cousins but was now available to James and his family. A horse and cart were used to move the family possessions from Barrow. Several trips were necessary. James travelled the: 52 miles to Kirkby Lonsdale, where he stayed the night, and continued his journey to Brackengarth on the next day. In returning to Barrow far another load, he again broke his journey at Kirkby, where some relatives lived. On the last trip, with his wife, two daughters and a year-old son, one of the girls looked at Brackengarth and said to her mother: "Is this where the cows sleep, Mammy?". The house was not only empty; it looked forlorn.

Brackengarth was a small place, about 40 acres, and the land was not bad when its high-lying situation, in millstone grit country, was taken into account. The family reared a few calves, and kept a few sheep on the moor. They had some poultry and geese. "There wasn't so much money in those days," says Norman, James' son. "I can remember him buying a new-calved heifer for £9". James trudged down the hill and caught a train for Sedbergh, to attend the Fair. He bought two shearling tups - for 30s. A Bolland farmer later took a fancy to one of the tups and father sold it for 30s. "He thought that was making money".

The farmhouse was of simple construction, stone and slate, the front and back doors being connected with a passage from which the main rooms extended: living kitchen and sitting room, back kitchen and dairy (or pantry). There were four bedrooms. The privy was situated in the orchard, a rather pretentious name for an area where a few damson trees grew. Blue flags, from Helwith Bridge, covered the floor, though the sitting room was boarded. They also provided benches, or shelves, in the dairy. Norman recalls: "My mother used to scrub the blue flags till they shone. When it was going to rain, they often came up damp".

The Rough Work

When mother was not down on her hands and knees in the back kitchen, with bucket, scrubbing brush and Sunlight soap, she was doing the family wash, using dolly tub and posser. First the clothes were boiled in a large pan; they went through 'three lots of water', and some Dolly Blue was added to the last. The back kitchen had few fixtures. There was a fireplace. The fire was kindled with paper and heather stalks, followed by peat, and sometimes coal. A bakstone stood in the back kitchen, and on it Mrs. Swindlehurst made riddle-bread. The slopstone was of rough sandstone. In the absence of taps - for there was no piped water, no cistern collecting rainwater from the roof - water was collected from a local stream, with 'ladin' can and bucket'. When it was time for the walls to be lime-washed, someone took a horse and cart to the quarry at Giggleswick and brought back some cob lime, which was' slacked' in a large boiler. The walls were sometimes colour-washed, green or pink.

The bakstone was used once a fortnight.. Oatmeal came from a supplier in Lancaster, and was collected at Clapham station. The riddle-bread made on the bakstone was hung up, looking like wash-leathers, from strings. Everyone enjoyed eating riddle-bread, from a basket, it there was a slab of butter, preferably June. butter, to spread on it. Into the pantry went most of the milk, to be poured from pails into 'milk leads'. which at that time were not made of lead, being galvanised. These quite deep metal containers rested on the blue flags at points where holes had been driven through. In summer, when there was a risk of souring, the milk stood for two meals - in winter, for three - and when a plug was removed the 'blue' milk was drained into a pail, leaving the cream to be scraped up and put in a pot to await the weekly churning. Some of the 'leads' were used for the salting ot pork. There were seven pieces in all: two hams (which spent a month in salt). two shoulders (about three weeks); two flitches (about 10 days) and the cheek (a week). Norman remembers when his mother received a big block of salt from a dealer. She placed the block on the table and broke off lumps with a knife. Then she crunched them up, using a rolling pin.

Living Space

A large table, made of deal, dominated the living kitchen. "Mother scrubbed it with soap and water; it was always snow-white". A basin of porridge was consumed at breakfast time. Sugar was sprinkled on the porridge, followed by a goodly quantity of blue milk. Bacon was another staple food. and "we liked cutting into a ham that had been hanging for above to year; it had some flavour then . . . People don't give pork time to cure today; they're eating it almost before the pig's dead! More bacon would be fried for dinner - the family might consume two pigs a year - and there were potatoes that had been lifted from the garden outside the house. A favourite pudding was Spotted Dick, "put in a big pan and boiled for hours". For tea, there was always jam - "mother was always making jam" - and at suppertime "we didn't have much, just a drink of hot milk and some biscuits, oatmeal or riddle bread". All the bread was home-made. On one day a week, dough was placed before the fire to 'rise' and "if it was rising a bit too fast, mother used to put her fist into it and send it down. Then it had to rise again!".

