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Detox from technology and make memories in our Lake District retreats.

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.

May & June 2018

Well, after lambing I thought things would slow down, but no, things went up a gear. We are on a bit of a high at the moment after a miserable winter and cold wet spring. The weather has just been glorious and has lifted our spirits and energy levels no end. May was really busy as we had a deadline for finishing the workshop end of our barn conversion. The assessment went very well and we should receive our final grant payment soon. Thank you LEADER Funding. We could not have finished the building to this standard without your support. It felt like jumping through hoops at times and so often I felt like giving up but I’m so glad we forged ahead and we’re both over the moon with this redevelopment. John’s family have farmed here for 6 generations and I’m glad we’ve been able to save this building for many more.

I can be found most day and evenings in the workshop now, making soap, packaging up orders or just generally hanging out. It’s so clean, airy and bright and smells glorious, quite a contrast to the rest of the farm!



The new kitchen where I make the soap is perfect. There are no interruptions and everything is to hand so it’s much easier and quicker than trying to make it in our home.




Do you remember what it used to look like?


Initially, we really just wanted to save the building. The roof was beginning to cave in and the beams were weakening. The Soap Dairywas an afterthought when we were contemplating what we could use the building for. It’s original use was a shippon, for milking cows, but under current regulations we couldn’t use it for livestock again. I’m glad the new use still has a connection with the past use.


The workshop is only half of the building. We are currently working on getting the other half completed. This will be a small rental property for visiting guests, volunteers and for family members. We have our first two bookings already which is keeping us motivated to get it finished.


We’re just back from Woolfest. It’s always a wonderful event, full of expert fibre farmers, spinners, weavers, hand dyers, knitters, crocheters, felters and pattern writers. I feel very out of my depth as I’m only just learning to knit but I can talk about our sheep and this year we filled three display stands with 15 sheep so people could see the different qualities in their fleece.  Here’s a photo of John with a Castlemilk Moorit and Oliver with a Bluefaced Leicester. The weather was so hot we sheared the ewes whose fleece had risen before the show but they had their lambs with them in full fleece so people could see the breed with and without their coats.


Every year, those who bring livestock to the two day event are encouraged to bring one or more into the show ring so Peter Titley, former President of the RBSTcan give an illustrated talk about the history of our native British sheep. It’s always the most popular talk at Woolfest!

Our stand at Woolfest.


This was the first year we had our own stand and traded as Shear Delight. It was very successful indeed and it looks like we will be exporting some of our fleece to Japan next month. British wool seems to be big over there and I seem to have made it into a woolly newsletter….




In other news, we have some rare breed turkey eggs, kindly given to us by Dumfries Housewhen we visited the rare breed on-site farm a few weeks ago. They are in the incubator so I hope on the 16th July we have some Crollwitzer poults.


And to finish, here’s John at a garden party for Prince Charles’ 70th birthday at Buckingham Palace (6 months before his actual birthday but there you go). Anyway, John was delighted to been chosen as one of the representatives of the RBST and he bought himself a gorgeous new suit for the occasion, although he did get mistaken for security!