The Story of Wensleydale

by frankbeswick

Wensleydale is a delicious, traditional British cheese whose origin goes back to the Middle Ages.

We know that Wensleydale is a historic cheese, made for many centuries by the loving hands of craftswomen, for cheese was traditionally made by women. It was also made by monks of Jervaux Abbey, which was sited on the limestone hills of the area that we call the Yorkshire Dales. It is a medium creamy and delightful cheese originally made with ewes' milk, but now with cows'. How the recipe survived is recounted herein.

Picture courtesy of pooch_eire, of Pixabay

The Monks

Imagine the scene. The date is 1536 and the white-robed abbot speaks to the assembled valley folk. King Henry has looted the abbey of its wealth and evicted the monks, so the young abbot has no farewell gift for his tearful people. All he has left in the world is a recipe. He gives it to the  valley folk facing impoverishment for loss of the work that the abbey provides. Then he bids them farewell and walks off, later to reluctantly join the Northern rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. For thus defying Henry Abbot Adam Sedbergh [Sedbar] was to be executed at Tyburn in London in 1537 by the gruesome method of being hung, drawn and quartered, a method too barbaric to describe on a family site.

This is the legend of Wensleydale. The scene is the product of my imagination; the legend is not. What truth lies in it cannot be ascertained, but oral history states that the departing monks gave the valley folk the recipe for Wensleydale cheese. The monks were Cistercians, an austere branch of the Benedictines who sought lonely places for their monasteries, like the valleys of Northern England, where they practised farming of sheep and cattle. The monks, who originally came from France, made a cheese of ewe's milk, which was popular and made them good profit. They made one change, moving from sheep's milk to cows'. This was because sheep only yield milk eight months a year, while the cheese business required the year round milk production that only cows could provide. Not that the valley folk could not make cheese already, they could, but they took over the monks' recipe and made their cheese in their own dairies and kitchens. And so they profited.

But by the later years of the nineteenth century things were becoming more difficult.  International  trade saw factory-produced cheese from America undercutting the craft cheeses made in British dairies. Moreover, cheap cheeses from Britain's imperial possessions, such as New Zealand, burst onto the market worsening the undercutting. Globalisation did no good at all for craft producers and traditional products.

War worsened matters, because under the appalling pressures of food shortages government standardised cheese production to a limited range of cheeses, the best known of which was known as government cheddar. After the Second World War supermarkets proved to be a force for standardisation, and production of local cheeses produced in small creameries declined. When I was a child in the 1950s I had only ever known cheddar cheese, which is not surprising, as rationing of cheese continued to1954; but I remember the day when my mother managed  to get some Cheshire cheese! It was a novelty to me, and a delight.

However, the fightback by lovers of traditional, craft and farmhouse cheese lovers had already begun, and one name stands out, Kit Calvert and the Hawes creamery at the head of Wensleydale in North Yorkshire.    




Wensleydale Cheese
Wensleydale Cheese


Kit Calvert is the hero of Wensleydale. In 1931, aged 28,he inherited some money and bought a small farm at Hawes, at the head of Wensleydale and began to sell milk to the Hawes creamery that was in a onetime mill. But luck, if you call it that, intervened. In 1932 the Hawes creamery filed for bankruptcy, leaving the Wensleydale farmers with the possibility of having no outlet for their milk. Kit banded with five other farmers and agreed with the creamery's biggest creditor to borrow the creamery. He was buying time. Here is where luck again was on his side, because shortly after he established this system the arrival of motor transport brought the market for liquid milk to the valley. Kit was convinced that had this arrived earlier the cheese would have died out.

But the situation was not easy, for one gallon of milk makes one pound of cheese. At that time Wensleydale cheese was costing five pence a gallon to make, but only retailing at three pence a pound. The economics were not right. The consortium were considering giving up, but one farmer had heard of a new government initiative, the establishment of the Milk Marketing Board, which would buy farmers' milk at a fair price, so the consortium  agreed to hang on.  By 1933 sales had picked up and the consortium running the creamery decided to  step down and the creamery reverted to its original owner, who could not make a success of it. There were other creameries at the western end of the valley providing competition, but they  were not secure either. What was Kit to do?  

On going to the town square he met a man from the Milk Marketing Board who was offering  farmers contracts for liquid milk, telling them that it was the only option. Kit told them to wait before they signed and sought finance from significant local figures, including the manager of the local hotel. In a day Kit managed to set up a new commercial operation,  which paid off what the consortium owed to the creamery and ensured continued production of the  historic cheese in Wensleydale. 

