As hunting and gathering gave way to farming, people in the Yorkshire Dales had to learn new ways of storing food. Survival during the long winter months required a good store of grain for the family and feed for their animals. In the Dales there is little archaeological evidence for early stores, there are no grain pits such as those found on Iron Age sites on the chalklands of southern England. In the prehistoric Dales, feed was probably stored in structures which are either indistinguishable from houses or which leave no trace.
Gargrave Roman Villa has outbuildings, some of which no doubt were used for storage, but it is not really until medieval times that we begin to see evidence for how farmers organised their storage of food and animal fodder. Field archaeologists have begun to record small, levelled areas of ground around medieval field systems in places such as Linton and Thorpe and Town Head, Askrigg, and have interpreted these as stackgarths for hay and straw. The foundations for medieval cruck-built timber barns have also been recognised and it seems likely that the first barns, just like medieval farmhouses, were built from readily available timber.
It seems that different buildings were used for different functions on the Medieval and Tudor farm. A 16th century survey of Cracoe describes both cruck-built barns and hay houses, also built of crucks. Both types were thatched. A heavily restored example of a cruck-built barn with stone walls and a heather thatched roof can be seen at Grimwith Reservoir. There are two more authentic examples at Drebley.
Stone-built barns probably start replacing timber barns in the early 18th century during the Great Rebuild of farmhouses in stone. Early dated examples are Mantley Field Laithe near Malham and an unnamed field barn in good condition, on Occupation Road, Muker. These stone barns were different to the earlier timber buildings in that they combined the functions of cattle house and fodder storage. Farming was changing from a subsistence economy to a cash economy and the greater wealth and also the requirement to overwinter more and more cattle, laid the foundations for the characteristic Dales landscapes we see today in Swaledale and Upper Wharfedale.
The Dales field barn or laithe is unusual in that it is sited well away from the main farm buildings. Instead these barns are found in hay meadows and were used to store the hay from their surrounding fields over winter. Cattle were housed in a shippon on the lower floor in stalls and fed with this hay. Their muck was spread on the hay meadows to feed the next crop of hay. The siting of the barn meant that heavy materials such as hay and muck never had to be carried very far from where they were needed.
Other types of barns found in the Dales include those built to over-winter young sheep (hoggs) known as hogg houses. They mostly seem to date to the 19th century and were sometimes built on to earlier field barns. They are usually two storey affairs with room for sheep on both floors and hayracks around the walls. Many examples are to be found in Upper Swaledale which had particularly bad winters. The young sheep were housed in the hogg house overnight and in the event of severe winter weather, during the day as well. Harker’s Hogg House, near Muker is a single storey example, still being used for its original purpose.
The Great Tythe Barn at Bolton Abbey is a unique survival from early Tudor times in the Dales. Its function was as a vast storage area for grain and other products from the Priory estates. There was also a threshing floor. As less and less grain was grown in the Dales, the storage function of most barns was turned over to hay. Big Laithe, Nappa in Wensleydale dating to the early to mid 19th century is another unusual survival with its capacity to house 40 cows and its large threshing floor. Clearly it was still worth growing crops here until well into the 19th century. Indeed, in 2002 the practice restarted on a small scale in this part of Wensleydale.
With the advent in the mid-20th century of the technique of silage making and the modern requirements for housing and milking cattle, the field barn has become largely redundant. Their importance as a landscape feature is however recognised, and the National Park Authority along with other organisations, distributes grants to help farmers restore their field barns. Village barns on the other hand are in great demand for conversion to housing and there are very few left in their original condition.
Town Head Barn on the edge of Malham village has been restored by The National Trust to show how it functioned and includes an exhibition on the history of farming in the Dales. The Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes also has an interesting display showing how farmers milked cows in their field barns, carrying the milk from barn to farm in tin back cans.
Cracoe survey: Yorkshire Archaeological Society manuscript DD 121/31/10
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