An audience of over 200 people were at the Rheged Centre on Saturday 25th October to listen to Alison O’Neill, ‘the barefoot shepherdess’ deliver the 12th Wainwright Memorial Lecture.
By nature, Alison O’Neill is a person who is quite at home in her own company, spending her days on her beloved Howgill Fells, be it tending her flock of Rough Fell sheep or striding out over the grass-covered hills that Alfred Wainwright likened to ‘a huddle of squatting elephants’.
She was joined by her Border Collie, Shadow on stage, but the dog thought better of the reserved space next to the lectern, preferring a front-row seat instead! And it was a privilege to be in Alison’s company as she took her audience on two journeys during the evening.
The first, her life journey, recounting her childhood experiences on the family farm; the trauma of her parents’ decision to sell up and move to the town; her own travels abroad before returning to her roots: her ‘heft’ as she called it. She acquired Shacklabank, 30 acres of hay meadow and grazing with a wonderful panoramic view. ‘But you’ll never live on a view,’ her grandmother told her. And, as she admitted, it was a struggle with the outbreak of Foot and Mouth in 2001 nearly ending the childhood dream of having her own farm.
The second journey was the farming year with all its highs and lows. Autumn: the ‘back end’ a time when Alison literally played God deciding which lambs were going to market and which would be kept to put to the tup. Winter: ‘a time of black ice, frozen troughs, rain, more rain, cracked hands, mud, frozen pipes, burst pipes, snow on snow’ … Spring: a deeply fulfilling time with the lambing and ‘the only time when the sheep need me’. Summer: the busiest time with clipping, dipping and haymaking … and finally, when all the work is done, some time for walking on the Howgills.
Alison’s lecture was warmly received by the audience at Rheged. On behalf of the Society, Derek Cockell thanked Alison for her enthralling talk and presented her with honorary membership of the Society. A cheque for £250 was given to Alison for her chosen charity, Eden Animal Rescue.