Just as we can shape our homes and create our own place of sanctuary, so our homes can shape us, as Rosalind Sack discovered when she met the Yorkshire Shepherdess, Amanda Owen
AMANDA AND HER FAMILY – HUSBAND CLIVE AND THEIR NINE CHILDREN – OUTSIDE THE FIRS IN RAVENSEAT, CURRENTLY BEING LET AS A HOLIDAY HOUSE. IMAGES: IAN FORSYTH
Living at one of England’s highest and most remote farms, woven with miles of dry stone walls and peppered with ancient stone farm buildings, the feeling of ‘home’ permeates the farmhouse walls to the land beyond. This working sheep farm at Ravenseat in the north Yorkshire Dales stretches across 2,000 acres of rugged terrain and is home to shepherdess Amanda Owen, her husband Clive and their nine children. Picture-postcard pretty in summer, bleak and wild in winter; it’s the meadows and moorland, the tarns and the rivers that fuel Amanda with a sense of familiarity and belonging.
IMAGE: AMANDA’S ‘FREE RANGE’ CHILDREN GAZE OVER AT THE FARMSTEAD
They’re very much on their own here – nearly 50 miles from the closest large town and a four-hour round trip to the nearest major hospital. If there’s no water coming out of the tap, it’s not a question of ringing someone to come and look at it, “it’s a matter of taking a spade and finding where the frog is in the pipe!” says Amanda. “You just have to sort it – and I like that. This place, it rubs off on you.”
The reality of looking after 1,000 sheep, cattle, horses and dogs, as well as nine ‘free range’ children (their youngest, Nancy, is nearly three, while their eldest, Raven, has recently turned 18) is difficult to imagine. Strong and forthright, yet incredibly warm, Amanda has an infectious energy, but she quickly deflects compliments, insisting: “I just lurch from disaster to disaster, whilst trying to look like I know what I’m doing!”
IMAGE: (LEFT) EVERYONE MUCKS IN TOGETHER AT RAVENSEAT; (RIGHT) MEAL TIME IN THE HEART OF THE HOME, THE FARMHOUSE KITCHEN
I suspect that’s shy of the truth. The key to making sure everyone is fed, clothed and watered, and ready for the school taxi in the morning, is planning and organisation – and mucking in together. Meals are a matter of working with what she has; whether that’s a glut of eggs from the hens, or a giant bulk bag of cous cous. Bung it in the Aga in the morning and forget about it until teatime. While there are no hard and fast house rules, the children are encouraged to return their dirty mugs to the kitchen, put their clothes away in the right drawers and they each have daily chores; someone brings in the wood, someone brings in the coal, someone feeds the dogs, Miles feeds the chickens, Edith feeds the pony.
We’re not the Waltons, of course we have arguments, but we’re a very close-knit family.”
They don’t own an iron, they have a television but it’s hardly ever on, and access to the internet is only in the living room. The children sleep three to a bedroom – the boys in one, the girls in another and the youngest in the third – but there’s often a patter of tiny feet after lights out as they nip in and out of each other’s rooms. And when everyone else has gone to sleep, Amanda will sit in bed and write books about her life (she’s just finished her third) until the early hours. “We’re not the Waltons, of course we have arguments, but we’re a very close-knit family and because we’re very outdoorsy we do have space.”
The land at Ravenseat has been farmed for 1,000 years and while Amanda and her family are tenants, they have recently bought The Firs, a nearby 17th century farmhouse – which they currently rent out as a holiday house – to start putting down roots. “You feel very temporary, like we’re just part of the bigger story before it’s passed on to someone else. Each of the buildings on the farm are named after people who are long gone, but whose memory lives on and it’s important to keep the heritage of the place going.”
So what led a girl from Huddersfield, who grew up in a “very normal, very suburban house” at the side of a busy road to set up home, work and raise nine children, in such a challenging place?