The next problem was the war, when the government banned many cheeses for the duration. Their reason was that crumbly cheeses, such as Wensleydale, were not easily divided up in a rationing system. The Wensleydale consortium arranged a meeting with the ministry of food and agreed to make a non-crumbly cheese for wartime. Wartime arrangements also included distributing cheese storage around the dale [valley] to ensure that it would not be destroyed by a single bomb. This proved prescient as a bomb fell near to a creamery at the Western end of the dale.

Production temporarily ceased in 1944 when women and children were evacuated from the South of England to avoid attacks by the VI flying bomb. At this time the liquid milk was requisitioned for use by the  evacuees. Production began again when in 1945 the Allies destroyed the V1 launching sites.

By 1954 production had moved from the old mill to a purpose-built creamery. Things were looking good.   

Saved by a Cartoon

Two threats emerged in later years, after Kit's death. In 1992 Dairy Crest, who owned the creamery, moved production to Lancashire. Those who know England know that the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire have a rivalry that dates back to the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century, when the dukes of Lancaster and York fought viciously for the throne. Now the rivalry is sporting, but there is an identity difference between the two counties. The transfer wounded Yorkshire pride and generated a fightback, a consortium including the management bought out the creamery and returned cheese making to Wensleydale.   

But in1995 sales were not brilliant when a cartoonist accidentally helped out. Wallace and Grommit is a children's cartoon about an affable, harmless, northern Englishman and his good natured dog. Wallace [who speaks with a central Lancashire accent] loves cheese. In one episode Wallace says that his favourite cheese is Wensleydale. The writer of the cartoon was unaware that Wensleydale cheese production was under threat, but he gave the cheese massive publicity on television. Children started asking their mothers to give them Wensleydale in their lunch boxes. When they got it they liked it. Sales soared and stayed up.

The  creamery is now secure. It produces three types of Wensleydale: the white variety pictured above; a smoked variety, which I have yet to taste; and a variety containing cranberries, which accounts for a quarter of all sales. You can see this in the picture above. The company has a visitors' centre  attached to the creamery, which draws 25000 paying visitors a year, boosting revenue greatly. The cheese has benefited from the revival of local craft cheese production in Britain and Ireland, which is part of the movement for non-industrialised food production. It is one cheese among many, albeit a great one. I really like it on a toasted ham and cheese sandwich!







Updated: 11/05/2020, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 03/09/2024

No. The origins are cloaked in mystery. But the monastery of Jervaux was early second millennium, so any cheese making before that date wasnot monastic, so any cheese making before then would have been female, as the Saxon women were responsible for making food.9

DerdriuMarriner on 03/09/2024

The first paragraph in your introduction advises us that "We know that Wensleydale is a historic cheese, made for many centuries by the loving hands of craftswomen, for cheese was traditionally made by women. It was also made by monks of Jervaux Abbey, which was sited on the limestone hills of the area that we call the Yorkshire Dales."

Does any oral or written tradition indicate whether craftswomen or Jervaux Abbey monks initiated the first cheeses?

frankbeswick on 03/05/2024

No. There are none. They are a ridge.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/04/2024

Thank you for your comment Nov. 24, 2020, in answer to my previous, same-day observations and question.

The name Cheviots makes me mull French origins.

But English Wikipedia presents Cheviots, in its The Cheviot article, as first rendered Chiuiet. That article suggests a Brittonic origin, from *ceμ- ("a ridge") and -ed ("having the quality of").

Would there be any local origin stories behind the place name Cheviots?

frankbeswick on 11/24/2020

As Wensleydale is limestone country bogs are not common there, but in the Cheviots on the Scottish border there are many bogs.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/24/2020

This past week I found that the cheese section has the cranberry Wensleydale. I guess I didn't see it for the Irish cheeses. The cheese specialist indicated that it's a longtime favorite with many customers. The pure white is his preference even though as a berry lover he likes the cranberry Wensleydale. He said that Murray's requires a wax that is not on the cranberry Wensleydale in England.
What cranberry bogs where would Wensleydale use (probably not my favorites on this side of the pond in Massachusetts)?

frankbeswick on 11/10/2020

It is made at Beechmount Farm, which covers 200 acres in the Golden Vale, which is an area of fine dairy country in Tipperary.

The farm now makes a sheep's milk cheese as well as Cashel Blue, the only sheep's milk cheese from Ireland. It is known as Crozier Blue. I have yet to sample it.

Veronica on 11/09/2020

Cashal Blue is a big favourite of ours. I think it is from County Tipperary.

frankbeswick on 11/06/2020

I once chewed on an Irish cheese, Kerry Farm, that was too hard. It is not now listed with Irish cheeses, so I infer that it has gone out of production. For Irish cheese, choose Cashel Blue. I have never tasted Cornish Yarg.

Veronica on 11/06/2020

I love most cheeses . I can 't think of any i do not like except perhaps Cornish Yarg which matures wrapped in nettle leaves.

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