From city kid to Yorkshire hill farmer, Amanda Owen’s life presents a different challenge every day but she wouldn’t have it any other way, says Lucy Cleland…
If you put Amanda Owen’s life in numbers, it would go something like this: 41 years old, nine children (and probably just counting), 2,000 acres, 1,000 sheep, 40 cows, six dogs, four ponies, 30,000-plus Twitter followers and two bestselling books. Just thinking about the practicalities of the reality of those numbers makes me want to take a long lie down in a darkened room. But to the woman, also known as The Yorkshire Shepherdess, herself? ‘Pah. Jog on. It’s what tis, in’tit?’ she’d shrug in her no-nonsense Yorkshire accent.
In theory Amanda and I could have a lot in common – we’re the same age, have blonde hair (mine’s helped, hers isn’t), we married older men (by 13 years) who’d been married before and we both voted Remain, but I was anxious about what she’d think of soft southern townie with an office based job coming to glimpse her life in the epic north Yorkshire Dales (a journey that meant an overnight sleeper train or a night in Leeds to get there).
Just Get On With It
All my questions would be a gamut of open-mouthed ‘hows?’ or ‘whys?’. Even the fact that she’s been breastfeeding for pretty much 15 years on the trot (‘why wudn’t I? It’s easy, the right temperature and when ya art lammin’, wha’ya gonna do?’), has given birth to five of her kids on the side of the road and still manages to put a bit of makeup on and bake a perfect lemon meringue pie, slightly blows my metropolitan mind. But that’s the thing about Amanda, she doesn’t question it. She gets on with it. Mind you, she doesn’t have a moment not tot. When you have nine children, let alone a hard, remote hill farm where the weather can change as many times as you’re wiping another snotty nose, you have to have signed up for it.
But as we rumble along in her 4×4, four of the children in the back, plus a lamb on three-year-old Annas’ lap across the bleak but beautiful Game of Thrones-worthy landscape (no trees because the wind would lay them flat but brimming with as much life as its low lying more verdant, lush landscaped cousins, if you know where to look), it might have been a very different story. Sheep farming was not exactly coursing through Amanda’s veins. She was born and raised in Huddersfield to a model mother and an engineer father and describes herself as one of those slightly non-descript kids – neither causing trouble nor excelling at anything much, which is crazy considering her current existence.
What she did love was books. She read and she read, anything and everything, including James Herriot (some people call her the female version of him but I reckon she’s much more). It wasn’t until she stumbled upon one glossy hardback that she found in a Huddersfield library called Hill Shepherd though that she knew that that was exactly what she wanted to do. And she set about finding her own way to do it, because no ‘schools careers guidance wer going t’help me’.
After a series of backbreaking jobs from Wiltshire to Cumbria (‘sometimes you have t’go the wrong way [i.e. south] t’go right way’), to cut a long story short – one of Amanda’s favourite sayings as I learned throughout the day – she ended up with her now husband Clive (also not born to farming stock) at Ravenseat over 20 years ago and they farm in the same way as has been done for hundreds of years before them. And this is what she’d want her own legacy to be: ‘that at Ravenseat nothing changed’. They call it ‘extensive’ rather than ‘intensive’ farming, so they put quality and way of life over quantity. Come lambing season, they don’t pack their barns with pregnant ‘yows’ (ewes) where infection would be rife, but keep watch over their flock just like the hymn goes from a concerned distance, only interfering when it’s necessary to help a distressed mum or a lamb that’s not standing within moments of birth.
They could be in drift-deep snow in the middle of the night or huddled by a ditch in horizontal rain helping a ewe to find the lamb she’s birthed but may have temporarily lost in a hole somewhere. But that’s what the way they want it. ‘Every day is the same, but different. Each has its challenge,’ she says. No kidding. And the farming bit is far more intense than the child-rearing or even the writing bit for Amanda. She treats her brood like her flock. There’s no room for nonsense, whingeing is not tolerated, they eat what they’re given and they’re as likely to be on the back of a saddleless pony aged two as helping Amanda bake Chelsea buns on the range. Even as one-year-old Clemmie takes a tumble down some stone steps, Amanda ignores her yelp and soon enough, she’s righted herself and is all smiles again. ‘I’m no earth mother,’ says Amanda, laughing, ‘and I don’t evangelise about any way of life. You do what you got t’do.’
And how refreshing in our sanitised, health and safety obsessed world it is to see a home beset with a thousand dangers that would send a highly strung mother off to pop another Xanax – where farm machinery isn’t fenced off or ponds covered over and they’re not sheltered from the realities of farming where cute little lamb ends up as Sunday lunch, but each and every child has a resilience you could write books about, has off-the-scale immunity, and has walked and talked as soon as they most reasonably could, keen to be part of the rather rowdy conversation.
Rough edges are part of the pact but seeing the little ones bustling about outside in the muck and mud, carrying lambs about, asking their mam if they can sleep outside tonight (it’s March) when a thousand other children would be watching television inside is a lesson we can all learn from. And they don’t even miss out on all that supposedly ‘normal’ stuff. While they may have a long bus ride to school, it’s one of the most beautiful school journeys in the world, they play in bands, do after-school clubs and have sleepovers, as well as know how to drive a tractor or make pottery from the clayey bit at the side of the road and write stories (Raven, the eldest at 15 has already written an online book, which she won’t show her mother). ‘It’s all a question of balance,’ says Amanda, and she refers to this often whether it’s talking about man’s relationship with nature, the influence of technology (without it she couldn’t have possibly written her books, she insists), or bringing up her children, which seems a pretty sensible mantra to live by.
The Road to Stardom
How we come to know anything of Amanda’s extraordinary life is another story. To cut it short (again), Ravenseat lies exactly midway on the famous Coast to Coast ‘Alfred Wainwright’ walk, which crosses from St Bees in the Lake District on the west coast to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire on the east. Each year 16,000 walkers pass through what is effectively Amanda’s backyard and as she sat with them having a strong cup of Yorkshire brew, she met ‘many amazing, bright intellectuals from all over the world’.
From one of these meetings, a call came through asking whether she could do a bit of filming with Julia Bradbury (‘so I did tha’), which lead to someone else asking if she could film something else (‘so I did tha’ too’), which eventually resulted in Macmillan (the same publisher as James Herriot no less) asking whether she’d write a book about it all (‘so I did tha’). She secured a two-book deal and is currently writing her third. How and when she has the time, you may well ask. ‘After the children are in bed, you’ll find me squintin’ on mi iPad.’ Yes, a hill farmer writes bestselling books late at night on an iPad. You couldn’t make it up. Strangely though she doesn’t see herself as a writer. ‘I feel a bit guilty about it really,’ she says, for which I admonish her for her typically female thought process and tell her she’s a woman with a story to tell and what more would qualify her as a writer?
Anything Else is a Bonus
‘’Tis wha’ tis, I s’pose,’ she says. ‘All I really want is for mi children t’be ‘appy and my animals t’be ‘appy. Anything else is a bonus. I’m just doing my thing.’ Well, whatever that thing is she’s doing, she’s keeping her 30,000-plus Twitter followers and army of devoted readers (her second book has been in the bestseller list for 10 weeks now) and most importantly from what I can see – her children – delighted.
The Yorkshire Shepherdess is out now, £7.99 (Macmillan). It is also possible to rent Firs, a six-bed traditional Yorkshire farmhouse that Amanda has done up, so you can get your own taste of Amanda’s way of life. From £1,100 for one week. More information here.
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