Amanda Owen on Her Life as a Shepherdess in Yorkshire
Amanda Owen chats all things Yorkshire, what made her want to live out her life on a farm, and we found out all about her new book
We’ve just flicked the final page of the book and are admiring the winter images, when Amanda picks up the phone. When we ask how she’s doing, she replies ‘well, it’s raining. It’s dark, and dingy – but I’m fine! I can’t complain. It’s been a good summer. Busy, busy, busy – as always. But I’m keeping my head above water and that’s all we can ask for.’ Her positivity is infectious despite the changing weather, but being used to working in all seasons, that’s no surprise. Her new book takes us through the seasons on the farm in pictures – showing work and family life for Amanda, which blurs into one. ‘It can be really extreme,’ Amanda says of the weather in Yorkshire. ‘It’s like winter – summer – winter. There’s not been much of an autumn or spring. Once you start losing the light, which we definitely are, you can tell we’re heading back towards winter. But it’s not exactly a surprise, is it?’
Amanda dreamed of being a shepherdess as a teen – and it seems James Herriot sparked a curiosity in her. ‘Oh my goodness! Right…’ Amanda begins. ‘It does sound a bit contrived when I say it was because I was hooked, but I kind of really was. I just didn’t make that connection until a lot later. I was a reader. Never a writer; always a reader. I loved reading the James Herriot books because I was a child of that time – the early 1980s when there was James Herriot fever. It then went onto the TV and I was hooked! It fired up the idea that I wanted to be a vet. I told the careers advisor at school (and he was your typical 80s careers teacher) who said “Amanda, you’re not smart enough, you’re not academic enough. It’s a no. Go away and think again”. Yeah, there you go. That’s inspiring for you isn’t it?’
After going back to the drawing board (or the bookshelf in this case), Amanda decided she wouldn’t give up. ‘I was a lost soul. Just a coaster. I wasn’t a good kid. I wasn’t a bad kid. I was just in between, a day dreamer,’ she reflects. ‘I was looking at all these books and still dreaming of being a vet. I read another book called Hill Shepherd. It’s a photographic book that covers the life of shepherds in the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. I saw this book, borrowed it from the library in Huddersfield and had an epiphany – that the life of James Herriot that I was seeing on screen was real. As a kid, I always liked going out onto the moors and into the countryside, of course I still went into town with my friends (I wasn’t a complete loner), but I just loved the openness and the heather and I’d never considered that the sheep that I saw wandering were tended. I know that sounds totally and utterly idiotic but it had never occurred to me before that they belonged to somebody; they were just there. So, I thought to myself, right, okay, I want to be a shepherd.’
From town life in Huddersfield, to farm life in the Dales, Amanda says she’s still learning and ‘never ever envisaged’ that she would be writing about her experiences – or airing them to the world on TV. ‘But in a way, it proved that if you can find something that you have a spark with, anything is possible,’ she adds. ‘If you have someone or something that inspires you then you just have to go with it. There’s always those people who’ll tell you what you can’t do and what’s not achievable, but as somebody who got an E in English at GCSE level, I’ve just proved that you don’t have to live by those rules. Would I encourage anyone to write? Yeah. Would I encourage anyone to be a shepherd? Yeah. For someone like me, living where I lived, it seemed like the most ridiculous thing. It was like saying I wanted to be an astronaut. It was as unachievable as that. But how I made it here was, well, I suppose luck (which many people would say), but also down to my character. Are you someone who can communicate? Are you someone who dares to put your head over the parapet? Are you someone who can maybe… bluff a bit too?’
We think that’s pretty inspirational, and Amanda’s attitude certainly seems to inspire her children – who are equally hands-on at the farm. ‘People will say “your kids are good kids” and I’ll say “yeah, but I don’t own that”. That’s not down to me,’ Amanda continues. ‘That’s down to them. They’re all very different characters, but they’ve always been a part of what we do because we’ve needed them to be. I rely on them to do things and be able to do things because we’ve got our fingers in so many different pies. And you know what? I think that is, in itself, a rather brilliant thing for children – to feel like they matter – to feel like they play a part – it gives them a sense of being valued. People will say “well, you just make them work”. Yeah, well, what’s wrong with that? I think the pleasure that you get from helping out, tending for your own animals, buying, selling… I think those skills will stay with you for life. And whether you want to be a farmer, or whether, like Raven, you want to go into something medical, or like Reuben with his engineering, wherever they go in life and whatever they want to do, those lessons are totally and utterly applicable.
‘I’m walking into my living room now. It’s not perfect, there’s books chucked everywhere, I’ve just found a carrot (someone’s probably had a pony in here), but are they happy? Yeah. Are they inspired? Yeah. Are they dreamers? Yes. If you can navigate the world we live in now and keep your kids happy, smiling and focused… that’s it. I was fortunate that my parents went along with me. They probably thought me being a shepherd was a bit of a phase I was going through, like a rebellion almost, but they didn’t stop it.’ That support is what Amanda passes onto her children today.
