It is a story that is, literally, as old as the hills, yet its history can be traced in just eight small notebooks.
The accounts ledgers of Victorian bookkeepers in the upper Dales, meticulously written in fountain pen and handed down through the generations, are windows on a lost world of dairy farming... of “blue milk” cheese by the hundredweight and milk by the churn.
They will go on show next week, alongside the recorded memories of retired dairymen and women, in a celebration of the food staples that made Wensleydale famous.
It was a cardboard box that originally contained aniseed balls – 20 a penny, the label said – that had given up the ledgers.
Inside were itemised accounts from 1822 to 1850, with a gap of two years from April 1828. They had been kept by James Willis, who farmed at Yorescott, a house that no longer exists, just to the west of Yorebridge and north of Bainbridge.
Within the pages of copperplate writing were contained the minutiae of everyday life in a Dales dairy.
“6th May Received of J. Raw for butter, 7s 5d.
“29th September Expenses at Hawes Fair, 2s 2d.”
The entries constitute “an incredibly detailed history of the finances of two farms making and selling cheese and butter in Wensleydale”, said Karen Griffiths, at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, who has put together the exhibition at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes.
“His cows had names, it appears. In 1834 he sells one called Old Plump to Simon Thwaite for the huge sum of £15 15s. Another was so special that in the front leaf of the eighth volume of accounts he records, ‘Churned of Norgath, in one week 13 rolls of butter of 24oz each’.”
But few dairy farmers made surplus money. Eleanor Scarr, who farmed with her husband on land at Askrigg, is among the members of Wensleydale’s dairy community to have contributed oral histories to the exhibition.
Her family saw hard times in the 1940s and 50s, she said.
“Nobody had very much at all. There was no need to keep with the Jonses because everyone was in the same boat. We sold our milk by the gallon to Express Dairy and they controlled what we got. Everyone got the same.”
It worked out at 9d a pint, or about three-and-a-half pence.
“Eventually, the Milk Marketing Board came along and made it fairer, by guaranteeing that someone would take all we produced. Until they decided it was too much of a monopoly.”
Mrs Scarr also recalls that her father – whose own dairy farm was eventually sold from under him – conceived the idea of making and retailing cream. A bonus was that the “blue bob” – the skimmed milk that was left over – also caught on after the local vet’s wife started using it for coffee parties.
A century earlier, museum exhibits reveal “blue milk cheeses” made from skimmed milk to have been sold regularly in Wensleydale.
Ms Griffiths said: “We have recorded hours of people’s memories. Put alongside the research which has taken us right back to cattle farming in prehistoric times, the exhibition is a remarkable insight into Wensleydale’s dairying past.”