Weaving a picture of past life in the Dales

Catherine Calvert at Hazel Brow Farm in Swaledale
Catherine Calvert at Hazel Brow Farm in Swaledale
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Swaledale Festival gets underway this weekend. Chris Berry looks at the importance of wool to the Dales’ heritage.

Wool once played a vital role in the livelihoods of those working in the small community of Low Row deep in the heart of Swaledale and this weekend Catherine Calvert and her team will pay homage to its past as part of Swaledale Festival.

Wooly Day takes place at Hazel Brow Farm on Bank Holiday Monday at the farm visitor centre Catherine has run for nearly 20 years, but the era she will be harking back to in her historic view is two centuries ago.

“In 1841 there were 36 people employed in the textile industry just at this end of the village. The history of farming here is entwined with the lead mining industry. It seems you were either a lead mining family that farmed, or a farmer who was a lead miner. Everyone would keep a pig, couple of cows and a few sheep and the fleeces were very important to your annual income.

“Low Row was a hive of activity and worsted yarn production became very popular. This suggests that there were longer fleeces than the Swaledale breed produces around at the time, or that they then produced a longer wool themselves.

“We are keen to conduct much more research into the history of wool in Low Row and find out exactly what they were producing at the time and why.

“We know that Swaledale stockings were popular in the time of the Napoleonic Wars and we are also looking into exploring the history of the sock.

“We know that one of the old buildings just up from us was occupied by a 13 year old worsted spinner called Jenny White and that at the time there appears to have been some large sums of money moved around in connection with the trade.”

Local weavers, spinners, knitters and felters will all be demonstrating their crafts and selling their wares on Monday, but it won’t just be sheep’s wool they will be using as Catherine has incorporated other animals’ fibre to Wooly Day.

Hazel Brow Farm has Angora goats and Alpacas as well as sheep and one of the challenges Catherine has thrown down to the craftspeople is to produce a three-fibre sock containing fibre from her Swaledale flock as well as the goats and alpacas.

Sheep clipper John Waggett will also be on hand to provide more raw yarn, but Catherine has a word of warning for those listening to his tales and advice.

“You might need to bring your Swaledale interpreter’s handbook with you, because John is difficult enough to understand even to me.”

The initial idea for Hazel Brow Farm Visitor Centre was born out of the people who used to stay in the Calvert’s farmhouse.

“We used to let the farmhouse for visitors and invariably they would ask what was going on, usually at milking or lambing times.

“Then they would ask if they or their children could watch. We always stipulated that if they were to come and see what we were doing that parents would have to come down with their children.

“It became an enjoyable experience for me too and 
so in 1996 after a couple of years of showing people around we put on a tea 
room and that’s how it has become the enterprise we have now.”

Sheep and cattle play an integral role in the farming operation at Hazel Brow today, but the farm and visitor centre are run as two separate businesses with Raymond, Catherine’s brother in law in charge of the farm.

There have been significant changes in recent times with the dairy herd having been sold in 2009.

“It is sad that we no longer have dairy cows. I miss the sounds and the smell of the herd but it is a sign of the times. There used to be 36 dairy farms in this area and now there is just one up at Crackpot.”

The farm at Low Row runs to around 200 acres with common and moorland grazing. It is an upland permanent grassland farm that has been in the family for a number of generations. The Swaledale flock amounts to 500 ewes producing organic Mule lambs. Cattle are bought in as organic stores and fattened on.

Whilst Hazel Brow Farm has rightly earned a solid reputation over the past two decades for its visitor centre it will still surprise those who have not been before, not least if you are looking to find some kind of massive entrance.

You approach it by taking a sharp hairpin left turn as you travel west on the road from Reeth and then make your way tentatively down a long and winding track to the foot of the hill.

It is not the largest visitor centre you will ever come across by a long way and it is not one of those where children can expect to cuddle a rabbit or guinea pig as other more urban-based farm centres offer.

“We only keep animals that are productive farm stock. We have goats and children can have a go at milking them. It’s a lot easier than trying to milk a cow and getting your feet stood on by a goat is certainly less traumatic than milking a cow. We also have pigs that we buy as weaners in pairs. They are your commercial pink pigs that are very efficient and their meat goes into our shop.”

Something for everyone

Wooly Day is one of the many attractions and events in this year’s Swaledale Festival (May 25 to June 8). It takes place on Bank Holiday Monday this weekend.

Catherine believes Wooly Day will hold an attraction for everyone. The Wooly Market will undoubtedly interest the adults and the more inquisitive of the children, then there are the Wooly Point to Point Races when Swaledale sheep will compete on the flat, not over the jumps. The tea room has a viewing platform from where you look down to the cattle or sheep housed inside, depending on which time of year you visit.