Last Christmas, my sister surprised me with an empty box. Tearing off the purple ribbon, I found nothing inside but fresh air and open space, like a little sneak preview of Swaledale, where my girlfriend and I would travel in lieu of a gift.
Seven long months later, on the weekend after the Tour de France, we journeyed north from Leeds through the Yorkshire Dales, over the newly infamous ‘Côte de Cray’ and the notorious hump of the Buttertubs Pass. All the way from Skipton to Hawes and beyond, the road was decorated with the bicycle-themed scrawls of 2 ½ million ordinary folk who inundated the Dales on 5th July, when the world’s largest sporting event wheeled into Yorkshire. Cheered on by the ‘Go Cav’ and rather bitter, ‘we want Sir Bradley’ murals, the car finally creaked over the crest of Yorkshire to Ravenseat; home of Clive and Amanda Owen, author of The Yorkshire Shepherdess. Recently made famous by TV series The Dales, the farm is beautifully remote with a charming antediluvian spirit, caring little for the laws of modern life.
Perching precariously on the banks of Whitsundale Beck, tucked away beneath a low cliff of shattered slate and bracken, is a lovingly restored shepherd’s hut; the perfect place to spend a sticky summer night. Close to some of the finest walking and wild swimming in Britain, the hut even has its own waterfall pool, where I swam mini-lengths through chilly water rusted with peat from the Yorkshire hills. Wagtails bobbed among the rocks, and in the evening we lazed around a fire of sticks, listening to the stream and our flock.
Inside, the hut is truly authentic, with pine boards and the sort of spartan oak furniture normally favoured by those who never sit on it. The walls are ranged with rosettes; trophies from the Tebay Fell Pony Show, and on the bookshelf, a shepherd’s favourite read: The Northern Dairy Shorthorn Herd Book, Vols 5, 6 & 7. Gnarled crooks swing from the wardrobe, and even the curtain rails are curled like rams’ horns. I lay listening to the beck all night, filling the pool like a bottomless bath tub; imagining the moorland sounds as phantom hands stirring and mixing in the water.
We woke to a shivery dawn, the sheeps’ lament laying like the mist on the fells. Amanda brought a ‘proper’ Yorkshire breakfast, carrying a weighty tray with the ease and strength of a seasoned shepherdess, and we poured out fresh cow’s milk like weak cream.
Sheep streamed through the farmyard, as Clive and his dogs made ready for another day on the hills. “We’re always messing with sheep at Ravenseat.” he said.