'Plants had to earn their keep', is a phrase often repeated as people tell us about the food their parents and grandparents grew in the North Yorkshire Dales of Swaledale, Arkengarthdale and Wensleydale. [For more information about each of the Three Dales, please view the individual records by clicking on the live links]
Woven into these memories, are the stories of the food they ate - pig killings and black pudding made from the warm blood; cleaning intestines for sausage skins by pulling feathers through them; the cows and hens kept; how milk was stored as cheese and butter; eggs laid down in bran and waterglass for winter baking.
They tell us about haymaking picnics and the harvest suppers at the end of long, hard days of work in the field. The ‘elevenses’, ‘dockins’ and ‘drinkins’ that kept people going in the field all day. And the food they ate everyday - potatoes. The tales told 'are the plain truth', a twinkle in the eye from the storyteller alerting us to any deviations from the remembered facts.
Knowing what was eaten and how it was prepared and stored tells us about the importance of what was grown. In two-bedroom cottages with six to 12 in the family, there was no space to store food. Most families had no electricity, and if they did then it was used only for light.
Summer gluts of fruit and vegetables, as well as the pig and its parts, were shared with neighbours and family. Children were constantly hungry, and everyone was hungry the day before payday. If you weren’t canny in the spring, hunger could stretch into months, winter crops having ended and the growing season not yet begun.
Most of our interviewees lived lives of deprivation and poverty by today’s standards. Several won scholarships to grammar schools, but couldn’t go because there was no money for books.
Today, having a shower, making coffee and rummaging for a clean shirt can all be done in our sleep as we fumble towards the front door on a morning. But domestic chores without mains water and electricity meant whole days had to be set aside for tasks such as keeping clean and cooking. Children worked alongside their parents in the home and garden from the time that they could walk. By the age of 14, many left school to work on the family farm, live out as a servant or take up an apprenticeship.
Agricultural pay has always been very low. It wasn’t unusual for a farm labourer to have his weekly wages made up with as much milk and as many turnips and potatoes as he needed for his family. His tied cottage could be taken away at a week’s notice. Money had to be saved to pay doctor’s bills. Before 1948, the Welfare State that we take so much for granted didn’t exist.
Land and weather
The look of the Northern Dales is stone, grass and moorland. Outcrops of stone blend with bleached tussock grass, dry-stone walls and farms, barns and pinfolds (roofless stone shelters, usually on the uplands, used to hold sheep). Without trees and hedges on the moors and fells, livestock and crops need the protection of stone.
The growing season is short, 15 weeks at best. And if you live on a north-facing slope there may be no winter sun for weeks at a time. Few people then had greenhouses, fridges or freezers, all essential to us nowadays for either bringing on the growing season or extending it through easy storage.
However, there is rain in every month and it often alternates with sun and surprising warmth. Food had to be put on the table and so people were pragmatic about what they could grow and how. Cold-hardy basics worked with the weather and could be stored in the ground until needed: cabbages, sprouts, potatoes, beetroot and parsnips.
Their pragmatism didn’t stop people experimenting. Shows and competitions demanded dedication and skill, for instance in growing onions and leeks. Exotic vegetables such as purple sprouting broccoli might be tried, but if it failed it wasn’t grown again. If you go hungry, you make sure that mistakes do not happen again.
Gardens and allotments
We asked people about their parents’ vegetable gardens, and were surprised that in a number of areas, particularly Wensleydale, there seemed to be no tradition of cottage gardening. We had been asking the wrong question! In the North Yorkshire Dales there is no pattern to vegetable and fruit growing land. Margaret Emmerson’s father (in Gilling West, Swaledale) had two pieces of land on which to grow vegetables: the triangular plot that was reached from the lane (not the house) and a field that he shared with the farmer he worked for.
