How James Herriot inspired The Yorkshire Shepherdess

01 February 2017

Amanda Owen, better known as The Yorkshire Shepherdess, on why James Herriot’s books will always have pride of place on her bookshelves. 
 
James Herriot’s books have had a lasting and profound effect upon my life. I have read all of his books from cover to cover and still dip back into them in an occasional quieter moment.

Only last week I found an excerpt in which he described a family picnic that he’d taken at the side of the tarn on the moor where I shepherd our sheep. Later that day, I looked out over the same quiet stillness of the water and considered just how fortunate I am to be able to take in those same unspoilt views and, as he said, ‘sit on the crisp grass and look out over the airy roof of Yorkshire’.
 
You see, my early life was as far removed as could possibly be imaginable from that of James Herriot’s. I was born in the mid-seventies and grew up in a semi-detached house beside a busy road within the urban sprawl of Huddersfield.

My childhood was a happy one, playing with friends, going to the local park and school. I never excelled academically, I spent too much time daydreaming. Only in one subject did I show any promise – English Literature – but that was really no surprise, as I loved reading. I was so passionate about books. For every birthday and Christmas I’d ask for book tokens so that I could fill up my already burgeoning bookcase. My love of books never waned as I moved into my teens, though instead of chatting with friends in  the  playground I would spend every break and dinnertime in the school library, scouring the shelves in search of my next read. I secured myself the official title of assistant student librarian, which pleased me immensely as I got an access-all-areas pass allowing me to borrow what I liked, when I liked and for however long I liked.

Funnily enough, for all the access I had to books, it was my grandfather who provided me with my next good read by handing me a well-thumbed paperback of James Herriot’s If Only They Could Talk. Once I began to read it I was hooked, engrossed in the stories of the trials and tribulations of the country vet, James Herriot.

There was nothing too fanciful, just a range of tales, some with happy endings, others laced with tragedy but all written with honesty and an over-riding sense of humour. His simple but vivid portrayal of the people and animals he encountered whilst out and about on his rounds, or at work in the surgery, were so beautifully descriptive that I could see them in my mind’s eye.

The aristocratic Mrs Pumphrey, the well-heeled country lady and her beloved pampered pooch Tricki-Woo. Her long-suffering gardener-cum-handyman Hodgekin, with his dour no-nonsense demeanour and his simmering hatred for his employer’s mollycoddled lapdog. Herriot’s colleague, the cantankerous, eccentric, old-school vet Siegfried, and his laid back work-shy younger brother Tristan; not to mention the curmudgeonly farmer Biggins.
 
If Only They Could Talk was just the first in a series of bestselling books. Before long, an adaptation was made for the small screen, and the programme All Creatures Great and Small was born. Broadcast every Sunday night at 7 p.m., I was glued to the television set for each hour-long episode.

The heather moors, verdant green pastures and quaint villages of theYorkshire Dales served as a glorious backdrop, and I dreamed of following in Herriot’s footsteps. Feeling both excited and inspired, I decided from that moment on I would try harder at school, for I had set my heart upon becoming a veterinary surgeon.

My quest began very simply: searching the second-hand bookshops, of which Huddersfield had many, first buying an inexpensive out-of-date edition of Black’s Veterinary Dictionary. There appeared to be no shortage of books on animal husbandry and I had soon amassed a substantial collection. I decided to talk with the careers advisor at school. He was dismissive of my idea and told me in no uncertain terms that I would not be able to get the grades required to get into veterinary college. I was disappointed, but in my heart of hearts I knew that he was right. I needed to reconsider my idea but I was not willing to give up on my dream just yet.
 
I carried on accumulating the books and reading anything that I could on the subject. At the weekends I’d hop on a bus and pay a visit to Huddersfield’s Central Library. It was here that I chanced upon a book, not my usual sort either – this was a coffee-table book.

It was the picture on the cover that caught my attention. A photograph of a winter landscape, a man trudging through deep snow, bent double under the weight of a hay bale that he carried on his back, closely followed by a flock of sheep. The title Hill Shepherd intrigued me, and as I sat in the library flicking through the pages thoughts of James Herriot came flooding back to me. The images, all shot in the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District, depicted the everyday lives of hill shepherds. There was a rawness to the pictures; hardened, gnarled, weather-beaten faces enduring storms, gathering their flocks, clipping the sheep, rudding the rams. I realized that there was another occupation that could encompass  all  that  I  had  dreamed  of. I  could become a shepherdess!
 
