5: The Hills were Alive

A flock of sheep that leisurely pass by/One after one the sound of rain and bees/Murmuring, the fall of rivers, winds and seas/Smooth fields, white sheets of water and pure sky. 1

In a magnificent sweep of uplands, unequalled in England, the Lake District meets the Yorkshire Dales along the winding Lune Gorge on a far-northern stretch of the M6 in Cumbria: two National Parks, joined at the hip, with England’s highest peaks to the west and its finest natural limestone upland ‘pavements’ eastwards.

The six-lane highway meanders between steep, brooding hills scattered with sheep scrambling over fells and grazing on the valley floor, before rising and then rolling down northwards to the rich pastures of the Eden valley and, thence, to Scotland.

For some hill farmers, the arrival of the M6 in 1970 – and the disruption of the preceding construction work – would have been the ultimate threat to a way of life stretching back generations. For John Dunning, schooled in agriculture, and his resourceful wife, Barbara, it became an opportunity beyond their wildest dreams, although not without financial challenges and risks along the way.

Their story is a case study of how the economy of a depressed, forgotten corner of rural England, dominated by hill farming – an industry, John correctly predicted, with limited prospects – has been transformed, employing hundreds and creating local food supply chains to serve a seemingly unglamorous new venture: motorway services, which later accommodated farm shops selling local produce.

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