In the Dales land is precious and needed for livestock. Garths (enclosed paddocks either owned or rented but not necessarily close to the farm or cottage), which in other areas of the country might have been gardens, are used for grazing lambs and calves. Tofts (land running behind a cottage) and allotments on which to grow vegetables and fruit weren’t necessarily next to the cottage but were allotted to cottagers out in the open fields. (Listen to Rhoda Fraser's oral history here)
Vegetable plots in open fields have been allotted to cottagers and farm labourers since the 19th-century Enclosure Acts. Cottages such as those in Middleham, Wensleydale face directly on to the street and back on to each other with a ginnel or alley running between them. Hens, a pig and/or a cow were kept on allotments and in gardens as a way of storing fresh food.
Council housing was built in towns such as Richmond (Swaledale) from the 1930s onwards. The schemes were planned with gardens, each divided by low hedges. The front garden was filled with colourful flowers, often annuals, and a small lawn, the grass taken from local common land at dusk.
Vegetables and soft fruit were grown out the back. Not everyone liked gardening, but over the neatly clipped hedges eachkept their eye on each other, either for tips or to feel smugly superior if their crop worked and their neighbours’ didn’t.
Few people had either greenhouses in which to germinate seeds or cold frames in which to harden plants off. Those who did either grew exotic vegetables such as tomatoes because there was a market for them, or vegetables for show, nurtured and cosseted from seed specially bought for the purpose.
Even with a greenhouse there was no point bringing plants on because they couldn’t be planted out until the weather had warmed up. Vegetables grow away better and shrug off pests and disease more successfully when growing in their season.
Potato sets and seeds such as parsnips grew away quickly. Plantssuch as cabbages could either be swapped as young plants grown from seed by a neighbour for later produce, or bought as bare-root plants wrapped in newspaper from the market, just as wallflowers still are today. People grew plants as seasonally as they ate them.
In late winter, after the last of the brassicas and parsnips were taken from the ground it was dug over and manured with muck from the farm (there is always a farm close by in the Dales). The ground had to work for its care. Vegetables were grown all year round: at the back end mature cabbages and parsnips stood in the ground while youngsters such as peas and broad-beans over-wintered for an early crop.
Some people kept the best potatoes for chitting and planting the following year, the pig having the last of the season’s stored potatoes. Other people chose the same classics that are still grown today: Arran Pilot, Maris Piper and Duke of York potatoes; Musselburgh leeks; and Detroit and Boltardy beetroots. And yet others set seed or plants in the ground without ever knowing a name other than ‘Savoy cabbage', 'scarlet runner', and 'Fred’s special' (which might be anything from tomatoes, through runner beans to cauliflowers).
Fruit needed to be plentiful and not fiddly to use – this meant rhubarb, plums, gooseberries, and apples either scrumped, shared, bartered or grown (or less often bought). Fruit pies and puddings are today no longer a regular part of a meal, but for many of our interviewees they were an essential and cheap filling food.
Compost and manure
Many of the houses had no indoor toilets, and privies and earth closets always needed emptying. Plenty of manure was annually dug into the vegetable patch. Manure also came from cattle, and horses that did the work until into the 1960s.
Our interviewees remember stirring the warm blood from the pig as it died, but don’t remember blood being used on the garden. It was a treat to spend time with their dad, even if it meant going up on to the moor with him and a wheelbarrow to collect sheep droppings. The dung was then tied into a cloth and put in the waterbutt, to be stirred by whoever was hanging the clothes on the line. This 'liquid gold' was vital to the hopes of winning first prize at the annual vegetable show.
And if the moor was too far to walk, then leaves could be collected from the big houses in the grander parts of town. Compost was not often made, as there were few scraps left over and vegetable peelings were either used to damp down the fire or fed to the pig.
Help in the garden, children's tasks
Often it was the men who gardened in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale. They’d learnt their skills as children at the National Schools while the girls 'did domestic'.