It was a difficult journey that I was about to embark upon. There was no set route to take, certainly no training course to enroll on. Huddersfield was not a hotbed of opportunity for a wannabe shepherdess. Having left school with little academic credentials to my name and the wholly uninspiring letters GFW (General Farm Worker) scrawled in the career path choices box on my end of school report, I set about trying to gain myself some practical work experience.

There were plenty of farms around the outskirts of town that were happy to provide me with a few hours work for little recompense. The work was physically hard and the farming intensive, far more mechanized than the ‘dog and stick’ farming I’d imagined. It was very apparent from the outset that I was going to have to leave behind all that I was familiar with and travel to more rural parts where I could find gainful employment.
 
I saw an advert in a farming paper: shepherd wanted, no dog required, accommodation available. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I recalled James Herriot being thrown in at the deep end as a newly qualified vet when answering an emergency callout to a horse with suspected colic. How he’d exuded calm professionalism when underneath he was a bag of nerves! I decided that I had enough confidence and basic knowledge of sheep to see me through the interview. In hindsight I think that the farmer was desperate, but I was hired.
 
I stuck at it for a few weeks but it wasn’t the right job for me. By chance I met a group of farmers from the Lake District visiting their sheep that had been over-wintering nearby. They suggested that I should travel up  to  Cumbria  where  lambing  season  was  about  to start. One of the men knew of a vacancy; I would be living in a small caravan in a farmyard, there’d be no electricity and no running water, but I’d be on a hill farm lambing outside. This was an opportunity not to be missed and I was soon heading back north.
 
My mentor was patient and I soon learned many things that one can master only from working in the field. This was the kind of shepherding that I had dreamed of and read about. I too stood as James Her- riot had, watching newborn lambs taking their first shaky steps, marvelling at the natural instinct that guides them to their mother’s udder. ‘Ow thi ’ell do thi’ knaw’, he wrote, and it is something that I still wonder to this day.

After lambing time, I moved from the dingy caravan to a small cottage in a nearby village. This was the beginning of an entirely new chapter. I was living basically, but independently; the locals were warm and welcoming and I soon found myself able to make my wages by casually labouring on farms in the area. I learnt how to construct drystone wall, how to wool wrap and clip and dip sheep. Life was all about work, I loved my job, had settled into the area and made new friends, it all felt a world away from the hustle and bustle of Huddersfield.
 
Finding love was certainly not on the agenda, but I found it by chance after being set the most inauspicious of tasks by one of my employers. I had to venture into Yorkshire, Swaledale to be exact, and go to an outlying farm to pick up a ram that we were borrowing for the mating season. It was a job to be done after hours, and, as I drove mile after mile in the darkness, I could never have imagined that this deserted winding country road was actually taking me right into Herriot’s country.

Although I was Yorkshire born and bred, I’d never set foot in the Dales, yet, from the very moment I saw Ravenseat Farm I felt an uncanny familiarity with the place. It soon dawned on me that this stemmed from the fact that I had already been taken here by Herriot’s books. It was these wilder, bleaker reaches that he liked, noting that as the land heightened, the inhabitants of the remote hamlets and isolated farmsteads became more interesting. He was absolutely spot-on; the farmer that I met that evening, Clive, later became my husband, and the farm became my home.
 
Ravenseat sits right at the very head of Swaledale, the farmhouse standing squarely alone in a small hollow, with the moors rising up around her. It is a place of contrasts, cold and bleak in the winter, picture-pretty in the summer when the surrounding hay meadows become a sea of yellow wild flowers; mile after mile of drystone walls, stone built barns and small packhorse bridges to walk across or a ford to drive through, before you even reach the farmyard.
 
Times may have changed but the warmth and hospitality remains in place. I often think about how my life appears to have gone full circle; now we even form part of a Herriot tour, where fans from all corners of the globe visit Ravenseat in order to get a taste of a traditional working Dales farm.

James Herriot’s books still have pride of place on my crowded bookcase – dog-eared,  well loved and well read. His tales inspired me and took me on a journey from the pages of his books right into his countryside and a new life.

Extracted from the afterword of the Macmillan Collector’s Library edition of James Herriot's If Only They Could Talk.

 A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess, which follows the adventures of Amanda Owen as she juggles farming life with the demands of family on her remote Yorkshire farm, is out now. 
 
'Amanda Owen is like a breath of fresh air. Amanda's life is one of old-fashioned values, hard graft and plenty of love. She, like her life, is extraordinary.' - Ben Fogle

Find out more

Listen to an audio extract 

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