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Theo Hobson

‘Farming is hungry work’: The Yorkshire Shepherdess on life with nine children

'Farming is hungry work': The Yorkshire Shepherdess on life with nine children
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The Yorkshire Shepherdess was raised in suburban Huddersfield, not a sheep in sight. Amanda Owen was a romantic type who pored over pastoral images in library books – by chance, one image of some men at a cattle auction contained her future husband, Clive. She determined to head for the moors and, like some Thomas Hardy heroine, make her way in the windswept world of sheep farming. 

She is now the nation’s chief supplier of pastoral, today’s version of a rural-hymning poet, warbling the woodnotes wild. She is also an icon of motherhood, having produced no less than nine young farmhands. For many of us, Our Yorkshire Farm, the Channel 5 programme that mixes family and farming, was an ideal escape from the stresses of lockdown life. 'Yeah, I suppose it’s an escape for lots of people', she tells me over the phone, 'but it’s also something achievable and on your doorstep - it’s a bit different from a programme about the Galapagos Islands.' 

She has written a cookbook interspersed with seasonal reflections on life at Ravenseat, rich in anecdotes about family life. It sounds a lot of fun, and the food sounds good too. And the writing is good: clear, direct, and spiced with local terms like 'clashy weather'. 

She was not always a top cook. When she first had Clive round for supper, 'or tea as we call it', she made him a shepherd’s pie. She’d never made one before but hoped that the ability might come naturally to a shepherdess. 'He said it was the worst shepherd’s pie he’d ever tasted', she laughs, 'I didn’t even know how to make mash potato'. She laughs a lot, launching into a stream of anecdotes. You have to fight to get a question in. 

Her childhood fare was mainly ready-meals – back in the 80s they felt modern and with-it rather than a cop-out, she recalls. As a freelance shepherdess, she didn’t pay much attention to food: 'I had very little money - it was a matter of eat-to-live.' What led her to get better at cooking? Having children? 'It was my location, that changed everything. When I was first here at Ravenseat, in the late nineties, you couldn’t nip out for a ready-meal or get something delivered. It seems like the dark ages now, pre-internet – one of the most remote hill farms in England. When you’ve got a husband who comes home with half a bullock because he couldn’t get a decent price at the market, then you’ve got to think on your feet, and learn to make do. You learn to use seasonal produce, and to make things that are nourishing as well as easy, as it’s hungry work.' In the book she cites the local saying, ‘It’s yer belly that keeps yer back up’. 

Amanda on the farm

The recipes often suggest short cuts and the avoidance of 'faff', but still. It’s surprising that someone with her work-load finds time to make Hasselback potatoes. 'It’s not something we do every day, but they’re great aren’t they? And putting some effort in to make something a bit fancy is a great life lesson for the kids.' 

There are plenty of vegetarian dishes: does she feel we should all eat less meat? 'Absolutely, it’s not like you’re Henry VIII banqueting every day – ideally any meat you have should be locally sourced, and you should know about the animal’s welfare. We certainly don’t eat meat every day – right now I’ve got a vegetarian lasagne in the Aga, in fact I better go check on it.' Which she does. When she returns to the call I ask whether the children get attached to the animals and sometimes recoil from the idea of eating meat? 'No, the opposite. When Raven went off to college she said she wanted to be vegetarian, because she didn’t want to eat meat if she didn’t know where it came from. I agreed – if she only had a pound I’d prefer her to buy a bag of couscous than some cheap sausages.' 

Does she sometimes feel that the programme is unrealistically rosy? 'No, I believe the programme does show both sides of it. My job is to show people what life’s like here, but I’m a glass-half-full sort of person, and that probably comes across.' It certainly does: she makes sheep farming look so lovely that it’s surprising more people don’t try it, I suggest. 'Well they can do! That’s what me and my husband did – and so I’m not going to say, This is a great life but you lot keep out.' 

The book emphasises that the kids have do to plenty of work, in the kitchen as well as on the farm. 'It’s a necessity, I can’t do it all. If anyone asks what’s for tea, I say, what are you making?' Do the girls tend to do more cooking than the boys? 'No, Miles is a great baker, there’s no gender politics here. As long as the job gets done, no one gives a rat’s arse.' 

Why did she and Clive have so many children? 'We never planned it, but it felt like Ravenseat wanted lots of life in it, and I also had a sense when I came here that the village was disappearing, the pub and the shop were shutting, so it was down to us to create our own community, and bring the place to life.' 

A family of eleven has to have routines, she explains, but also has to be flexible. 'You can’t be too disciplined, you’d go crazy.' It’s crucial to sit round the table together every evening, and they often have special meals with a sense of occasion and excitement. 'For example if we’ve foraged the food ourselves, if we’ve picked mushrooms for example, we focus on that. Are the kids crazy about mushrooms? No, but if there’s a story there, and they’re part of it. It sounds a bit middle-classy – I’m very aware that a lot of families struggling to put any sort of food on the table, but that’s how we do things.' 

I am more in the habit of carping at celebrities than praising them, but I can’t find much to carp about with the Owens: the family seems a shining model of good family culture. I wonder if she wants to say anything about the values that she and Clive have instilled in the kids. Without becoming any less vocal, she also becomes a bit bashful, worried about seeming to pontificate. 'I have never claimed to be some sort of domestic goddess, far from it. I just passed a pair of underpants lying on the floor, and saw one of the kids walking in the yard in their socks, so there’s constant reminders of that. I totally shy away from offering any sort of parenting manual – all parents are doing their best, and I’d never tell them how to live.' 

She obviously receives a lot of adulation. Why shouldn’t she? Few other faces on TV emit such wholesome good cheer to the nation. Does she feel under pressure to live up to fans’ expectations? 'It is a bit scary to be put on a pedestal. Right this minute Raven’s going through the fan-mail, and often there’s glimpses into people’s lives that are really difficult, and if we offer a bit of encouragement that’s great – just as long as people know we’re not claiming to be perfect or anything.' 

And has she begun to worry that fame might have negative effects on the kids? 'Of course I watch that closely. They’re not affected negatively so far - of course the older ones have access to social media - but the younger ones just ignore it all. They barely know what a celebrity is. If Beyoncé came to t’door, they wouldn’t know who it was. But we’re not some sort of freaky commune, you can’t shut the world out.' 

Part of her appeal is that she is so happily rooted. The book exudes delight in the local landscape, for example a wood that feels mysterious, exotic. Does she feel that society is too restless, too keen to seek thrills abroad when we could be digging deeper into Britain? 'It’s great when the weather’s all right, in’t it? But yeah, I haven’t been abroad since foot and mouth, when our sheep were culled and there was nothing to look after. It sounds like we’re tied to the farm, like we’re shackled, but it don’t feel like that; there’s no better place to be. A couple of weeks ago I went on my own with a sleeping bag to a bothy and slept under the stars. It were wonderful.'

Celebrating the Seasons by Amanda Owen The Yorkshire Shepherdess is published 28th October by Pan Macmillan, £20.

Written byTheo Hobson

Theo Hobson is the author of seven books, including God Created Humanism: the Christian Basis of Secular Values

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