The Shepherdess – One Woman Farm exhibition, Dales Countryside Museum

PUBLISHED: 13:53 06 June 2019

Alison O'Neill on her farm in the Howgills

Alison O'Neill on her farm in the Howgills

Ian Lawson

A new exhibition in Hawes focuses on a year in the life of hill farmer Alison O’Neill

Alison O'Neill on her farm in the HowgillsAlison O'Neill on her farm in the Howgills

Farming has been dealt a series of savage and well-publicised blows over the years, but when Alison O'Neill was growing up in the hills above Sedbergh, it seemed to offer seemed an idyllic life.

However, she left her farming family as a young woman to travel round Europe and spend time working in Madrid, Paris and London. She was drawn home in her early 30s and when she returned to Sedbergh and her roots in agriculture, she was horrified to find the old farming lifestyle was dying, so vowed to find her own farm where she could keep traditions alive.

The life she has forged there is the subject of an exhibition now open at Dales Countryside Museum, in Hawes. 'Shepherdess - One Woman Farm' showcases the photography of Ian Lawson, and takes the viewer on a journey through a year in Alison's life at Shacklabank, the farm she leased from the Bradford Diocese, despite her lack of experience as a farmer.

From the beginning she adopted the old-fashioned ways, working with the landscape and using the techniques her grandparents had used, following the natural rhythm of the land and seasons.

And that heartbeat can be felt throughout this exhibition which offers a raw and emotional glimpse into Alison's everyday life and struggles.

Alison supplements the farm's income by designing her own range of tweed clothing and leads a series of walks in the Howgills near her farm, in the Dales and further afield in the Lake District and the Hebrides.

Ian received acclaim for his books 'Saorsa: Freedom of the Hebrides' and 'Herdwick: A Portrait of Lakeland' which conveyed the harsh realities of farming life. Here he returns to that theme with a series of images which trace the circle of life, from early spring lambing to making the hard choice of which sheep to keep on a farm where budgets are tight and each mouth to feed another impact on finances.

Alison O'Neill on her farm in the HowgillsAlison O'Neill on her farm in the Howgills

The pictures, on display in the museum's atmospheric circular gallery, are accompanied by a coffee table book which runs to runs to 422 pages, contains more than 330 photographs, weighs 5kg and costs £155. 

Entrance to the Shepherdess - One Woman Farm exhibition costs £4.80 and the exhibition is open every day from May 22 to September 8, 10am to 5pm. For more information about Ian and his work, go to ianlawson‌.‌com.

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