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Down on the Farm

In Cumbria Life, launched a new and farming and country life column written by us. Before our first column, Sarah French interviewed us as an introduction to our column….


John Atkinson’s family has moved just three miles in 600 years, farming in the Crake valley south of Coniston in the Lake District National Park.

John, 60, is the sixth generation at Nibthwaite Grange Farm. The family had always been tenants until his parents bought the farm, prompting John to take over from his dad Bill when he was 21. “He had to sell all his livestock to pay for it and still says that was the worst day of his life,” says John, who is joined on the farm most days by his ‘retired’ dad, who is in his 80s.

Making good livings from an upland farm was tough, so John always had another job and worked for the National Trust for 25 years on projects like managing upland path repairs. “Because of my farming background I got drawn into all sorts of other things as a sounding board. I ended up managing 20 staff but I hated being in an office,” he says.

Now he farms his 45 acres plus another 400 acres belonging to the National Trust, Friends of the Lake District, Hay Bridge Nature Reserve and private landowners, along with around 40 pedigree Luing and Whitebred Shorthorn cows and his native and rare breed sheep: Lairg-type Cheviots, Teeswaters, Castlemilk Moorits, Hebrideans, Borerays and Blue Faced Leicesters. They supply meat to the Michelin-starred Old Stamp House in Ambleside, Crakeside Meats and Scoop, a cooperative on Jersey. John is a trustee for the Rare Breed Survival Trust and Grizedale Arts.

“I’ve always been interested in native breeds,” says John. “People had traditional breeds in Cumbria because nothing else would survive on the fells or in this climate. These don’t need to be given supplements and they’re easier to manage.”

Whereas John’s roots are deeply embedded in Lakeland, Maria was far from being fixed to one place. Of Pakistani and Canadian origin, she spent her childhood in Edinburgh but on becoming homeless at 17 ended up in sheltered accommodation. At 19 she did an arts management course and was duty manager of an independent cinema and arts venue before she went travelling, alone, to South America, Vietnam, Hong Kong and South Korea to teach English.

She studied fine art at London Metropolitan and Goldsmiths College in London and stayed for 12 years working as an artist, film maker, film editor and creative producer, with clients including Ray Davies of The Kinks. She set up an artists’ collective, published an annual art book and participated in exhibitions overseas.

A residency, and later a full-time job with Grizedale Arts brought her to Cumbria. “We had a garden there and although I wasn’t a very good gardener we also had pigs, and I loved them. I started to lose enthusiasm for the other things,” she admits.

She and John, who did regular media events for the National Trust and Grizedale Arts met at Sheffield University where they were both involved in the same film project.

After a spell working on an organic farm in Dorset where she set up an artists’ residence, Maria returned to Cumbria, to move in with divorcee John, who has four children. “I came to the farm and saw many opportunities,” says Maria. “Some people tend to look at what they don’t have and look to what can they bring in to change their fortunes, but I just looked at what was already here.”

Diversification began with improving and remarketing the holiday accommodation as Dodgson Wood: an annex at the farm as well as a field barn, remote cottage and campsite that they rent from the National Trust.

The Soap Dairy started in 2017 and grew from Maria wanting a Jersey cow, Honeysuckle, who exceeded their demand for milk for the house, their four dogs, three cats and pigs. After having a go at making soap for friends and family – including one on Jersey who suggested there was a gap in the market for her products there – Maria went on a course to learn how to run a soap business. She and her team now produce around 50 different natural products from a barn next to the house; since the pandemic, business has quadrupled.

Using fleece from John’s sheep and James Rebanks’ Herdwicks, Maria created Shear Delight, producing and supplying wool to hobby knitters and having it made into tweed by Woven in the Bone and turned into bags, jackets and scarves.

Somehow she still finds time to stay involved in Grizedale Arts projects including the campaign to buy and repurpose the Farmer’s Arms at Lowick Green into a community arts venue. Maria is also a trustee for the Lakeland Arts Trust.

At the heart of everything John and Maria do is a love of farming, the land, livestock, the community and Cumbria.

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