As always, it was important to Amanda in this book that her photographs reflected real life – as they did in the book Hill Shepherd that inspired her years ago. ‘Those photographs were very natural, not at all set up, and were absolutely fly on the wall,’ she says. ‘You could go back to them again and again and again and see something new. I pick the book up now and I see it differently. As a teenager, I was looking at the book with aspiration but now I know some of the people and the places – it still resonates absolutely enormously. And people love the pictures. When I was doing presentations, I’d take a projector with me to show what life was like as a shepherd and I thought that was massively important at the time – they might have thought this person standing in front of them, dressed up to the nines, didn’t sound like the real deal. You might be able to talk the talk but you have to be able to walk the walk as well. In a way, I was using the images as an addition to legitimise what I was talking about.’ Now, of course, the TV programme does that for her, but she still wanted to share her photographs. ‘The general feedback I would get from people at the time was that they loved my photographs and that I should do a photographic book. And the second most popular question at these events would be “how do you cook for everybody?” So I thought I’d chuck them both in,’ she laughs.
We’re glad she mentioned cooking, as we wanted to ask about some of the recipes that interweave her photographs. We ask Amanda if she has a favourite produce to cook with, but there isn’t one simple answer. ‘That’s really difficult because it varies,’ she says. ‘My favourite produce is anything I can buy loads of that preferably is good for you and preferably comes from nearby – and even better if it’s free. We love our freebies! I’m not kidding. My husband has just come back with an egg tray. What’s it got in it? He’s just handed me the most glorious egg tray of mushrooms complete with bits of grass stuck to them. That has just cost him a little bit of time. You see? So what’s my favourite produce? Whatever I can get my mitts on for nowt, or next to nowt. Of course I’ve got my staples. I’ve got rice, I’ve got potatoes, I’ve got pasta – the usual – but I think things would be very boring if I was just using one thing.’
Speaking of getting things from the land, we ask for Amanda’s opinion on giving back to it – and making sure we take care of it too. In her book, she mentions Smithy Holme Farm – her latest project, a farmhouse and land just a mile away from Ravenseat. She described working on this as ‘reclaiming history’. ‘It’s massively important,’ she explains. ‘I’m living in a place that has such a wealth of history. It goes back nearly 1,000 years and you can still see that. I feel like, as a shepherd, you feel a sense of duty but you also want to leave your mark – a positive one. Anything you can do to preserve it is a good thing. I love the history of Smithy Holme Farm. I love finding out more about it: who lived there? What were they doing? I was never very good at history. I can’t talk about Luther or the World Wars, but I love the history that I can reach out and touch. That’s what I want the kids to see too. It’s history on a local and personal level. The more you delve into that, the more similarities you can find in what we’re doing on the farm today. We think we’ve all moved on don’t we? We’re modern man; we’re better. We think there’s an enormous turn around with how we look at our land and the environment and the reality is that actually that’s nothing new. It’s just been rebranded. At some point we tipped the balance and spoilt the system. All we’re doing is reverting back.’
The climate crisis is at the front of many minds as we look towards a new year and hopefully a greener future. ‘I think people are more aware,’ Amanda says. ‘With the exodus of people to the countryside, I think people are looking to bring more into their lives – we need a bit more mindfulness and we need a bit more of a digital detox. I’m not a hater of modern life. I so love the internet! I love everything about connectivity actually. But that shouldn’t be at a cost. I want people to look at the book and take away whatever they want from it. It’s not a blueprint, it’s not a bloody handbook, because that’s the whole point. When it comes to me, you might say that I don’t follow the rules. If there’s a rule, I’m looking at how I can put my own slant on it.
‘The epilogue for this book should be “here’s a book, take from it what you want, make your own way and do your own thing”. That’s what I want people to take away from everything I do.’
What do you love most about Yorkshire?
‘I love the big open skies. I love the people. I love its contrasts – whether that’s between its grey skies in autumn and the land, or between the fact that you can be in the middle of Leeds in a buzzing city atmosphere or out in the wild in the moors. It’s got it all.’
Your favourite season and why?
‘That’s a difficult one. If I could pick a month, I’d say June but that’s because I’m being an absolute slacker. The lambs are all here, it’s before hay time and clipping, and everything’s coming back to life. I don’t know whether you class June as spring or summer. If you were going to tie me to a season, I’m going to have to say summertime when the birds are back and there’s flowers in the meadows. Everything is full of life and hope, and after such a long winter you’re ready for that.’
Hardest thing about being a shepherdess in Yorkshire?
‘Oh crikey… the weather! You have to be able to rock a drip on the end of your nose for pretty much six months of the year. You have to have the ability to wear two hats. You have to accept that you’re probably going to spend most of the time dressed head to foot in waterproof clothing of snot-green variety.’
‘We’re back to the contrasts… You have it all! In the summer, there are tourists and lots of people, and in the winter, you’ve got the remoteness and the isolation. Everyone needs this split in their lives. A bit of both. You need the quiet. It gives you appreciation. How can you appreciate anything if you’ve never seen anything else?’
What you do isn’t a job. It’s a lifestyle. So do you get any downtime?
‘No! But I’m not looking for it. If I’ve got any time that looks like it needs filling, I’ll fill it. There’s always jobs looming. I like to see just exactly how many things I can do at the same time, and how efficient I can be. If I go for a ride on my horse, I’m thinking to myself what else can I do? A voice in my head says “hang on a minute. Why don’t I go for a ride on my horse? And go and take some sheep away that need moving to a new pasture”. Then it goes “why don’t I put some sheep away, while riding my horse and then I could ride over to where I know there’s a hole that needs mending in a fence”.’
Hopes for the future of Ravenseat, you and your family?
‘That’s so deep! Seriously, my future is just this afternoon and tomorrow. I leave it at that. You cannot predict what will go on in the future. No one could have ever predicted any of this. Live for the moment.’