Anton Coaker: Snooping round the Dales for a taste of northern life
After a spell away from the good ship Sherberton, we've returned to a whole-herd TB test. Mobs of cows and calves are being held on the bits of aftergrass, and pacing about roaring. I'll know the worst by tomorrow. There are a few off-lying stragglers to catch up with next week, but the high-risk beasts are in this round. Cross yer fingies for me.
The excursion referred to involved a week's snooping about the Yorkshire Dales, with forays into Cumbria and Lancashire. We were based in a rambling old house within walking distance of the Wensleydale Creamery, where they make the cheese. Happily there's a tasting room, where you can graze along the trays of little cubes of different types. With it taking a lot of provender to maintain a flock of small Coakers, we sampled all the wares we could manage, on several occasions. By the end of the week, I was afraid we'd have to start wearing disguises, but nobody said owt, so we grazed on. Finding the local chippy served 'deep fried Wensleydale' was an unexpected bonus.
It's very much a livestock raising area, with the lower reaches of most dales being neat little dairy outfits, interspersed with mule sheep rearing texel lambs. Further up the slope were older Swale ewes raising the mule lambs, and out on the tops were the main body of Swales, some bred pure, others rearing ever more mules. Pockets of Blue Leicesters to provide the mule sires were sprinkled close to dwellings, to be handy to take them their sweeties every day – and ensure they were still living, which isn't always a given. Most of the suckler herds where continentals, but in very small numbers, due to topographical restrictions.
Both having very understanding partners, I was allowed to bring along a girlfriend. She is an architect with interests in farming and geology, so while the rest of the girls were clip clopping ponies, we were able to try and unravel how the Dales came to look as they do. The rocks underfoot are almost all sedimentary, laid down over gazzilions of years, and then scraped about by glaciers over tens of thousands of years. The results include the provision of the flat blocky stones to build all those drystone walls and redundant little barns – roughly one in every third field – and some layers of easily split yellow stuff that makes the big roofing flags covering the barns and houses. The varying layers include lots of limestone, which raises the pH marvellously wherever it's on the surface, but layers of sandstone which doesn't. The difference to the men farming the ground is that some of the hillsides are steep, sour rush-infested rubbish, while perversely, out on top where the glaciers scraped bare the infamous limestone 'pavements', the meagre soil is fabulous, and grows sweet rich grass. Where the moss did grow over the top of the pavement, the resulting cap of peat isn't of much use to anything but the heather and the grouse.
The glaciers dumped mounds of ground-up trash along the valley floors, where there is also plentiful sweet grass on the steep little hummocks and slopes. We argued in an amateurish way about which were drumlins and which were moraine, etc, but had fun doing so. The kids found loads of fossils, and the boy 'borrowed' a few wild trout here and there – to be strictly accurate, he tried to pay where we should've, and had permission elsewhere. He and I tracked down the best-looking hill flock for miles – lying at the very head of Swaledale, with black stripe mark on near flank. We resolved to go back for a tup lamb one day. The roadkill tally included a lot of hedgehogs – they don't have many badgers – masses of bunnies, and one substantial deer.
Quite coincidentally we also happened on the two-day summer social of an obscure cattle breeding group I belong to. "Gosh," I said, "what a surprise!" As well as seeing their gorgeous stock, we were able to pick the brains of our kind hosts for further local info. And very generous down-to-earth farmers they proved to be, with generations of livestock husbandry behind them.
All in all, a sound and informative outing.
And lastly, back home again, I'm raising my hat to Mr and Mrs Philip Blamey, having read his letter in Tuesday's paper. Good on you both. What gentle humour, and such a heart-warming letter.