A Sheepish Story


The historical/fantasy novel I have been working on these past weeks is proving problematic and I have put it on one side for the moment to mull over. Instead I’ve turned to a second book that is also a work in progress.

It’s a collection of tales about an idiot who thought she would abandon a comfortable home, all mod cons and a generous monthly salary to go and live off the land in the Yorkshire Dales.

Here’s a snippet from the first chapter of the draft.


The ram’s long bluish-tinged ears waggled furiously as I chastised him.

Right you blue-faced beggar, I’ll cap you. I’m sick of your roaming. If these ladies aren’t good enough for you, you can go back where you came from.’

All week I had chased this beast back and forth; out of my neighbour’s fields and back into my own. The problem was that the great numb creature just did not fancy my ‘old ladies’, thirty curly-horned Swaledale ewes. No, this mating season he had taken a fancy to my neighbour’s, admittedly younger and more stylish, sheep. Today was the fifth and definitely the final time that I was going to fetch him away from forbidden fruit. I grabbed the dog collar that I had put around his thick neck.

Ungrateful brute’ I chuntered, ‘you’ve plenty of grub, plenty of talent, but is it enough?’ I paused, rummaging through my pockets for a length of baler band. ‘Oh no, you’re never satisfied.’ The ram snorted as I fastened the baler band to the collar. He shifted uneasily; to be led from the only source of nookie for a twelve-month, it was too much for him to bear. He threw back his great head and propelled himself down the fields at the double.


Somehow, the length of baler band wrapped itself tightly around my left Wellington boot and as the ram took the piece of band to its full length, it tautened and upended me, all 140 lbs of too, too solid flesh. I crashed on my back, cracking my head and sending my specs flying whilst a whole galaxy of blue and yellow stars shot across my orbit.

The villain of the piece, now thoroughly frightened by the weight he was towing some ten feet behind him, bolted down the field, heading for the wall at the bottom. It was a frosty morning with the ground iron-hard. I wriggled like a fish on a long-line trying to free myself. I squealed as the skin on my back and arms scraped off. The brute reached the lower boundary wall and took it like a Grand National winner at which point my left wellington boot detached itself from my foot and I was left a gibbering, sobbing wreck in the wall bottom. The miscreant, continued his gallop with a flying green wellie bouncing behind him.

It took me some time to collect the remnants of my wits together and even longer to scour the fields groping for my specs, without which I am the proverbially blind bat. I limped home. In the bathroom I inspected the damage. It was both colourful and painful. Maggot-white face; back, arms, legs, shoulders a raw red and every shade of purple and blue in between. I left Frankenstein’s monster an also-ran in a beauty contest that morning.

What am I doing here?’ I whimpered, ribs aching with every breath and sigh.

Good question.


What happened next? That’s another good question and one that will have to wait until spring when the book is published.

Have a great week and watch out for flying wellies.




“Winter forms our character and brings out our best.”

I keep hearing that we’re in for a bad winter here in SW France. Apparently locals are beginning to have feelings in their bones/waters/guts…The old saw about the profusion of berries in the hedgerows being the harbinger of this terrible winter-to-be is frequently mentioned despite the fact that, logically, it is the result of the earlier good spring and plenty of blossom.

The miserable wet weather of late resulted in my having a clear-out on my computer. I came across the files for a book I wrote about my life as a hill farmer in the Yorkshire Dales (never to be published). I skimmed through it wondering whether it was worth keeping and came across the chapter about the winter of 1978/9. I thought I would share it with you and give you some survival tips. Admittedly some might need adapting for those who pursue a suburban lifestyle!

I moved to the Dales in spring 1978, to a small isolated cottage in the middle of an old stone quarry, 900 feet up a hillside and a mile off the tarmac. It had land with it and I had been bitten by the self-sufficiency bug induced by too much reading of the books by the then s-s guru, John Seymour.

  • Tip 1 – do not believe a word the so-called experts say. It is likely their ‘wisdom’ comes to you from an armchair and a book they once read or read once.

Christmas 1978 approached and whilst inside my cottage I made merry with friends and family, outside, winter stole in. The sky grew leaden and heavy. By dusk snow was falling; light, fluffy, twirling flakes like you see in a Walt Disney movie but without the singing. My sheep were already covered in a fine dusting of snow.


Ah it won’t last’ I said to myself with the confidence that comes from sheer ignorance.

  • Tip 2 – do not fall for the schmalzy snow stuff they put in the movies and remember that innocence is no excuse for ignorance.

In the morning it was a changed world, a dazzling white scene. There were none of the familiar rocks and hummocks to be seen. All was a smooth icy white sheet. The sheep – my Hells Angels – (they could go very fast; over, under or round any obstacle and made a lot of noise) found themselves well and truly blocked in down the hillside. They bleated and blared, marooned up to their bellies in snow. The Great Winter was beginning.