Inspired to follow her farming dreams after reading the works of James Herriot, it was a cold Autumn night in 1996 that 21-year-old Amanda was sent by her boss to collect a ram from Clive, who was then living alone at Ravenseat, “and you could tell,” laughs Amanda. “I’d driven there through 10-12 miles of nothing, and I mean nothing. There was just rushes blowing at the side of the road, the odd sheep crossing, I really didn’t know where I actually was,” she recalls. They became friends and, when it eventually grew into romance, Amanda joined Clive at the farm.
IMAGE: (LEFT) WHERE AMANDA GOES, BABY GOES; (RIGHT) THE HAY MEADOWS IN FLOWER
“When I came to this house it wasn’t perfect, but I never strove for perfect. The stone flags downstairs have still got the grooves worn by hundreds of years’ worth of clogs going into the dairy, so you have that lovely camber. Then in the dairy there’s whitewashed stone walls with holes drilled into them and hooks in the ceiling where previous generations would have hung their game, and on the shelves there are all these little axe marks from goodness knows what they were chopping. There’s just a lovely feeling and there’s so much history here. If I had a ‘perfect’ house, I would have some very unhappy children who were very busy trying to keep it perfect!”
Naturally, the changing seasons have a huge impact on the feel, and look, of Ravenseat. “When there are really grey skies and the wind’s blowing, it can seem quite austere, very Bleak House. Then, when the hay meadows are in the flower and it’s all a sea of yellow, it looks so homely, quintessentially chocolate box. On a beautiful Spring evening, I can be going round my sheep with my dog and it’s so quiet you can hear the Snipe drumming and the Curlews. It’s very stirring.”
IMAGE: OUTDOOR SWIMMING AT BOGGLE HOLE
Their farm also provides an incredible playground for Amanda’s children, who know its tarns, waterfalls and rivers, like the back of their hand. Rain or shine, they don’t care. In fact, they are so conditioned to swimming outdoors, that when Amanda’s daughter Annas, who started school this year, went for her first swimming lesson, she got a shock. When asked how it went, she reported back to Amanda: “It was great, but the water was in a house!”
There’s a real morphing between inside and outside here; plenty of things that should be inside are outside, and vice versa. It’s not unusual to stumble across a Shetland pony in the living room, or a lamb warming in the Aga, or a duvet being dragged across the field by one of the children to make a den. “We can’t be too precious,” laughs Amanda.
IMAGE: THEIR 2,000 ACRE FARM MAKES FOR THE MOST INCREDIBLE PLAY GROUND
On the face of it, Amanda’s outdoor lifestyle sounds idyllic, yet there’s an undeniably tough reality to farming life, particularly when you’re rooted in such a remote location. “It doesn’t matter about clock-watching – it’s either light o’clock or dark o’clock – and there’s no phone signal outside, so there’s a big split between being in the house and being connected to everybody and being out there where you are absolutely disconnected,” says Amanda. “There’s this nice sense of isolation when it’s just you and the sheep and the sheep dogs out on the moors. It can be exhilarating. It’s headspace, it’s thinking time. But it can be a bit forboding, it can even be a bit scary if the weather comes in wrong, so you have to be comfortable in your own company.”
Being here makes you more independent and gives you a feeling that you are facing a battle against the elements.”
When the weather turns in the Winter, they can find themselves marooned, so preparation and avid weather watching is essential – as they discovered during last year’s Beast from the East cold snap. It didn’t stop snowing for about two days and being so exposed meant that they struggled to open their front door against the snowdrifts and there was snow blowing into the house through every gap, including the key holes and window frames. Fortunately it was forecast to the hour, so they were prepared.
“A house is a house; but living somewhere wild, like here, really shapes your character,” says Amanda. “You are facing a battle against the elements here which makes you more independent, and it gives you the freedom to be yourself.”
Adventures of the Yorkshire Shepherdess by Amanda Owen, published by Pan Macmillan is out now, priced £16.99*
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