It's your churn in the cow shed

PUBLISHED: 11:46 15 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:47 04 May 2010

THE Fen washes provided ideal grazing places for cattle in the summer time. The areas of land that were left either side of the River Great Ouse, her tributaries and the washes between the Old and New Bedford Rivers, held back the flood waters in the win

THE Fen washes provided ideal grazing places for cattle in the summer time.

The areas of land that were left either side of the River Great Ouse, her tributaries and the washes between the Old and New Bedford Rivers, held back the flood waters in the winter and provided pasture in the summer.

Farmers would have large herds of cattle grazing in these areas and the animals helped to maintain a self-sufficient way of life for the isolated Fen farmers, providing milk and butter for the family.

Cattle were also sent to markets in the local towns, such as Ely, bringing in much-needed cash.

Butter-making was a common site all over the Fens. Until relatively recently, a small table churn, box-churn or 'atmospheric churn' (a tall glass jar, the lid carried a crank that turned wooden paddles in the jar) would be found in most small cottages and houses.

Rural housewives had no other choice than to make their own butter to supply the needs of the family.

The milk was left in a shallow bowl over-night and in the morning the cream had risen to the top and could be skimmed off using a fleeter, a shallow perforated scoop usually made from tin. For the process to work the cream had to be sour. In the summertime this was not a problem, if left for long enough it would sour naturally. At other times of the year a little already- soured cream was set aside, full of Bacillus lacitus it would sour the cream, turning the milk sugar into

lactic acid.

The butter was then churned in small or large receptacles, until little grains of butter could be seen, the liquid or buttermilk was carefully drawn off and any excess water had to be squeezed out using a butter worker - a long wooden plank with slightly raised edges and supported on a stand. The butter was placed on the butter worker and rolled with a wooden rolling pin that squeezed out the extra liquid. The butter was then ready to be formed into blocks, rolls or rounds using wooden butter hands and then weighed on wooden butter scales if it was for sale. Butter sellers would often have their own stamps to identify themselves.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, East Anglia supplied a third of all the butter to London. It arrived there via the water transport systems running through Cambridge. In 1730, records show that the capital consumed 3,029 tons of Cambridgeshire butter and just over 2,000 tons from Suffolk.

The Fenland cattle herds also supplied local markets with milk. In this area of the Fens, there were certain customs which prevailed in the milking sheds designed to ensure that milking was not disrupted. A female domain, the milking parlour was supposed to be a place of calm for 'milk likes peace and is sure to curdle if it's jarred or has clumsy folk about it'. The women moved quietly around the milking parlour and were careful not to slam the doors, for fear of upsetting the cows.

They also made sure that they dipped their hands in water or moistened them with the first drops of milk drawn from the udder for fear that the cow would dry up and stop producing milk.

As much as I like animals I think I would rather pass on being a milkmaid, I don't think I could keep quiet for long enough and would be sure to ruin the milk production!!

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