Once you get off the A66 and start winding your way south, the traffic quickly becomes conspicuous by its absence.
And it’s probably just as well. There is an austere beauty to the landscape that rises and falls like swells on the high seas and if this doesn’t catch your eye, the local birdlife probably will. In the space of just a few minutes I see a flurry of lapwings, a curlew and a buzzard and several more that I don’t recognise.
This is Upper Swaledale, where I’ve come to meet Amanda Owen who lives on a remote hill farm, Ravenseat, high in the Yorkshire Dales with her husband, Clive, and their nine children.
It’s four years since The Yorkshire Shepherdess was published, catapulting her into the limelight. It spawned a recent hit TV series, Our Yorkshire Farm, that pulled in 2.2 million viewers, and her latest (third) book – Adventures of the Yorkshire Shepherdess – will no doubt follow suit and become a bestseller.
Amanda and Clive run the 2-000 acre tenant farm, managing their flock of around a thousand sheep, plus an assortment of other animals dotted around the farmyard, while simultaneously raising their children (who range in age from two to seventeen).
Her books chart the ups and downs of life on the farm and the latest instalment picks up where the last one left off, including having to contend with the long and unforgiving winter of 2018. “It’s kind of a continuation, it’s got the children and the animals, which is what people like, and it’s got the countryside,” she says, as one of the family dogs, Russell Sprout, a terrier, eyes up the sausage roll that Clive has kindly given me.
Amanda offers a glimpse into a rural way of life that has changed little over the past half century. “I want it to be aspirational. Lots of people dream of a house in the country and I suppose people look at us and think we’re living the dream.”
On a clement day like this, with a gentle breeze brushing the hay meadows and white, marshmallow-like clouds drifting across an endless blue sky, it is a seductive image. But this isn’t some cosy, chocolate box idyll. It takes hard graft to make a living up here and it’s not for everyone. A gamekeeper lives next door, but the nearest farm is a mile-and-a-half away and the local pub is the Tan Hill Inn (England’s highest), which is three-and-a-half miles away as the crow flies.
Amanda likes to show life on the farm as it is. “I have this little motto that ‘what you see is what you get’. I’ll put photos up on our Twitter account showing pictures of lambs in the sunshine and then I might put one up of the children looking at a dead one. That’s the reality of it. It’s about painting an honest picture, though I am a glass half full kind of person,” she says, laughing.
Life can be unpredictable high up in the Dales and on the morning I arrive there’s no electricity. This would be enough to send some people into meltdown, but here it’s something that happens occasionally and you just get on with things. It doesn’t stop Clive doing his work or the children, in this instance Nancy and Clemmy, from playing in the yard.
There’s also, Amanda is quick to point out, no such thing as a ‘typical day.’ Though certain things have to happen – like getting the kids ready for school. “People think because the lambing time’s over we can chill out. No chance. We’ve spent the last few weeks clearing the meadows, because we’re heading to hay time,” she says. “The more you try and rail against nature the more it bites back, so you have to be patient.”
Amanda grew up Huddersfield with no experience of farming and her desire to be a shepherdess was “James Herriot’s fault”, as she puts it. Her grandfather gave her a copy of If Only They Could Talk and reading it she became fascinated by this other world. “It was so far removed from the Yorkshire I could see, but I loved it.”
She initially wanted to be a vet but says she wasn’t academic enough. At Huddersfield Library she found a photographic book called Hill Shepherd, by John Forder, about farming life in Yorkshire and Cumbria, which was like a lightbulb moment. “I borrowed the book three times because I couldn’t afford to buy a copy and it did something to me. I thought ‘if I can’t be a vet I’d like to be a hill shepherd.”
This didn’t go down well with the careers advisors but she had the blessing of her parents and did all manner of jobs – everything from working in a sweet shop to operating the incinerator at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary – to raise the money she needed to get started.
“I used to go to the old Huddersfield auction mart and sit and talk to people and find out what was going on and learn. I found that farmers were quite open and if you were interested they’d give you the time, and it’s almost come full circle because people ask me questions and now I can answer them.”
Amanda first set foot at Ravenseat in 1996 and four years later she and Clive got married. They took over the running of the farm and revel in the freedom it affords them. They are passionate about the countryside, underpinned by a quiet determination to succeed – though not at any cost. “We work the land, but our diversification is just a bit different. You don’t want to come here and see a sea of caravans, we’re in a Listed building in a national park and I have a great fondness for this place.”
The farm is more or less at the halfway point of the Wainwright coast to coast walk, undertaken by around 16,000 people each year. It’s something they’ve tapped into on a small scale. They have a shepherd’s hut that visitors can pay to stay in overnight and walkers can pop in for afternoon tea. “We throw open the doors and invite people in and talk to them about what we’re doing and why we’re here. It’s about making it viable.”
At the same time she’s well aware that they are temporary custodians of the land. “It’s the seasons that govern our days and govern our lives, but there’s also a sense of a lack of permanence. You’re working in a place where people have farmed for a thousand years so there’s a feeling that we’re carrying on that tradition even though we’re not born and bred to it. Even the sheep don’t belong to us, they come with the farm.”
The success of the books, which she quite often works on when everyone else is tucked up in bed, has taken her surprise. And though she now gets invited to give talks and attend literature festivals she hasn’t, she insists, become “all arty farty”. She shows me the bruises on her legs from where she’s been butted by the sheep. “You’ve got to keep it real, the minute you move away from that and stop being what you say you are, you’re knackered.”
The books are her way of diversifying. “I get asked how I’ve done it and I’ve no idea, there isn’t a magic formula. People say they’d love to be a farmer and I’d never discourage that, but you have to be prepared to start at the bottom and do other stuff and see where it takes you,” she says.
“I spend my life being totally and utterly surprised at what happens next. I had low expectations, I didn’t think this was going to change my life and I didn’t want it to. When people come to the door and ask ‘is she about?’ Clive will point to the lower field and say ‘she’s over there sorting out the drain.’ So the books might go global but it doesn’t affect anything. This,” she says motioning around her, “is my reality.”
Adventures of the Yorkshire Shepherdess, published by Pan Macmillan, is priced £16.99.