We started the day in Uldale – ‘dale of the wolf’. The road in curls over exposed and bare tops and the wind swoops in from the north, bringing the bite of the high-fell snow with it. There’s an abandoned farmhouse, silhouetted, surrounded by crows that are being hurled into the grey sky as simply as leaves, and when we leave the cossetted warmth of the car to walk over to take a look at it we very quickly become chilled to the bone.
Uldale itself is further down the road, in a huddle of trees. We’ve come to talk to Harry and Mary Hutchinson who have farmed in this spot for 35 years. Harry recalls using a horse to take feed out to the fell for the sheep when he first arrived, but it wasn’t long until a quad bike became an integral part of the farming day. Having said that, Harry thinks the best way to gather in from the fell is on foot: slow and gentle so as not to alarm sheep or separate mothers and lambs, or tire the dogs.
We talk in the kitchen for more than an hour, the air heated by the wood-fuelled stove, and flapjack on the table. As the Hutchinsons tell us about their farm and about changes over time there is a deep sense of knowing and caring for the land, the farm and the livestock, and Harry voices what we often hear – that sometimes policy makers seem to lack an understanding of what it really means to farm. He smiles as he tells us that it’s as if he went to live on the moon for thirty years, he would be considered an expert; but when it comes to his farm, the 400 acres of intakes, and the open common where his sheep graze, he is often told what to do with the land by people who know it less well than he does.
Mary and Harry also talk of the sadness when lambs are lost, coping in a storm or a difficult winter, prices at the markets, lapwings, grouse and foxes and the conversation drifts to carbon capture in the peat bogs, gripping, tree planting and biodiversity and what has changed here in thirty years. Beyond Uldale, the Hutchinsons farm additional land that was once part of four separate farms – thirty years ago there were four families there. It’s a mark of how communities are changing and thinning out. But there is optimism and, every day, a reason to smile, Harry tells us, ‘ just to be alive in all this beauty’.
At the next farm we visit we stay outside and there’s a milky sun taking the edge off the chill. We’re at Birkrigg Farm outside Appersett, with John Fawcett. John tells me he can go back at least three generations on this farm, and there’s a beam inside that’s marked with the date 1627. We’ve come not to do a full interview – one of the project volunteers, Andy Fagg, has already interviewed John. We’re here to capture his image. Rob sets up his large format camera beside a doorway that was blocked up in the 1930s when it changed from being a shelter for cattle, to a hay store. Pipes in the yard are left from the time when milking was part of the farm day, but now there are just 200 sheep, and they will begin lambing around March 10th. While Rob takes the images I gaze across the fields beyond the farm where the land dips then rises steeply, up to a ridge with two leafless trees – the Knot – and on to the humped back of Widdale Fell.
On the other side of Hawes we meet Ant Heseltine, again for a photograph. He leans on his quad, with Wether Fell behind him carrying shreds of snow. Beside him his dog, Spot, struggles to stay still – Ant says he’s a bit ‘fizzy’ and needs ‘a couple of pulls on the handbrake’ occasionally to temper his enthusiasm.
The day with farmers was punctuated with a visit to see Fiona Rosher at the Dales Countryside Museum. We were let in once more to what feels like a secret trove of goodies – woodcuts made by Marie Hartley depicting farm scenes, people, dogs and villages. The finesse of work on these is quite incredible; not being a woodcutter or even a visual artist it’s hard to comprehend how anyone can work so closely and with such accuracy. Fiona is going to look through the collection and we will be taking photographs of some of the locations recorded in these woodblocks, and in Marie Hartley’s sketchbooks. We will also be talking to farmers whose farms or families have been featured by Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby – already we’ve visited Amanda and Clive Owen whose farm, Ravenseat, was one of the scenes Marie sketched.
It’s a continuity that’s appealing – the scenes recorded by these two women whose collection of images and writing are treated a little like the Dales ‘bible’ have barely changed. The same hills, the same skylines, the same houses, barns and walls. But different lives, different times. In the last fifty years much has changed, and much has stayed the same. Our interviews are revealing the challenges, pleasures, hopes and concerns of farmers today.
(Full articles of interviews with the Hutchinsons, with John Fawcett and with Ant Hesltine will soon be posted to the site).
Marie Hartley & Joan Ingilby : Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales