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Romance and grit: life of Yorkshire Dales shepherdess

Haytime at Shacklabank, an Ian Lawson photograph of Alison O'Neill, part of the upcoming exhibition at Dales Countryside Museum
Haytime at Shacklabank, an Ian Lawson photograph of Alison O'Neill, part of the upcoming exhibition at Dales Countryside Museum

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Bainbridge, 14 May, 2019

The inspiring story of third-generation tenant hill farmer and wool fashion designer Alison O’Neill will be told in a special exhibition opening next week at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes.  

Shepherdess – one woman farm exhibits the work of photographer Ian Lawson, who has spent eight years documenting the shepherdess’s ‘disappearing way of life’.   Clothing designed by Alison O’Neill will also be on display in the museum’s striking circular gallery.

The beautiful pictures show the shepherdess practising high nature value hill farming in one of the country’s most stunning landscapes, at Shacklabank near the Howgill Fells and Sedbergh.

Already celebrated in Cumbria, Alison O’Neill is less well known in Yorkshire  – although that is beginning to change after Shacklabank Farm became part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park following the park’s boundary extension in 2016.  She designs ladies’ clothing which is made from wool clipped from her flock of 150 Rough Fell sheep.  

The exhibition will open on 22 May and run until 8 September.

Ian Lawson said:  “Alison is iconic to me.  Her traditionalism and devotion to sheep was obvious from the start.  When I arrived at Shacklabank eight years ago, it was like arriving on a set of All Creatures Great And Small.  It was as if time had stood still.”

He has produced a book, also called Shepherdess – one woman farm, carrying 335 full-colour photos, which will be on display at the exhibition.

He said:  “It’s a portrait of a disappearing way of life.  Many others haven’t been able to stick it out.  In the time I’ve been coming here and to the Lake District I’ve watched farms going out of business, with land taken over by other farms.”

Alison O’Neill said:  “The past twenty years at the farm have been the happiest and hardest of my life.  I’ve needed the Daleswoman grit.  I like to say wool is my bread.  I turn a product worth nothing to most farmers into that which is sustaining the farm.”

She added: “The pictures are romantic. They had to be, because I’m a romantic.”

Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority Member Champion for Cultural Heritage Julie Martin said:  “It’s exciting that the Dales Countryside Museum is holding an exhibition so relevant to the big challenges of our day. Alison O’Neill offers an antidote to fast fashion and intensive farming.  Rather than selling her wool for next to nothing, she has found a way of turning it into highly desirable clothing.  And rather than pushing back wildlife on her farm, she has encouraged it.  

“Ian Lawson’s photographs of Alison O’Neill and the landscapes of Firbank and the Howgill Fells, taken over many years, are simply beautiful.  The story they tell will be an inspiration to women, to environmentalists, and to all those who love the Yorkshire Dales.”

For full details about Ian Lawson’s book see https://www.ianlawson.com/books/shepherdess/

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