  • Tip 3 – keep your sheep close (or anything else you value – car, spouse, partner, kids, Fred the Ferret) and your shovel closer.

Looking back, I shudder to remember how unprepared I was to face the 78/79 winter. Fuel stocks were low; the freezer nearly empty; dwindling hay, straw and feed for the animals whose appetites seemed to double overnight. The relentless white stuff just kept coming. My little lane filled up and I spent most of my time dragging a sledge with hay bales, sacks of coal or whatever was required. I dressed in treble layers of woollies and a large shovel became my new best friend.


  • Tip 4 – take the mattresses from your beds – you will not have time to sleep. Turn them into sledges for all the family. Be careful any broken springs do not cut you. However if they do, the cold will keep the pain away.

Everything was held in a painful icy grip. The hens kept to their hut. The few eggs that came usually cracked in the cold. Even the geese the most hardy of creatures, sought shelter. In the metallic half-light of morning, Gulliver goose and Mrs G would waddle out from under a gorse bush and follow me to the feed store. He would tap angrily at the door and hiss.

Hello ugly” I would greet him

Shiss, shiss” was the invariable reply, before spitting rudely at me and rattling his feathers, coated with ice droplets like a thousand tiny sequins.


  • Tip 5 – Do not piss off your goose, just cook it for Christmas instead. Better still, be resourceful; hide your own and nick your neighbour’s.

In the garden all the winter cabbages and broccoli disappeared under the snow. I’d netted them against the rabbits but times were so hard for them that they tunnelled under the snow, nibbled a neat hole in the net and then chewed their way through the frozen leaves. When, eventually, the thaw came, all that was left was a tangled collection of holey netting, rows of smelly cabbage stumps and suspicious heaps of round black pellets.


  • Tip 6 – Be kind to the wildlife; they have to survive too. Nor should you eat your pets or family members. However you may wish to take the opportunity of ridding yourself of some of your less-than-satisfactory neighbours – although long, slow cooking is recommended.

After about a month of this hard freeze, it started to blizzard again and the east wind howled bringing down a maelstrom of swirling snow and ice.


By this time I had managed to get my car to a neighbour’s house where I parked it. Foolishly I decided to try my luck at driving it home along the lane. Halfway, I ran out of luck and straight into a massive snow drift. I pushed, stomped, crawled for half a mile to reach the cottage, carrying a precious bundle of supplies on my back. (You have to remember this was forty years ago. I wasn’t as doddery as I am now!). It was a complete white-out; road, walls, fields and the sky itself merged; no boundaries, no landmarks to guide me. Sharp spicules of ice cut my face and the shrieking wind deafened me. Sheer stubbornness and bad-temper kept me going (and still do) until I finally made it to the cottage. In my kitchen warmth enveloped me, steaming up my specs and melting the snow and ice from my clothes. I staggered to the nearest chair, dripping pools of water and too exhausted to care.

  • Tip 7 – cultivate the right attitude. Bloody-mindedness is always of benefit. The deeply philosophical phrase “Oh bugger” uttered at intervals is also most helpful.

The arctic winter dragged on well into the New Year 1979 and the lane to the cottage remained impassable.


There was a savage beauty in the surroundings but for those who had to get to work and earn a living it was a very difficult time indeed. I became accustomed to floundering through the snow and ice, carting supplies, cutting logs and on one or two occasions helping to dig neighbours’ sheep out of drifts or fodder their outlying cattle. Anyone foolhardy enough to want to visit this winter wonderland, was press- ganged into carrying small parcels of vital supplies such as chocolate or ciggies.

  • Tip 8 – Make an unbreakable rule: all visitors must come armed with luxury goods as defined by you and must bring their own shovels and snow-shoes.

The weather did bring out a sort of community spirit. My nearest neighbour lived about a mile and half away alongside a cleared road. He took in deliveries of feedstuffs for all the cut-off outlying farms. The telephone kiosk at the side of that road became the location for a drugs drop whenever the vets could not get to a farm.

  • Tip 10 – only make use of your neighbours if you can be sure they will not run off with the stash.

The icy surface of the snow could be positively dangerous. Once as I made my way across the sloping side of a drift at the top of the quarry, I lost my footing and began sliding helplessly towards the quarry edge and a seventy foot drop. I thrashed around helpless; dug my heels into the frozen crust, but to no avail. It was sheer luck that at one point the drift did cave in underneath me bringing my slide to a snowy stop and I was able to creep away to safer ground.


  • Tip 11 – ‘Exercise’ is unnecessary. It is a much over-rated activity and you will get enough of it just trying to get through the day.

By March cruel, icy winds swept across the lying snow and the water supply to my cottage and barns froze. The water came from a spring a little way up the hillside. My days were filled lugging water to the animals and into the house. Inevitably, I slipped on the ice. It was three strikes and I was out. Legs shot out in front, head shot back and the precious water shot all over me. Result – concussion and a chipped elbow bone.