Norman"s sister went to help to neighbour who had given birth to a baby. It was decided to make some bread, and the dough was put before the fire in the time-honoured way. When sister turned round, cats were lying on top of the bread. "She got a stick, and it was whick, whack, whick: the cats left in a hurry". When the lady who had the baby got out of bed for the first time, she said to her husband: '"where are the cats?". He said: "Well, the last cat I saw was on Olive's clog toe, and just about to go out of the back door".

Norman remembers the winter illumination, provided by paraffin and candles, bought from Knowles, the Bentham grocers. "Every night,. mother had to trim the lamp wicks before we settled down; and if she was doing something special and wanted extra light, one of the kids had to hold a candle nearby. If we tilted it too much, fat began to drop off and we were told to keep the candle straight". The winter evenings were spent in playing games such as nap, whist, ludo, dominoes and alma. "We were always playing games".

Special Occasions

The sitting room was distinguished by having a wooden floor, though it was almost covered with mats, many of them of the pegged variety, made on the premises from bits of old clothes. This room held the best furniture. It was not often that anyone went into the sitting room, though if 'company' was expected for tea the place was thoroughly cleaned and mother had a full day's baking, preparing the white and brown bread, teacakes and scones, pasty and cakes that were intended for immediate consumption. The crockery was China, taken from the display cabinet. A silver teapot was swaddled by a 'cosy' which mother had made. For some hours there was homely chatter, under the solemn gaze of grandparents whose likenesses had been fixed by some ancient photographer and were now framed and hanging on the walls.

Brackengarth had four bedrooms, each bed being composed of a mattress stuffed with feathers plucked from the geese killed for the Christmas market. Mother made the bag herself, using calico bought from George Garlick of Bentham, who claimed: "I clothe Keasden folk, and Knowles's feed 'em". He toured the farms measuring people for clothes, but also sold bedding, transporting it from Clapham station on foot. Once a week, mother removed the firegrate and emptied the ash-hole, shovelling the ash into a bucket for disposal. And periodically it was decided to clean the chimney, using a holly bush tied to a cart rope. The bush was lowered down the chimney two or three times and then father insisted on scraping the inside of the chimney pot with an old knife!

In Lighter Mood

The family did not stray far from home, though for 36 years father had a fixed routine on Saturday. He rove from his bed at 5 a.m., put the week's butter in a basket and caught the first train from Clapham station to Lancaster market. "He couldn't have lived without going to Lancaster". When Norman's eldest sister, Nelly, was married at Clapham church, there was a festive air. Charlie Coates from the Flying Horse Shoe, drove the bridal pair from church to hotel for the reception. There were some other conveyances but Norman and other young folk had to walk, almost two miles, through a thunderstorm. "lf we went to Lancaster, we thought it was a great treat. A trip to Morecambe was marvellous, though we walked down the hill to Clapham station and we didn't do much else at Morecambe but walk on the promenade and have a ride on the hobby-horses".

The life of a fellside farm was governed by the weather and the slow procession of the seasons. Its notable events were muck-spreading, lambing, peat-cutting, sheep-washing, clipping, hay-time, sheep-salving, tupping. None of the milk from the cows was sold as milk; it was either converted into butter or consumed on the premises. Norman remembers collecting coal from the pit at Ingleton and paving sixpence a hundredweight for it. "You backed under a chute; a man pulled a lever and shooo - down came the coal. You had to fair stick to your horse or it would have bolted. Then a man jumped on the cart, with a rake and levelled it off. A man who sold coal at Clapham station was so precise in weighing it out he kept a row of assorted cobs of coal and thus ensured that the customer received precisely the quantity that had been ordered!".

The family left Brackengarth in 1932. "We wanted a bigger spot; we were all grown up, and moved to where there was a bit more going on." No longer was it necessary to move the goods by horse and cart, as James had done in Victoria's reign. It was a new age. There were motor vehicles to be hired.