Another stop-off in my project documenting the many abandoned farmsteads across the Dales, Crook Seal in the Northern reaches of Birkdale — the most desolate in the entire National Park — is still used as a barn for the scant herds of livestock that roam the region’s bleak expanses, but the presence of a chimney and limestone framed mullioned windows (most of which are now filled with rocks to protect the animals inside from the area’s relentless winds) give away that it was once some kind of dwelling for the hardy farmers who oversaw the lands here.
The name is a little weird for sure, but I’ll take a vaguely-informed attempt at deciphering the etymology: ‘Crook’ I can’t 100% decide on. It could be derived from a shepherd’s crook — the long stick traditionally topped with a ram’s horn used to catch sheep — as it’s likely to have been a sheep farmer who once lived here; or like the curve of the implement’s handle, it could refer to some similarly shaped geographical feature like the bend in a river or ridge-line, not that there’s anything particularly pronounced I spotted in the nearby area that might have inspired it. There’s also the surname angle, as ‘Crook’ could well have been the family name of the original occupants. ‘Seal’ I’m slightly more confident with, as I think it most likely comes from the Middle English word ‘sele’, meaning ‘to harness cattle’ which makes the most sense in terms of one of the building’s primary functions, and I don’t imagine for a second that sea-dwelling mammals were a primary influence in the decision.
I can’t find much data at all for this place, and given its current purpose I didn’t expect to find anything at all of interest inside to further illuminate matters — once you’ve seen one barn, you’ve pretty much seen them all — and I was almost right too. First impressions brought the usual kind of livestock detritus you expect in such places: Spray paint for tagging the animals, tucked into the gaps above the ceiling beams; empty bags of dietary supplements and antibiotics, a nice dirt floor strewn with clumps of ragged wool; it was only when I noticed the writing on the walls that my curiosity was piqued — most graffiti in my experience, tends not be written in cursive.
Closer inspection revealed that the remaining layer of plaster still clinging to the roughly-hewn stonework has been used as a communal diary of sorts, with clusters of brief notes painted, pencilled or etched onto the surface. Many of the entries were too faint to make out, or incomplete due to the plaster crumbling away, fracturing and obscuring their meanings; but those I could read were mostly dated and stretched back over a century — hundreds of little snippets of life from another time, frenetically overlain over each other on a vast and chaotically arranged canvas.
Some of them appeared to be from former residents or workers, referencing the number of foxes trapped, the weather on that day, then-current news — both local and international; others seemed to be from people just passing through, checking in with their names, addresses, and details of their hike. The earliest fragment I could spot was from 1915 although I can barely make out the faded and degraded script and work out what it said. Doubtless there are earlier entries that have dulled to indistinct markings over the years, although if they’ve made an impression on the plaster, it may be worth heading back sometime with paper and a pencil to try and trace the etchings they’ve left.
Finding things like this, hidden away and unreferenced in any tourist guide, nor indeed any publication at all from what I can find, is exactly why it’s worth leaving no stone unturned when on the hunt for interesting obscurities— even the most unassuming places can hold a wealth of secrets.