♔A predecessor once told a young Alison that she would ‘never live off the view’, but that is just exactly what she has achieved.
Alison O’Neill was born and bred in the foothills of The Howgill fells, above the market town of Sedbergh in Cumbria.
The daughter and granddaughter of farmers, she had an idyllic free-range childhood running wild and shoeless and from the age of four recalls being sent off with a couple of sheep dogs to collect 200 ewes from the imposing fells.
At sixteen Alison left Cumbria to travel, like most teenagers she wanted to see the world, visit the cities, and experience the excitement. But after twenty years away Alison has returned to her roots, or as she says ‘hefted’; a word describing how sheep are let loose on the fells, but still find their way home.
In 1999 she leased from the Bradford Diocese, Shacklabank a small tenant farm, and with her husband John, they set about making the farm into a going concern. Shacklabank was always known in Sedbergh as the poor farm, with a run-down house, a shanty town of outbuildings and 30-acres of farmland poisoned by chemical fertilisers.
I believe in working with the landscape and not against it. If I don’t look after it, the landscape won’t look after me. 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.
She had just invested in a herd of beef cattle, when in 2001 foot and mouth struck. What was going to be her breadwinner, instead nearly bankrupted her. In hindsight, Alison now believes the foot and mouth outbreak was the making of her current success. It forced her to diversify. She trained as a fell guide and started guided walks across the fells using the title ‘The Barefoot Shepherdess‘.
I did a barefoot walk with a group of people on the west coast of Cumbria and it just really caught on, people enjoy it – they say it brings their childhood back to them. I now guide weekends and weeks where we just walk barefoot. It’s better for your feet to walk barefoot and, also, I find that when you are barefoot you think more about where you are putting your feet, so you are totally focused on the walking. It’s about connecting with nature – paddling through becks and mud.
Now guiding is one of her main incomes apart from her sheep. Her latest venture has seen her producing her own design of tweed clothing. Obsessed with the material that has excited icons spanning the generations from Beatrix Potter to Vivienne Westwood, Alison is a strong advocate for using local produce, and in collaboration with Cumbrian weavers, spinners and dyers she produces her own range of Herdwick Tweed suits and bags.
I have worn tweed ever since I was a little child, my dad and my grandad always wore tweed jackets. I remember my grandad used to give me his jacket to keep me warm out on the hills when I was a child. Everybody wore tweed when I was growing up. I had a grandma who always wore tweed skirts and Fair Isle jumpers; she had tweed skirts in every colour. She was a real inspiration for me – she was a bit of a free spirit. She loved nothing better than packing a little rucksack and heading off to walk in the Dales for the weekend.
Alison describes the landscape around her home as “bleak and beautiful” she finds the richness and variety of her way of life – extremely rewarding.
I’m doing what I love and living my life how I want to live it. I just blow with the wind; I make a living, but nothing is set. I never wear a watch. I function with the seasons.