I recently travelled north of the county to visit Helen Rebanks at her family’s farmhouse near Penrith. I wanted to chat with her about her life and her family – and how she came to write her book “The Farmer’s Wife” which is to be published this week - on 31st August.
Helen is married to James Rebanks; both are fell farmers, educators, home makers and parents to four children; Molly 17, Bea 15, Isaac 11, Tom 5.
I first met Helen back in around 2013 at a popular local wool fair Woolfest, which ran in north Cumbria at Cockermouth Auction Mart. I had recently begun OUBAS a year previously in a home studio in Ulverston in the south of the county, so Woolfest was one of our first events. Helen has been a valued supporter since those early days; valuing as she does good quality, locally made food and products. Isaac at the time was only around 3, clutching a couple of toy Herdwick sheep.
We both settle down in the family living room, which looks out over a fairly overcast grey July Cumbrian sky - the garden flowing into open fields and wooded pasture. Helen’s sheepdog Floss curls up close by her feet as she sits on an armchair in the window. She tells us about a hare they watched from outside her kitchen window the previous evening, watching it pop up from different windows around the house; it had obviously found a content place to be.
Helen has very clearly also found a place that brings her much contentment too – the farmhouse feels a very warm and welcoming home, which at times is full of the bustle and chaos of family life, but on the day we chatted felt calm and cosy. It is the hub of the family and the farm – Helen explains the open plan kitchen and living area has been created to be an energetic, lived-in room where all the family comes and goes. She tells me how she feels the nurturing aspect of a home is so important – a place where everyone is valued and supported; we speak of the value of all the family eating together around the table, sharing the day and listening to each other whilst enjoying good food. We agreed a circular table (as I also had growing up) has a unique affect on a family gathering, each person sat in equal footing.
As a teenager, Helen was desperate to leave her family’s farm to travel and experience new places. “I would have done anything to get away from the farm as a teenager, but ultimately the farm, family and the kitchen table drew me back. It’s what mattered to me all the time growing up.” Helen lived and worked for some time in Oxford, whilst her now husband James was studying there – but farming, family, and the Lakes drew them back. “When I got away from it in Oxford” she explains, “it wasn’t fulfilment.”
Helen and James now have four children and a very busy family and farming life. The pandemic provided some unexpected time for her to explore her idea of a possible recipe book to pass on to her children. Each recipe brought with it memories, thoughts and feelings – and Helen’s writing evolved into something more: part memoir, part celebration of the role of a rural farm woman – with food very much at its heart.
Helen explains “I’ve written the book I couldn’t find. I couldn’t find my life being represented – I’m really proud to be a farmer’s wife. I absolutely wanted to balance the scales and tell the story of a rural farm woman, and it’s a job that is so valuable and important. It doesn’t have to be a woman, but could be a man who is in the supporting role. For me, it’s what I do, what my mother has done and my grandmother before her.” It's an ancestry; running deep.
Helen talks of her frustration at being “unseen” in her role as a wife and mother and the many facets of those roles. She feels they are such valuable and important roles and often overlooked by the media. For her, the book is “a celebration of a life that’s quiet and ordinary. Finding the beauty and joy in every day life. What people think of as normal is never normal. There are so many strands weaving together to make a life.” She hopes that through her book she has been able to give a voice to all those unseen women.
From the initial responses to her writing, it seems that many women are finding resonances with their own lives and appreciating the value and sense of worth Helen is giving back to them. Helen too in turn appreciates these growing connections she is making with a community of readers – which is an unexpected pleasure for her.
The recipes in the book – intertwined with the story of Helen’s life – are those she cooks often. She explained to me how difficult she had found it to write down the recipes, so they could be clearly followed and understood. She has cooked these for many years, they have become second nature and she rarely measures or weighs ingredients. She will also vary ingredients according to what she has available and tries to use what’s in season and as locally grown as possible. It was a challenge to quantify and explain succinctly what she does naturally and almost without thinking, but she persevered.
Having received a preview of Helen’s book, we can certainly agree that she has succeeded in weaving so many elements of her life together along with many great family recipes – her love of good food and good quality, local ingredients shines through.
The Farmer’s Wife by Helen Rebanks will be published on 31 August by Faber.
Purchase a signed copy from Books of Cumbria
Images by Gemma McKell; 'Folk + Kin'