  • Tip 12 – fill whatever you have with drinkable water to tide you over. If you have paddling pool fill it – ignore the kids’ protests. Fill every possible available container you can find. Store outside and you will have ready-made ice to act in lieu of your freezer when the electricity is cut off. Be frugal – the less water you have, the more you will want.

Eventually, in early April the icy grip on the land began to loosen as a westerly wind gusted in. It was still cold; hailstorms and showers pelted down with monotonous regularity. But the snow drifts shrank and retreated from the milder air. Most welcome of all was the return of running water. The days of a discreet tiddle in the bushes were over. The old familiar landscape re-appeared, washed-out and drab and I picked up the threads of a more ‘normal’ life.

  • Tip 13 – Run away! Run away! Find somewhere warm to hang out until it is all over. You can send postcards to all your friends saying how hot and sunny it is. They will not be delivered of course. But think of the smug satisfaction that will envelop you.

That was my first taste of a Dales winter. Now, some forty years on and armed with this experience, if there is to be something similar as the Jeremiah’s predict, I shall do things differently. I shall turn my back on it all, lock the doors, close the shutters, put on numerous layers of mismatched garments, get under several duvets and hibernate. Possibly I may see you all when spring is sprung. Possibly you may think I am dead but more likely I will just smell funny.

Cream Teas and Cannon Balls

What a weekend! Apart from shovelling a ton of gravel onto my newly made gravel garden in the pouring rain, I have just about completed my research for “The Uncertain Coast” and made a start on the writing thereof. It’s only going to have a limited market but an email winged its way into my box this morning asserting that writers might find it helpful to go for being a bigger fish in a smaller pond so perhaps I’m on the right lines.

Part of that research was to find a cannon ball fired off by John Paul Jones as he rendered passing honours at the house of the man tasked with eliminating piracy on the East Coast. Some of you may remember an earlier blog on this very subject. Well I have to tell you that cannon balls can be very disappointing. All I found was a weedy tennis-ball sized one rather than the flipping great lump of lead I was hoping for. Not worth a photograph at all. The cream tea was pretty yummy though.

I made one revision to the latest article for the Yorkshire Dalesman after I found a a slip-up about dates which made a nonsense of part of the article – don’t know how I came to write it or miss it first time around. It just shows the value of leaving a “finished” piece of work to stew for a while and then come back to it.

Yesterday I made a visit to racehorse trainer Ann Duffield’s yard up near Middleham in the Yorkshire Dales. I had a great morning interviewing her for a profile-type article and realised that I have enough material for at least one other article taking a different tack (if you’ll pardon the pun). It was a fascinating insight into a complex world of which I know nothing.

However, the piece de resistance occurred in a small café near Middleham where I fetched up for coffee before meeting Ann. It was quiet and the girl waiting tables was inclined to be chatty. Visitors at that time of the morning are clearly as rare as hen’s teeth and she asked me what I was doing there. Once I told her she was off like a whippet on steroids with her questions. Are you famous? Can you get rich as a writer? How do you publish for Kindle? What does it cost? Can you do it yourself?

Turns out that three years ago when she was sixteen she started to write a fantasy novel but then gave up because she couldn’t see how to get it published. So I shared what smidgeon I know with her and gave her Legends of Windermere blog to look up as an example of the blood, sweat and tears of indie publishing (Charles you owe me one if a teenager from England becomes your biggest fan). Before I left she held out a serviette and a pen and asked me to sign it “in case you ever become famous”.

My head is now a heck of a lot bigger than that cannon ball.

I Love It When a Plan Comes Together

Yesterday was a glorious day for a bit of field research and, purely by chance, I happened to have a commissioned article to write which entailed just that. I needed to take some photos and to pay a visit to a local museum in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales.

I’m finding that short (1000-1200 words) articles are a useful way of adding to the coffers whilst working on my magnificent octopus…oops, opus. My goal is to have two to three of these articles on the go each month. It’s a bit of an ask but I’m sure I can rise off my beloved sofa and meet the challenge full on.

I don’t look to the nationals to stop my financial wheels from falling off; it is mainly regional magazines, small press and trade press that keep the Writeonthebeach literary aspirations on the road. The pay is reasonable and (so far) reliable and it’s fun to write for them too.

The only problem is that I get so immersed in the research that it takes me a lot longer than it should to produce the finished article and that impinges either on writing time for the M.O. or on the day job. But then, when you’re striding out across the moors with only a few tatty-wool sheep for company and a lone curlew calling overhead, who cares?

The article is finished and the photos ain’t too shabby so after a few days “mulling time” (just to be sure I’ve not made any howlers) it’ll be winging its way to the editor and after a decent interval the next pitch will follow.

