New mistress of Stott Hall

In May, Jill Falkingham will marry her fiancé and take on one of the best-known landmarks in Yorkshire. Here she explains how it all came about.

I’d been dating Paul for several months before he took me up to Stott Hall. It’s an 18th century farm built in a remote spot high up and out of sight between Rishworth and Moss Moor.

And so it would have remained had the highways engineers not sat down to plot the route of a motorway linking the east and west coasts. It came our way and today our remoteness is highly visible and travellers know us as the farm in the middle of the M62.

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As any lorry driver will tell you, we are sandwiched between the east and west carriageways along which flows some 100,000 vehicles every day.

It was August, and all Paul’s daylight hours were spent baling at the family farm at Hade Edge, a small village in the hills above Holmfirth. In the short time we’d been seeing one another, Paul had assessed my character well enough to know that I would struggle with Stott Hall and I think he was somewhat reluctant to take me up there.

I was working as a nanny and he told me later he had images of me grabbing my running shoes and heading for the hills never to be seen again.

To be honest, in the first six months of being there, that is exactly how I felt.

The motorway is all you imagine, and worse. It is a constant, a wall to wall of Eddie Stobarts and a dazzling swathe of headlights at night.

Monday morning rush hour is a chaotic drone of city bound suits weaving at dangerous speeds in and out of the Stobarts, only serving to cause one giant snarl-up.

For the thousands that drive past on their daily journeys to work, visiting relatives or heading to Manchester Airport for their annual holidays, they see the same as I once did; a lonely farmhouse abandoned to the elements and forever locked between torrents of traffic.

I remember the first few mornings waking up there after a troubled restless night and heading out into the yard only to be made immoveable, frozen to the spot by the sheer enormity of my situation.

But as the days turned to weeks, the weeks to months I realised that I needed to open my eyes and start to see beyond the motorway.

I’d always dreamt of having my own hill farm, somewhere wild and remote, where I could indulge in my fascination with sheep – somewhat strange since I come from a family of dairy farmers but, as it has turned out, quite useful when marrying a shepherd.

So Stott Hall was everything I’d dreamed of and the more time I spent there, the more I fell in love with the place.

It is most certainly still remote. A long steep winding track leads up the hillside from the main road, turning into a icy death trap in the winter months.

Wild is the apt word for the weather up there and with 1,500 sheep roaming over nearly 3,000 acres my fascination with these awkward little creatures was about to be put to the test.

The farm ticked all the boxes, but of course the motorway wasn’t really part of my dream. Throughout the first long winter months and well into spring, the appropriately named “windy hill” throws at you every bit of inclement weather it can summon.

Rain and sleet lash down in horizontal sheets, blown by gusts of achingly raw and biting winds with no natural barriers to halt their determined march from west to east. The winter of 2010 was my first at Stott Hall, and what a baptism of fire it was. Come November, the temperature started to plummet and just kept on going, with the first snowfall effectively cutting us off from the rest of the world. Frozen pipes, cup-a-soups and hot water bottles became my staple and I experienced a harshness like never before.

This month we froze again.

As part of my Stott Hall “conditioning”, Paul decided that he could teach me the technique of rolling out a round bale of haylage for the sheep from the warmth and comfort of the tractor cab.

Occasionally, the back window would open, and shouts of encouragement were sent out on a blast of warm air, only to be swept away in the icy wind. I’m not sure if he was trying to put me off or just see how far I could go before breaking, but I was going nowhere, quite the opposite.

Lambing time comes late to Stott Hall, any arrivals prior to late April have slim chance of survival on the bleak moorland.

However, this particular lambing was blessed with a high pressure system that brought clear skies and fair winds. The long-awaited spring sunshine meant we’d plenty of grass and I could hardly contain my excitement at the thought of fields full of lambs.

And that is just what we got, once the first bleat sounded across the sun-strewn pastures, the gates were opened and the new arrivals flooded in. The next three weeks were a whirlwind of emotional highs and lows, the joy of new life. I watched with childlike amazement as the meadows around the farm started to fill, and finally a new sound was ringing in my ears.

At some point during those long tiring days of lambing, I suddenly realised that I could no longer hear the motorway. My nights of struggling to drop off to sleep were a thing of the past, as the exhaustion of lambing meant I could gladly have napped on the hard shoulder.

I had finally started to really see what was in front of me.

There is an ageless peace about the house. When you close the door, the motorway ceases to exist and a hushed quiet washes over you. It has beautifully carved stone fireplaces reaching up to the beamed ceilings. I marvel at the well-worn flagstones underfoot. How many feet, how many hobnailed boots and milk churns have left their mark?

The surrounding hillsides are criss-crossed with crumbling walls, ancient packhorse routes and long forgotten ruins dating back to the 1600s. The moorlands, classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, are home to oystercatchers, lapwings, golden plover and the rare twite bird. Heather, sphagnum and coarse grasses thrive in the acidic conditions. Occasionally, a graceful deer glides silently from the woodland to the north of the farm and we have seen herons nesting by the reservoir, as well as the large gaggle of Canada geese that apparently eat all the grass, much to Paul’s consternation.

It’s dubbed “the little house on the prairie” by truckers. I recently heard Stott Hall referred to as “the moorland church”.

On hearing this name, apparently used by neighbouring farmers, I instantly smiled and realised how it could warrant such a title. I frequently find myself donning wellies and woolly hat and heading off up on to the hills above the farm.

Throughout the year, the seasonal changes of the moor are displayed in ever changing colours, the dark sombre hues of the cold winter months, followed by the lightening of the skies as the icy grip of winter releases its hold, are followed by vibrant greens as new growths spring to life and push upwards towards the light.

Lapwings soar and swoop overhead, warding off danger and in the rocky crags and purple moor grass, ground nesting birds vie for the best position. As the temperature increases the balmy summer days stretch out, the moor appears as an ever-moving ocean as the cotton grass sways gently in the breeze.

On these days the moor is at her most benign and as we take our cut of hay from the meadows below, up top vibrant golds and reds turn to a soft, mellow haze, before the heather displays its beautiful hues of purple. The cycle is mesmerising.

My sister once wrote that on the shoulder of giants she learnt why farming was great. I was perhaps too young to sit on those particular shoulders, but as I work this breath-taking land of my dreams I see the giant that stands beside me.

There is never a bad day, never a regret or hope of a different lifestyle for Paul, just infectious enthusiasm and boundless energy. He thrives on plans, dreams and takes great delight in playing a part in looking after the rich tapestry of our farming heritage.

As we feed the sheep grazing the lofty pastures of Moselden heights, the dark thunderous clouds momentarily break and great shafts of sunlight flood through the brooding clouds overhead.

I glance briefly back down towards the motorway, sat in darkness while the surrounding hills, streams and valleys bathe in this brief golden light.

Every piece of heather, bilberry and tussock grass from Cupwith Hill, through the Colne Valley rising up to the rocky outcrop of Pule Hill and Saddleworth in the distance, shimmers and glistens in the final dying rays of light.

As the great rolling clouds close back together, trapping the sunlight behind their grey veil, I exhale a long, slow and happy smile, and the first new roots of life tentatively seek out the rich dark springy peat of my new home.