Amanda Owen was born in the heart of industrial Yorkshire, but she tells Sarah Freeman how she fled to the Dales to raise a family and a flock.
Flicking through Amanda Owen’s family photo album, there’s one image which sums up what life is like when you’ve got seven children and live on a farm in one of the remotest parts of the Yorkshire Dales.
It’s taken in the living room where a line of washing is drying over an open fire. Two of the children are sat on the sofa. Neither is paying much attention to the fact elder brother Reuben, still wearing his school uniform, is riding a small pony through the middle of the room.
“Oh yes, that was the day that I came home to find Little Joe was making himself comfortable in the living room,” says Amanda. “It’s the kind of thing which happens when you live up here. Luckily I’m not house proud.”
She may not be that kind of domestic goddess, but she is a woman for whom the description no-nonsense was made.
Fast forward a few years from when that photograph was taken and Amanda and husband Clive growing brood still live a Swallows and Amazons existence on their 2,000-acre hill farm in Swaledale. Annas was the latest addition eight months ago and her arrival was much like her brothers’ and sisters’.
“It was the start of July last year and she wasn’t due for another couple of weeks,” says Amanda. “One evening after tea I’d gone out to collect our stray sheep which had been put in pens by one of our neighbours. I brought them back, got the children in bed and then tried to go to sleep myself.”
That was when the contractions started and while an ambulance was sent to take Amanda to the nearest hospital some 40 miles away in Northallerton, she never got there. Annas like her sister Edith and brother Sidney was born in a layby less than three miles away from the farm.
“You couldn’t live up here if you were even a bit neurotic, but I’ve always been one of those people who just take things as they come. When you live in a place like this you learn that there are a lot of things out of your control.”
Amanda is well-known to viewers of the ITV series, The Dales. Presented by Adrian Edmondson the programme shone a spotlight on those who live and work in the area and the Owens were one of the undoubted stars of the show.
Their popularity was partly due to them living a life most of us thought no longer existed, but also because both neither Clive nor Amanda had come from traditional farming stock. He had been born in Doncaster before the family moved to Cumbria and she had spent her childhood in Huddersfield.
“I don’t know what it was, but I always knew that I wasn’t really made for city life,” says Amanda, who pored over books about life in the hills and every Sunday would sit down religiously to watch All Creatures Great and Small.
“I think I had a bit of a romantic picture about the countryside. As soon as I was old enough I’d get on my bike and cycle to the farms nearby to see if they wanted any help. It was just where I felt happiest.
“I knew I was different. After school one of my friends went to Oxford, another went to work at Lloyds Bank. They all seemed to be settling into normality, but when they had weekends off, I’d be milking cows on a dairy farm.”
Amanda spent a lot those early years with a shovel in her hand and admits she probably wasn’t good for anything else other than mucking out. However, happy to take any job she could, her journey took her from Huddersfield to North Yorkshire and one night to Ravenseat where Clive was living as a typical Dales bachelor. He’d moved there in 1989, walking his cows some eight miles to their new home
“I’d been asked to go collect a tup from his farm. I hitched a rickety wooden trailer to the back of a pick-up and when I set off, darkness was already falling. By the time I got to the turn off it was pitch black.”
As Amanda pulled into the farmyard, Clive emerged from the ancient stone farmhouse and invited her inside for a cup of tea. “You can’t ever say I went after Clive for his beautiful home. His wife had left him about a year earlier and the carpets still showed imprints of the furniture she had taken, there was a bare lightbulb hanging in the middle of the room and the living room carpet was so damp it felt like walking on moss. I said to Clive the other day, do you remember what this room used to look like. He’d basically turned it into a storehouse for feed. I never wanted to muscle in and make it look like something from the Ideal Home Show, but I have tried to get it back to what it was.”
While it might not have been an instant attraction over the weeks and months that followed, the pair kept finding excuses to see each other and when Amanda finally moved into the farmhouse it felt like she’d arrived home.
“I had loved and been intrigued by the place since my first sight of it, but I didn’t come with any grand ideas to change anything. Ravenseat moulds the people who live here. People say, ‘didn’t you feel isolated?’ But I can honestly say I never did. From the start I just felt deep contentment.”
