Women of
the Dales

Amy Lucas, above, and Walter Swan and Yvette Huddleston, below.
Amy Lucas, above, and Walter Swan and Yvette Huddleston, below.
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Have you dreamed of living and working in a rural idyll? Yvette Huddleston and Walter Swan met 14 women who have made a life in the Dales.

Living and working in the countryside appeals to many of us, especially those caught up in a busy urban lifestyle where an “escape to the country” can be a particularly potent fantasy. However, it is possible to romanticise country living while the reality can be quite different. It is no easy option. Employment is often scarce in rural areas and there are sacrifices to be made in terms of access to services we all take for granted. The rewards, though, are many as we have found in meeting and writing about the 14 inspiring women in our book The Barefoot Shepherdess and Women of the Dales.

It takes a very special person to adapt to the sometimes difficult conditions that rural life can throw up. Finding a mode of living and working is often a matter of taking the initiative and creating a role for yourself.

Each of the women we have written about have done this in a variety of different ways which allows them to generate an income and live in the landscape they all love. Some of them live in remote regions of the Dales where the weather, particularly in winter, is a constant factor to be taken into consideration; others live on farms or in tiny villages or small towns.

However, with the technological advances of recent years and flexible working hours, it is now much easier to work from home. Even if your home happens to be off the beaten track, internet access is usually available and you can still travel to meetings when necessary.

The rewards of living and working in the Dales are rarely of a monetary nature but far more fundamental – satisfying a mode of existence that brings a sense of simple well-being.

What links the women in The Barefoot Shepherdess and Women of the Dales is the fact that they have made the choice to live and work collaboratively with the people and places of the Yorkshire landscape; they share a passion for life where Yorkshire countryside and community coincide. A vicar, a vet, a blacksmith, a barefoot shepherdess, a curator, a community publican, a lettercarver, a gamekeeper, an artist, an arts consultant, an organisational change consultant, an ethical entrepreneur, a tearoom owner and a sheep-keeping retired professor. In almost all cases, the work that these women do is specific to where they live, though Pat Thynne (a consultant) travels far and wide in assisting organisations in their structural management but lives in remote Grisedale (once termed by a TV documentary The Dale that Died when only one farming family remained in the valley).

Pip Hall, too, a lettercarver who worked with the poet Simon Armitage to create the now famous Stanza Stones, will travel to wherever she is called upon to work but generally resides in one of Yorkshire’s most beautiful of locations, Dentdale, where she has her studio and runs classes.

The others live where their work is – shepherdess Alison O’Neill tends her flock of Rough Fell sheep on her small farm in the Howgills, while the Reverend Caroline Hewlett looks after her rather different flock (the congregations of worshippers at four churches in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale) and Annabelle Bradley, the blacksmith of Malham works in the forge on the village green.

Amy Lucas, the young gamekeeper whose “patch” is the wide open spaces above Cotterdale where, on a clear day, you can feel as if you are on the top of the world, lives in a cottage in the village at the bottom of the valley. Vet Davinia Hinde’s practice covers a huge area of Wensleydale and Swaledale where she cares for the sheep and cows of her farmer clients.

Each woman’s love of the Dales is palpable. However, it should never be imagined for a moment that their lives are carefree and idyllic. Without exception, their work is fulfilling but demanding: where they live provides challenges and obstacles that few who are used to city life would be prepared to tackle on a daily business. Shopping, transport, extremes of weather, long hours and in some cases the very physical nature of the work, all present difficulties that not many of us in the modern day would be willing to swap our comfortable urban existences for.

A great deal of what makes these women inspiring is to do with personality – they are passionate about what they do, lively and entertaining. However, in many cases they have achieved their sense of fulfilment and happiness only after a great deal of hard work, or overcoming loss, or being prepared to tolerate a more isolated form of existence than most of us could endure.

Zarina Belk, for example, is modest enough to wonder why her life story might be of interest when, in reality, she has tackled dyslexia, raised a young child as a single mother, set up her own retail business before eventually finding happiness in her marriage. She now runs a popular tearoom and bed and breakfast while making a significant contribution to Leukaemia charities through her association with the Calendar Girls.

Retired academic Dianna Bowles had already achieved scientific breakthroughs in biological research of potential benefit to the whole planet but now, in retirement in Nidderdale, is seeking ways to bring comfort to carers, and those they care for, in the calming influence of spending time with her delightful flock of Herdwick sheep.

The beauty of the surrounding hills is, in itself, part of the restorative atmosphere which Dianna and her sheep inspire. And Helen Bainbridge, the unassuming curator of the charming Swaledale Museum in Reeth, also prepares exhibitions in Oxford and London, is highly respected throughout the academic world, but is never happier than when out with her dog on a solitary walk in stunning countryside.

What our book celebrates is the way in which all of them have overcome the difficulties of rural living, embraced its pleasures and forged a life for themselves through their enterprise, energy and particular abilities.

Living and working in the Dales has provided them with an infectious spark so that it is uplifting to be in their company. The range of their activities – shepherding, stone carving, pulling pints, painting, treating animals, metal working, counting grouse, preaching a sermon, serving out teas and sandwiches – illustrates the variety of means by which it is possible to turn a rural idyll into a reality, tough and demanding as that can often be.

The Barefoot Shepherdess and Women of the Dales, £13.99, is published by Scratching Shed. Yvette Huddleston and Walter Swan will be at Ilkley Literature Festival on October 6.

Extracts from the book will feature in the Yorkshire Post on Monday, October 1.