Interview: Sally Urwin | Living North

Interview: Sally Urwin

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Sally Urwin
We sit down with Sally Urwin, the farmer turned writer whose new book reveals everything that happens on the other side of the fence

Tell us about your life on High House Farm.
We own a family farm just outside Matfen and about half a mile from Hadrian's Wall. It's only 150 acres (which really isn't very big for a farm), and I live there with my husband Steve and my two children, Lucy and Ben. We have 250 Texel cross ewes and we grow wheat, barley and oil-seed rape. I also have an elderly (and very fat) Shetland pony, a working collie called Mavis and two geriatric farm cats.

What made you decide to write a book?
Like millions of other people, I'd always wanted to write, but every time I tried writing a book I'd be hit sideways by terrible imposter syndrome, think my writing was dreadful and then delete it all. However, I started blogging regularly in 2016 and eventually had a small following (mostly made up of my mum and her friends) and I also spent a lot of time on Twitter posting photos and updates on my farming life. When Profile Books found me online and sent me an email asking if I'd be interested in writing a book, I didn't know who they were and rushed down to Forum Books in Corbridge to ask them for advice. They told me Profile were really a very respected publisher, and it would be a very good idea if I emailed them back – so I did.

How did you find the writing process?
I honestly didn't find it too difficult. I know that sounds irritating, but I think because I was writing about something I knew so much about, and I'd done a lot of blogging. It just seemed to flow onto the page. Mind you, it was very difficult juggling farm work, my day-to-day freelance marketing work, the children and housework and then settling down to write in the evenings. I'd send chunks to my publisher to find out whether it was any good and they were hugely supportive, which definitely helped in allaying the imposter syndrome feelings! 

Did you look to any other memoirs for inspiration?
I read a lot. Even more when I'm stressed (which is often) so I have a long list of writers I admire. When I was much younger it was all Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and James Herriott. Now I love Bill Bryson, Hilary Mantel, Phil Rickman, CJ Sansom, and Neil Gaiman. The latest memoirs which I liked very much were Adam Kay's This Is Going to Hurt and Dr Richard Shepherd's Unnatural Causes. They're both medical men, and both are fascinating, down-to-earth and, most importantly, honest.

What’s the best (and hardest) part of being a farmer?
The hardest is the weather. We're at the mercy of it, and dreadful years like 2018 (with the terribly cold spring and very dry summer) have a huge knock-on effect on our farm and sheep. The grass hardly grew last year, and the lambing percentage is down this year and the straw isn't great quality and we've almost run out of hay as we couldn't do a second cut – do I sound a bit hysterical?! 

It’s no wonder farmers in the past had so many superstitions, as there is no way to control the weather so dancing around a maypole, or thwacking yourself with corn dollies or whatever people used to do, was a way to provide a tiny feeling of control over the seasons. Now we all just watch the weather and shout a lot at the forecaster on the TV.

The best part is being able to open the front door and send my kids out onto the farm where they have acres of free space to play in and animals to love. I also love the animals. Building a relationship with them, gaining their trust and watching their personalities unfold is a joy – sorry if I sound a bit soppy.  

What’s your favourite time of the farming year?
I like different seasons for different reasons. The summer is full of harvest work, but if the weather is good the farm looks glorious. Lambing is hard work but watching healthy lambs play outside in the sunshine is wonderful. Winter can be gorgeous, especially during a sharp frost when everything looks all sparkly and pretty. 

What’s your favourite thing about Northumberland?
The history. We're only half a mile from Hadrian's Wall (Turret 18A to be exact) and I find it fascinating. Did you know that when the Romans arrived to build this section of wall, they actually built right over some ploughed land? You can imagine some really grumpy British farmer shouting at them for ruining his harvest of barley. They dug some prehistoric flints up from the far end of one of our fields and around the corner is a deserted medieval village (East Matfen) and you can see the outlines of the buildings – one is still half-standing. 

Describe your ideal Sunday.
I'd love to say running a marathon or something equally irritating but to be completely honest, snoozing under a blanket on the sofa, after a large roast beef lunch, with a secret stash of custard creams and with no one expecting me to go out and check the sheep... 

What’s your pet peeve?
People who don't put their dogs on a lead around sheep. We have a footpath running through our farm, and we're happy to share it with walkers. I do have very polite notices on all our gates, but dog-walkers sometimes tell me that ‘my dog is very well behaved’ to explain why their pets are off the lead in our fields. I have to explain that our sheep don't know the personality of their dog, and no matter how well trained, a loose dog will make them panic and run, which can lead to them aborting their lambs or, if they've been born, interfere with the bonding process. Put your dog on a lead – even if it's a teeny terrier or is the most well behaved dog in Northumberland. 

What are you currently reading, watching and listening to?
I'm watching and loving Derry Girls and really looking forward to Game of Thrones and Peaky Blinders. I have about three books on the go at the moment – The Five by Hallie Rubenhold, Blood and Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson and The Familiars by Stacey Halls. I'm also rereading Stuart Turton's The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which was my absolute favourite book of 2018. 

Sally’s book A Farmer’s Diary is available to buy now from Profile Books 

Published in: April 2019

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