Our interviewees earned pocket money by weeding (they’d leave the weeds at the end of the vegetable row to wait for their father’s inspection), digging and shooting rats. This last task was carried out not only for parents on farms: the police gave one nine-year-old pellets and paid him 6d a rat - good money for someone who enjoyed taking pot shots at anything that moved!(Listen to Tony Dykes' oral history here)
Children as young as three were sent out to search for caterpillars and slugs, squidging them between their fingers when found. Even the hens and the pig got in on the act as they scratched and rooted for pests while at the same time fertilising the ground with dung. And if the bugs were not always found before they walked out of the lettuce leaves to die in the salad cream on the plate, 'we took no harm'.
Gardening was organic by default as chemicals were either not available or too expensive. Our interviewees remember taste, and the fact that their parents provided food for the table. Looks were only critical in show vegetables.
And from the wild
Outside the garden mushrooms were gathered from meadows. Brambles were found along streams but not on the windswept fells; bilberries were painstakingly gathered from the moors. Gooseberries and raspberries grew as easily in the wild as in a garden but were larger and tastier for being pruned and manured. Apples and plums could be gathered as windfalls, either outside boundary walls or from seemingly deserted gardens. Only one interviewee remembers gathering hazelnuts.
Rose hips were picked by children for pocket-money during World War 2. In both World Wars, Herb Committees were organised to collect herbs from around the country. 'The war has profoundly affected the drug market. The industry having so largely lapsed of late years to Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Balkans, and these sources of supply being closed, prices are going up by leaps and bounds, so that very soon the use of the most important medicines will be possible only to the rich,’ claimed a leaflet from the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries . Britain couldn’t produce enough herbs for medicines without the help of children and families gathering what was needed from the wild.
Wine was made from cowslips, elderflowers and elderberries, although few people drank it as there is a strong and strict Methodist tradition in the Dales.
Only one person that we’ve spoken to ate hedgerow plants such as nettles, ramsoms and docks. Nobody made either the herbal remedies or simples that are so popular today. A weekly dose of senna, molasses or liquorice bought from the chemist cleaned them out for the week. Children dug up pignuts (Conopodium majus) and experimented with hawthorn shoots in the spring, a tradition passed down from their parents. Scrumping apples filled their bellies better, but that could only be done in season.
Cooking the produce
Before electricity, candles and paraffin lamps lit essential tasks. All cooking was done on an open-range fire fuelled by either peat or coal, with a copper of hot water on one side and an oven on the other. A primus stove was used for quickly boiling water for a pot of tea.
Food was energy. Suet rendered from pig for puddings, crappings (similar to scratchings), fat bacon, blood pudding, dripping on bread, fruit pies and oatcakes were cheap to fill people up.
Food was plain due to the sheer effort of providing enough for large families, all of whom worked physically hard on the land. It was not easy to coax meals for large, hungry families from a temperamental range with its live flames, over which food was boiled and oatcakes were griddled, or ovens that might burn food one moment and if the wind changed direction didn’t cook them thoroughly the next.
Few of the houses had mains water. Water was supplied via hand pumps, either in the house or on the street, together with water-butts with charcoal in the bottom. Most farmhouses stood close to streams or springs to ensure a good water supply.
Storage inside and outside
Everything possible was picked and killed at the last moment. Cabbages, parsnips, turnips, sprouts and leeks stood in the ground through winter, gathered as needed. Where space and walls allowed apples were grown. These were usually dual purpose, first cookers then eaters: Ribstone Pippin, Newton Wonder, and Flower of the Town. They were used from the trees in succession over as long a period as possible before those that were left were stored fresh wherever space could be found.(Listen to DG's oral history here)
Potatoes were dug up and used as needed until October. The October potato-picking holiday was a village event, a time to earn good money, and catch up on gossip while working along the rows. The farmer dug up the potatoes with a machine and people followed behind picking them off the ground. Children, some as young as eight, worked at picking potatoes. During the 1940s and 1950s, the Ministry of Agriculture formalised the previously random absences from school by declaring it a two-week holiday. Each child was given a card to be signed by the farmer and returned to school after harvesting and potato picking.
