The modern grey cattle sheds belong to Norris Mill Farm whose cows graze these low-lying fields.
Dairy farming is usually associated with drained floodplains like these because the damp, rich alluvial silt left behind after the river floods grows nutritious grass which in turn provides spring, summer and autumn food for cattle.
Though you might be lucky enough to spot cattle grazing today this area is no longer the ‘Vale of Great Dairies’ that Hardy wrote about.
In the nineteenth century dairy farming was a very lucrative business and, for Tess d’Urberville, life as a dairymaid was a respectable profession. This description of milking the cows suggests another age from our own:
The red and white herd nearest at hand, which had been phlegmatically waiting for the call, now trooped towards the steading in the background, their great bags of milk swinging under them as they walked . . .
The milkers formed quite a little battalion of men and maids, the men operating on the hard-teated animals, the maids on the kindlier natures. It was a large dairy. There were nearly a hundred milchers ... all told...
Unlike Hardy’s red and white herd of Dairy Shorthorns now nine out of ten dairy cows in Britain have the black and white markings of the Holstein-Friesian breed. This breed is preferred because they’re bigger and produce much more milk.
Milking methods have also changed greatly. Milking by hand has now gone and instead dairy herds are milked by machine, some even by robotic machines where cows are free to wander in for milking when they choose.
‘A hundred milchers’ would have been quite a large herd for Hardy’s time. Nowadays the average herd size is 113.
Compare this to the ‘mega dairies’ in countries like the United States that house up to 15,000 cows in a completely indoor, mechanised environment.
There is a danger that Britain might follow suit. Competitive supermarket pricing and the centralised way in which we buy our food is pushing two dairy farmers out of business every week. Can you imagine the English landscape without the sight of cows grazing on it?
From Norris Mill Farm continue straight along the farm track which is signposted as a public footpath. Go over the rise in the track and under telegraph wires into a field. Walk diagonally right across the field heading directly towards Duddle Farm, an imposing brick building with white windows.
Cross a stile through the hedgerow and head across the next field heading for the right hand end of the farm’s barn. Cross another stile onto a track and straight across over another stile which leads 30 metres to a pair of stiles (one with a ‘your dog can scare or harm farm animals’ sign). The path leads downhill with telegraph wires running in parallel on the left.
At the bottom of the slope go over the stile by the gate and follow the footpath to the left. After wet weather it may be very muddy here so you can walk parallel to the path higher up the valley side. After about 250 metres follow the path round the right hand side of the first building. Stop by the stile.