Keeping one’s (bare) feet on the ground

Alison O'Neill the 'barefoot shepherdess'  warming her feet by the fire in her farmhouse at Shacklabank farm near Sedbergh..
Alison O'Neill the 'barefoot shepherdess' warming her feet by the fire in her farmhouse at Shacklabank farm near Sedbergh..
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Alison O’Neill took on a hill farm in the Yorkshire Dales National Park with £60 in her pocket. She tells Yvette Huddleston and Walter Swan how she made a go of it and her reasons for striding barefoot across the fells.

On her farm, Alison looks after around 250 Rough Fell ewes. She would describe herself as a sheep farmer but has recently acquired the title of “the barefoot shepherdess”’ since this is how she guides some of the fell walks she leads in the hills surrounding her home.

“Walking barefoot is something I have always done,” says Alison. “I remember as a child, I would either be in wellies or barefoot and I climbed most of my major peaks with my grandma barefoot.

“I would start walks with my boots on, but I couldn’t wait to take them off.”

The daughter and granddaughter of farmers, Alison, 47, grew up on her parents’ farm near Sedbergh but left to go travelling when she was 16. “Like most teenagers, I wanted to see the world and visit big cities, experience that excitement.”

She was away for nearly 20 years. Then in 1999 she returned to her roots and her ambition, with her husband John, was to make the small tenant farm at Shacklabank into a going concern.

“We arrived with a rucksack and £60 between us. But I am living proof that you can survive on a tiny farm and make your dream come true.”

Just two years after taking on the farm, the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis hit and Alison and John were forced to diversify. “That’s when I decided to train as a fell guide. It all started from there and now guiding walks is one of my main incomes apart from my sheep. It’s something I really enjoy.”

Alison guides a wide range of groups or individuals on a variety of walks. “It could be a short five-mile ramble to look at wildlife. Or it might be a 28-mile hike over to Kirkby Stephen and then we come back and have tea and homemade cakes here or sometimes supper in the barn.”

This summer she began developing a series of walks with the National Trust in the Lake District called the Shepherdess Experience – day-long excursions which also give participants a flavour of her life.

Walkers visit a lakeland farm, meet some of the people living in the stunning landscape, discover the wildlife, and learn about the history of the area.

They also discover what it means to be a 21st century shepherdess and get the opportunity to do some wild swimming and barefoot walking.

“I did a barefoot walk with a group of people on the west coast of Cumbria and it just really caught on,” says Alison. “People enjoy it – they say it brings their childhood back to them. I now guide weekends and weeks where we just walk barefoot.

“It’s better for your feet to walk barefoot and, also, I find that when you are barefoot you think more about where you are putting your feet, so you are totally focused on the walking. You don’t really think about anything else. The Howgill Fells are perfect for barefoot walking because the ground is like velvet and the Yorkshire Dales hay meadows are lovely too.

“It’s about connecting with nature – paddling through becks and mud. We often do wild swimming as well on barefoot walks – one of my favourite places is Uldale Force. It’s something I have always done and taken for granted.”

The therapeutic benefits of being in the outdoors are something Alison has experienced first-hand. After the birth of her 12-year-old daughter, Scarlett, she suffered post-natal depression and found that going walking or swimming helped greatly.

“Some of the people who come on the walks have perhaps had a major change in their life and they want to find themselves again.” For some it can prove to be a liberating experience, enabling them to discover something new about themselves and move on with their lives.

Alison describes the landscape around her home as “bleak and beautiful” and herself as “a hopeless romantic”.

“I wouldn’t do this if I wasn’t a romantic,” she laughs. “Last winter was hard trying to feed the sheep for six weeks in the snow, I had to use my pony to get to the sheep, and we had burst pipes that flooded part of the house... so it’s not all beautiful.”

However, she finds the richness and variety of her way of life – running the farm, tending to her sheep, introducing people to the beauty of the landscape she loves – extremely rewarding.

“One day I can be cutting foot rot out of a sheep’s foot and the next day I can be taking Ed Byrne barefoot walking on the Howgills for an article he was writing for Great Outdoors magazine. It’s a great life.”

Alison has been working with a photographer, putting together a book about her life. She keeps a daily journal and the book will contain passages about her life and work as a tenant farmer and shepherdess, about slow food and home baking – another of her great passions.

And judging by the delicious homemade scones she rustled up, she can add this to her cv as another of her many talents, along with wild swimming and striding the hills barefoot.

“It will be my love letter to Cumbria and the Dales,” she says. “The book will follow the seasons – starting in spring – and will follow the life of the sheep. One of my friends put it in a nutshell when she said it contains all the ingredients for somebody to live a simple life.

“I’m not a celebrity, I’m just an ordinary working-class woman, living on a rented farm on a hill in the Howgills and making a living.”

That is a modest self-assessment, since Alison has won numerous awards for her imaginative approach to isolated rural living, including one from Country Living Magazine. As a result she is in demand as an inspirational speaker.

“My talks are really about how you don’t need lots of money to make your dream come true,” she says. “My dream was to farm and have this life. Everybody thought it was impossible but if you are determined enough, you can do it.”

A new diversification has been into clothing design. Alison has her own very distinctive style – her preferred working and walking clothes are a tweed skirt, waistcoat and jacket, with thick woollen socks and walking boots – and she has recently started her own line of tweed skirts and jackets, all her own design.

“I have worn tweed ever since I was a little child,” she says. “My dad and my grandad always wore tweed jackets. I remember my grandad used to give me his jacket to keep me warm out on the hills when I was a child.

“Everybody wore tweed when I was growing up. I had a grandma who always wore tweed skirts and Fair Isle jumpers; she had tweed skirts in every colour. She was a real inspiration for me – she was a bit of a free spirit. She loved nothing better than packing a little rucksack and heading off to walk in the Dales for the weekend.”

Inspired by the memory of her grandmother and by her own affection for Harris Tweed, Alison set to work.

“I did some designs and then I found a friend living nearby who would make them up for me. I now have two jacket designs and several styles of skirt.”

The Shepherdess Range includes four different skirt designs, a waistcoat and two jackets. The tweed is woven by hand in the Outer Hebrides and the garments created in Cumbria; Alison’s long-term aim is to create tweed out of the wool from her own sheep.

“I’m doing what I Iove and living my life how I want to live it. I just blow with the wind; I make a living and provide for Scarlett, but nothing is set.

“I never wear a watch. I function with the seasons.”

Walks, Talks and Tweeds at Shacklabank Farm www.shacklabank.co.uk