I love it when a plan comes together or am I tempting fate?

A Journey Back in Time

First a bit of back story. Some thirty years ago I lived and worked a hill farm in the Yorkshire Dales. If you don’t know this part of the world and you like wild spaces you should visit. The Dales are a series of river valleys flowing, more or less northwest to southeast in North Yorkshire. Tourism and hill farming are the main occupations.

I was married at the time (although he was more conspicuous by his absence), so I ran our small farm. Now the dale where I lived was extremely traditional. There were things that womanfolk did and did not do. They did not run a farm but they could act as helpers when required. This usually meant standing in a gateway in the freezing cold as sheep or cattle were being moved; flapping your arms, to prevent the animals getting through the gap, all the while not knowing your better half had stopped for a gossip with the neighbour who just happend to be driving by.

Women did not drive around in a battered old Landrover – they made an appointment with their better half to drive them where they needed to go. If it was not convenient they were permitted to take the one and only bus and, on return, walk the mile home, down an unlit rough track, laden with enough stuff to feed an army – because of course, only womanfolk could unravel the mysteries of the kitchen stove. They did not go into a pub on their own and when accompanied by said better half they were permitted to enter through the beery portals,they could only sit in the room on the right because the snug was men only.

However, they did participate in the church flowers rota, the school run and the women’s institute to say nothing of the endless cleaning, washing and cooking – all of which was done with a smile on their lips and murder in their hearts. As I said it was, at that time, a very traditional place.

As a woman to whom rule breaking came as naturally as breathing I was, at different times, an oddity, a misfit, a hippy on the hill and a woman “as wants a good seein’ ter”. As far as my sisters-in-strife were concerned, I was a potential Jezebel who, never having her own man around, might well be tempted to borrow one of their lusty specimens. Despite all this we rubbed along together and after about three years I even managed to get a “good morning” out of most of them without them doing the three Hail Mary’s stuff. Mostly I think, I provided the occupants of the snug with a source of amusement as they watched my new fangled farming ways.

What none of these lovely people knew was that I also wrote a Saturday column for one of the larger regional newspapers in which I described life and the people in the Dale. I used a pseudonym so I felt safe doing so and was always careful not to be too specific. Now we come to the crux of this tale and a warning to all of you writers out there who garner material from “real” life.

It happened that one autumn I needed to take some stock down the dale to the local cattle auction. This was most definitely a men-only event – legitimate women i.e.wives – avoided the place. Nevertheless, needs must and so I turned up with some half dozen young cattle that I couldn’t afford to keep over winter. My farming neighbours were out in force that Saturday and the auctioneer made the most of the event by reminding everyone repeatedly that there was a lady present.

My turn to bring the animals into the ring arrived. The idea was that the seller walked the beasts around the ring – showed them off as it were – for buyers to assess. The whole process was generally an occasion for banter, ribaldry and back-chat. A couple of my neighbours had ringside seats and as I walked past them I could hear them commenting:
“that one’s got a good arse on”
“Which beast or t’lass?”
“I could mek summat of that”
“Aye well, it’d bed down nicely”
At each sally, they nearly pissed themselves laughing. I got a bit fed up of this and delivered one of my well-known devasting ripostes:
“Bugger off and die, fuckwit.”

In my next Saturday column I wrote about this event (in much more refined tones) but perhaps a tad less carefully than usual. The following week I found myself on the receiving end of even more peculiar looks and there was a stronger than usual air of disapproval that trailed after me. After a particularly hard day I nipped into the pub for a sandwich and a drink and felt umpteen pairs of eyes boring into my back as I sat at the counter chatting to Colin, the landlord.
“What is it this time?” I whispered and, in reply Colin pulled out the Saturday paper, much mangled and thumbed over and showed me my own column. He said simply,
“You’re blown.”

My neighbour took it particularly hard. Ever after, if he saw me talking to anyone, he would sidle up and whisper:
“Watch what yer say. She’ll be puttin’ it all down and it’ll be in t’paper.”

Why am I telling you all this? Because yesterday, finding myself in the vicinity of my old stamping ground I made a detour to see how it had changed. It hasn’t much – except that the Acropolis Coffee Bar has lost its red formica-topped tables and has been somewhat gentrified since my day. However, after my tour I had a coffee there and was musing about the old days when I became aware of a thin, prune-faced man dressed in the famers’ Sunday best – check shirt, waistcoat, twill trousers, Barbour coat and wellies – looming over me.
“Aye, it is you” he said with a certain grim satisfaction, “Thowt so.”
To my eternal embarrassment he then announced to the coffee shop as a whole
“Tha needs to watch what tha says to thissun. She’ll tek it down in writing and ‘old it aginst yer”.
He coughed himself silly – my old nemesis and neighbour.

Who says “fame” is transient?