Now with seven children under 12, who are as free range as the farmhouse chickens, there is no time to feel lonely. Life at Ravenseat is guided by the seasons and when you’re responsible for that amount of land everyone has jobs to do.
Each morning, eldest daughter Raven feeds the horses before setting off to school some 30 miles away at 7.15am, while Reuben takes care of the chickens and collect the sticks for the fire and Miles makes sure the coal bunker is full.
“They’ve also learnt that it’s first up, best dressed. You’re not going to get the best hat and mittens by lying in bed. I honestly can’t think of a better place to bring up kids. They have a freedom that you don’t get in many places these days.”
It’s true that in the holidays the children are generally out of the door after breakfast and rarely return until sunset. However when people hear that at the moment Reuben is currently turning a tidy profit as a mole catcher there’s a tendency to romanticise the Owens’ existence. It was one of the reasons why the family were so keen to take part in The Dales .
“People think that living here is idyllic and it is, but we also wanted to show what life was really like for two first generation farmers. In our own small way it was about putting hill farmers on the map and showing just how much we do to maintain the landscape and putting a human face to it.
“Most people round here come from farming families and I think we were watched a bit more closely than we might have been. It wasn’t that people wanted us to fail, but there is definitely a curiosity about how you will get on. If we had come up here with lots of new, modern ideas and a herd of alpacas then we might have got people’s backs up, but we didn’t. We just wanted to learn and what we found is that people were really happy to share that knowledge. I guess we had to earn their respect.”
When she and Clive first met, Amanda was surviving on a diet of pasta and CupaSoup. She’s since learnt 101 ways to cook a bullock and that’s not the only skill she’s acquired.
“You do have to be a bit of a jack of all trades because you never know what the day is going to bring. People think it must be worse up here when it snows, but we’ve got used to that.
“There are 19 barns so we can easily move the sheep into shelter and during that really bad winter a year ago we didn’t lose one of our animals. The worst thing is when the water supply freezes. I suspect the children like it because it means they can’t have a wash, but there’s nothing worse that sat with a blowtorch trying to warm up the pipes.
“If that doesn’t work we have to carry water up from the river. It’s never ending, honestly you wouldn’t believe how much a cow can drink.”
The lambing season is just about to begin at Ravenseat and for the Owens it means carrying on a tradition centuries old.
“We tend to lamb late up here. I’m looking out and there is still snow on the top of the hills and more is forecast. It is a very old fashioned sort of farm. The landscape means that there is no use for fancy machinery, it’s a dog and stick kind of place.
“We had some visitors from a farm group recently and Clive decided to line up all the equipment we use in one of the fields. It looked like something from the 1960s. But we are so far away from anywhere that if you can’t fix something with WD40 and a crowbar then it’s not worth it.”
In a nod to the 21st-century, the Owens recently invested in a satellite internet connection. It’s proved vital for the business and it has also given Amanda access to social media. Now through Twitter anyone can keep up with events at the farm, which during the summer months has become a popular stop-off for those walking the Coast to Coast route thanks to Amanda’s cream teas.
“People sometimes suggest that living here and having so many children limits what we can do in life. They point out that we can’t go to the pub or nip to the cinema. It’s true, but even before the children that’s never what we enjoyed doing.
“Our holiday last year was a tent in one of the fields and while we have tried going on days out, we tend to end up back here. It was like the other summer, we got in the Land Rover and headed over to Sedbergh somewhere for a picnic. We kept bumping into people who said they’d been planning to pop in later on for a scone, so in the end we were back home by 2pm.
“Clive and I know that we are just temporary custodians of Ravenseat and when I look down on the farm from the hills there is a feeling of timelessness and the small part we’re playing in the ongoing history of this place.”
Amanda Owen – The Yorkshire Shepherdess, published by Sidgwick & Jackson, priced £16.99 is out on April 10. She will launch the book a the Castle Hill Bookshop in Richmond on April 11 where she will give two talks about her life as a shepherdess at 7pm and 8.15pm. Signed copies will be available on the night or by ordering through the Yorkshire Post Bookshop on 01748 821122.