At home the potatoes were either dug up to be stored in a tin lined with soil before being replaced in the ground, or stored in paper and hessian sacks and stacked wherever space could be found. Pigs and rabbits were also used as live storage units. Rabbits were either reared and sold for a bit of extra money, or better still taken with ferrets and terriers from the wild.
Pigs were killed in succession and shared around the hamlet in turn. Plates of fresh fry (offal) were taken on dishes to neighbours, who returned the favour when they killed their pig.
Few herbs were grown to flavour food. Mint sauce made with sugar and malt vinegar was ubiquitous, as mint was easy to grow.
Hens are sensitive to daylight length: as the days grow shorter the number of eggs laid decreases. To ensure an adequate supply of eggs in the winter for baking they were stored either in waterglass or bran tubs over the summer.
Many people remember the seasonal qualities of milk: in spring so thick and creamy that it almost needed a spoon, the best cheese made from it to be matured for Christmas. Milk from sheep and cattle that fed on ‘fog’ (the grass left standing through the winter) was thin and made poor cheese. Butter could be made all year round: rich gold from meadow plants in spring and summer, and paler in winter because the animals feed on hay.
In the summer everyone shared in the glut of fruit and vegetables, nothing could be saved fresh, although plums were bottled in kilner jars. Eating could at last be for pleasure.
Few people were able to be completely self-sufficient in what they grew. Vans selling all manner of items including food traveled around the Dales. Farmers went to weekly markets to buy and sell livestock, catch up on the local news, buy food for the animals and the family, and hire men from the groups that stood in the market place. Several people remembered vegetable shops with a piece of land out back from where rhubarb was pulled and vegetables picked as customers came in and asked for them. (Listen to Tony Dykes' oral history here)
From the 1960s supermarkets began opening in the Dales. People who didn’t enjoy gardening started to buy their food. Vegetable growing fell out of favour, slug-holed cabbages unable to compete with waxed, wrapped perfection. But those with a passion for gardening eagerly scoured the increasingly available seed catalogues and magazines, and continued to grow the same seed that worked for them. And there was always room for an experiment or two, making demands on their skills crafted over decades.
Many of our interviewees wished they’d asked their parents and grandparents more questions about day-to-day activities, and are shyly delighted as they recall memories from their childhood. As children they were taught how to be useful: chitting potatoes; bringing in the cows for milking; stirring either the pig’s warm blood for black pudding or sheep’s manure in the water butt for liquid fertiliser; laying eggs down in waterglass; and making butter and cheese. Daily tasks were ingrained in them from watching and doing.
Between childhood and old age our interviewees got on with their lives; now they are old and tell their stories. As they speak and we listen to tales that aren’t all rosy, a constant phrase is heard: 'we came to no harm'. Some of the memories are particularly poignant, coming from people who know that they have dementia. Unhappily they fumble to remember what it was they had for lunch an hour ago, and laugh with pleasure as they remember scrattling in the soil to check when potatoes were ready to dig up for lunch 60 years ago.
For more information about the Dales Plants and Gardens 1900-1960 project, contact Sally Reckert.
To read about the methodology of the Dales Plants and Gardens 1900-1960 project, please click here.
Endnotes and sources
1) Dales Plants and Gardens 1900-1960, an oral history project recording people’s memories of the fruit and vegetables grown in the North Yorkshire Dales of Swaledale, Arkengarthdale and Wensleydale, collectively known as the Three Dales.
2) Facts and feelings for this article came from conversations with Harry Bell, Stella Birch, Ron Brown, Tony Dykes, Clarice Grimshaw, Margaret Emmerson, Myra Horseman, Mrs Lugg, Marion Moverley, Mary Rutter, Peter Shell, Kenneth Sunter.
3) My Learning from museums, libraries and archives in Yorkshire.
4) The Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, Leaflet 288 The Cultivation and Collection of Medicinal Plants in England. (1914) quoted in Ada B. Teetgen. Profitable Herb Growing and Collecting. Country Life, London, 1919 (p. 5).