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Alison O'Neill - the Lakeland shepherdess of style

PUBLISHED: 14:58 18 September 2012 | UPDATED: 21:53 20 February 2013

On Helm Crag - Photo by Ian Lawson

On Helm Crag - Photo by Ian Lawson

This striking shepherdess defied the doubters, grandma included, to make her mark on the Lakeland landscape. She spoke to Mike Glover - Photography: Ian Lawson

Photography: Ian Lawson

SHEPHERDESS Seasons of my Life


Shepherdess, farmer, walker, guide, mother, fashion designer and writer, Alison ONeill is forever finding new ways to prove grandma wrong.

Her Dales antecedent once told a young Alison that she would never live off the view. But she believes that is just what she has achieved.
It is not just Grandma Winn whose predictions are constantly confounded by this enthusiastic woman.

Alison was born and bred in the foothills of The Howgills, above the market town of Sedbergh. There, she had an idyllic free-range childhood running wild and shoeless and, from the age of four, she was sent off with a couple of sheep dogs to collect 200 ewes from the imposing fells.

Like many restless teenagers she left home and travelled round Europe seeking the bright lights and had several careers based in the big cities, including Madrid, Paris and London.

But she reckons she was hefted, the word that describes how sheep can be let loose on the fells and still find their way home. So in her early 30s she returned to Sedbergh.

She reconnected with her farming family and was horrified to find that the lifestyle she knew and loved was dying, with small spreads sold to the big boys. So she vowed to find her own farm.

Eventually, while pregnant with her daughter Scarlet, who is now 12, she found Shacklabank which she leased from the Bradford Diocese, despite her lack of experience as a farmer and a gruelling interview.

Her only possessions were 60 and a rucksack. She found a shanty town of tin-roofed buildings, a run-down house and 30-acres of farmland poisoned by chemical fertilisers.

From day one she adopted the old-fashioned ways. I believe in working with the landscape and not against it. If I dont look after it, the landscape wont look after me, she says. Chemical fertilisers produce high yield grasslands but destroy the wildlife.

I went back to the way my grandparents farmed, following the natural rhythm of the land and seasons.

Shacklabank was always known in Sedbergh as the poor farm and some were convinced she was doomed to failure, or at best messing with the lifestyle.

It was certainly not an easy option.Alison had just started to get settled when foot and mouth struck in 2001. She had just invested in a herd of beef cattle, which were going to be her main breadwinner. Instead they nearly bankrupted her.

The gates were shut to prevent contamination, no livestock could be moved. But they still had to be fed. We wouldnt answer the phone for three months, as we knew we couldnt pay any debts, she adds.

But typically, Alison now thinks the dreaded disease was the making of her current success. It forced her to diversify. She started guided walks across the fells, using the title The Barefoot Shepherdess. She got such a good reputation she got work across the Dales and Lakes.

She then started giving talks about her life and lifestyle which again subsidised her income from the farm. And now she is making a growing living by promoting her own design of tweed clothing. She had always been obsessed with the material that excites fashion icons spanning the generations from Beatrix Potter to Vivienne Westwood.

She was just 12 when she was given her first tweed jacket. It is a fabric, she believes, that looks good on all shapes and sizes, and all ages.

Turning this passion into a new business started when she began working with photographer Ian Lawson on the life of the Crofters in the Outer Hebrides. She fell in love with Lewis and Harris and now spends around ten weekends a year giving guided walks on the islands. She has made such an impression on the isles that she has been asked to be one of three main guides, along with mountaineer Doug Scott and Wildlife photographer Laurie Campbell, in this months Harris Mountain Festival.

I am thrilled to be up there with two such distinguished names, says Alison. While there she buys Harris Tweed cloth from Donald John Mackay, weaver at Luskentyre, Isle of Harris, who was recently awarded the MBE.
Alison brings the rolls of cloth back to be made into jackets, waistcoats and three styles of skirts by Brian and Barbara Cleasby, ladies tailors in Kendal for 45 years.

The Cleasbys work Alisons ideas and designs into patterns and garments, which she then markets on her web-site. Customers range from France to Canada, but Scotland is a particularly strong market. Up to 60 colour schemes can be used.

Alisons long-term aim is to create tweed out of the wool from her own Kendal rough fell sheep, of which she has a flock of around 150.
She also has 20 chickens, three Fell ponies, a sheep-dog called Joss, named after legendary Fell runner Joss Naylor, and three Jack Russell terriers who keep down the rat population.

Which takes us back to the farm. After a dozen years of tender loving care it is showing the benefits of having an ecologically sound policy.
Despite the scepticism of other farmers to start with, her neighbours have mostly adopted her ecological methods. Natural England helps by paying farmers to look after the landscape.

Dry-stone walls and hedge-rows are restored annually. Traditional muck-spreading means hay meadows are full of clover and orchids.
A wet pasture, which had previously been drained, was allowed to resume its role of natural sponge that soaks up excess water.

It is now full of bull-rushes and loved by local roe deer. Swallows swoop for abundant insect life like butterflies, dragon flies and damsel flies, which flit between the orchids and thistles. Herons feast on the abundant frogs and newts. Tits, wagtails and woodpeckers make flying visits from surrounding resurgent woodland, as do buzzards.

Otters have returned to nearby Capplethwaite Beck, which drains into the River Lune, to feed on the brown trout.

Shacklabank is my piece of heaven. I have a good life and want to give my daughter the same freedoms and idyllic lifestyle that I had as a child.
Another source of income is people stressed out by modern living staying in a couple of static caravans, a gipsy caravan or the tree house overlooking the beck.

Her standing among those who understand the link between farmers and the landscape which attracts 17 million visitors a year to the English Lake District and surrounding areas is such that her farm is used to stage events.

She recently hosted a Work the View event jointing organised by the Farmers Network and Friends of the Lake District. Work the View is about teaching the skills to restore, create and manage landscape features including walls, hedges, and hay meadows.

Aimed at people working in the farming, food and forestry sector, the training events also demonstrated to visitors the nature and management of these important landscape features. There are guided walks of her farm to see what impact such measures had had.

Now Alison is working on a new joint venture with Ian Lawson: this time a book entitled, like her fashion brand, Shepherdess, which will be a journey through her life told through the seasons.

It will be out early in 2013, marking another remarkable chapter in her multi-faceted career. And, grandma, its all based on the view.
You can find out more by logging onto www.shacklabank.co.uk


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