This post was originally published in October 2019 in issue #2 of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England’s West Yorkshire branch Ways of Seeing magazine.
In the decade that I have lived here, I have become increasingly immersed in the story of the upper reaches of West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley. The narrative of this landscape’s last millennium opened with its use as a hunting forest for the nobility and culminated in a fury of industrial textile production. But I have become fascinated by how the tapestry of this patch of the Pennines has been woven largely from the humble yarn of the small family farms.
In the past year of walking the paths of the five ancient townships of Wadsworth, Stansfield, Heptonstall, Erringden and Langfield I have mapped around 520 farmhouses. This extraordinary density of small farms accumulated across centuries of subdivision among sons and the enclosure of the ‘wastes’ as moorland was muscled up the valley sides. Each of the thousands of small fields was created by unimaginable labour, clearing the surface stones to build the dry stone walls and then digging out rush roots and rocks using a stout-shafted, wrought-iron-bladed ‘graving’ spade. The severe climate ensured that each farm’s meagre handful of acres could offer little more than subsistence: a few cattle for beef and butter, milk and muck; perhaps a small flock of the hardy local Lonk sheep summered up on the moorland commons, where rights of turbary (the right to cut peat for the range) were held; poultry and a pig or two; some oats for porridge and havercake; and a small garden plot for cabbages, onions and potatoes.
It was not much, but it did not need to be, for there was another source of income besides that little from the bull calves and butter that could be sold: every farmhouse had a handloom in the upstairs chamber for the weaving of kersey and worsted, using wool not from the coarse Lonk, but from finer-fleeced sheep than the West Riding could provide. But then the mills marched into the valleys, and the farmer-clothiers were forced instead to send their children to join the frenzy of spinning, weaving, dyeing and cutting to clothe the world in fustian.
For the 150 years since the mills put paid to income from domestic weaving, there has been an inexorable decline in the number of working farms. Over 400 are now inhabited as dwellings only, but thanks to planning laws their distinctive vernacular architecture has been sympathetically conserved, including having most of their barns or ‘laithes’ ‒ hayloft above and shippon for overwintering cattle below ‒ converted into handsome residences. Around 70 farmhouses today moulder in varying states of ruin, many of them abandoned too early to be saved by money from urban escapees seeking rural quiet. At the head of Crimsworth Dean, for example, a single sycamore marks the site of long-vanished Mare Greave, and crouched under Edge End Moor, Cruttonstall has been uninhabited since not long after George and Elizabeth Halstead closed the door in the 1880s, after 40 years of farming their 16 acres.
However, despite these tremendous losses and but for the bristle of belching mill chimneys in the valleys, the landscape looks much as it would have done in the nineteenth century. This is because around 50 farms remain working, and most of these have enlarged to encompass fields from the farms that did not survive. Despite this expansion, they remain very much small, family-run businesses, husbanding stock and soil in a way that their predecessors would recognise.
But there is now a debate over how, and even if at all, farming should continue its role in the story of upland landscapes such as this. The economic pressure is for fewer, ever-larger and more intensively commercial holdings, but in some places even this consolidation may not be sufficient to compete in a global marketplace if future trade deals are not favourable. Pressure of another kind comes from the arguments of campaigners who claim that if the long trajectory of the loss of these small farms were completed and these hills ‘rewilded’ then some societal benefits that the uplands can deliver, such as carbon storage, flood mitigation and thriving wildlife, could be better secured.
Whether it is the result of market competition or the success of climate and wildlife campaigns, there are unavoidable consequences to the abandonment of the pastures and meadows of upland farms. We will either have to farm the remaining productive areas more intensively; increase imports from countries with often poorer animal welfare and environmental standards; or decrease our consumption of meat and dairy. Moreover, we must be certain we wish to face these consequences permanently, for if we reflect on the labour it took to create each field and make it fit for the production of food, it seems unlikely that this endeavour would ever be repeated. Whatever positive outcomes allowing nature to reclaim this landscape may achieve, it would also have irreversible consequences for the origin and standards of our food, let alone for the heritage the landscape embodies and the well-being of its remaining farming communities.
However, if recent proposals from government to support farmers in their efforts to deliver those public goods relating to carbon, water and wildlife while keeping the land productive of food are carefully implemented, the narrative thread of the small family farm may yet continue to be woven through this landscape. I shall continue walking
and witnessing how the story of this valley unfolds.