An Interview with Maria Benjamin: Finding Her Happy
After a successful London career in publishing, filmmaking, and events, Maria Benjamin decided to leave the rat race to to raise cattle and sheep in the Lake District with her partner John, where her main role is focused on diversification initiatives, and her soap making business.
Having recently watched Maria feature on BBC’s ‘Walks of Life’ (Series 1, Episode 1), we reached out to find how her dramatic change of lifestyle has impacted her wellbeing…
Tell us about how you made the dramatic transition to rural living?
I first got to know the Lake District when I was awarded an Artist in Residence opportunity with Grizedale Arts in 2007. I had never been to the Lake District before but I spent the next three years travelling back and forth from London to take part in various projects and commissions. In 2010 Grizedale Arts offered me a full-time job with them as Programme Manager. Although I loved living in London, this new opportunity tempted me to at least try living rurally.
Long story short but I moved to Dorset after the 3 years and it was while I was there helping to set up an artist residency on an organic farm that I met John, a local farmer I knew in the Lake District. This meant, that having left, a year later I was back in the Lakes as the partner of a farmer!
I decided that having worked for other people I really wanted to work for myself so I focussed on looking at ways to add value to the farm output through diversification initiatives. I had loads of ideas including making cheese, charcuterie and things like that but making soap using excess Jersey cow milk seemed like the best option so I gave it a go.
Not coming from a business background I took advantage of free workshops and courses through the Cumbria Chamber of Commerce and these proved invaluable. I also did an intensive soap making and soap making business course at The Soap School where I still receive amazing support. I set up The Soap Dairy in late 2017 so have only been trading for just over a year and the business is already thriving. I sell mostly online but we also sell in a few local National Trust shops as well as through the Westmorland family Group who own Tebay and Gloucester Services and other local stockists.
How has the complete lifestyle change impacted your wellbeing?
When I think back to my city self, I see an unhappy person. I had incredibly low self-esteem and didn’t really trust people. This made relationships hard and I was always living hand-to-mouth as I never imagined myself in a better position.
I was terrified when I got the job with Grizedale Arts as I thought I would be a failure but by being thrown in at the deep end and other people having high expectations of me, and me wanting to please, all those project successes, again and again started to reinforce, little by little, a belief in myself.
I think also, changing environment and circumstances took me away from negative patterns I was entrenched in. Growing my own food, cooking pretty much everything from scratch, being away from a chaotic, noisy environment that didn’t seem to encourage refection, really helped.
What are your main values in life and have these changed since the move?
I respect and value the life I have made for myself with John on the farm. We spend pretty much all of our time together and although occasionally we get tetchy with each other, we are never mean to one another and have never made the other person feel diminished. I really value this so much in our relationship and I expect it now from all relationships.
I value thoughtfulness, kindness and sharing. I definitely value this landscape I am in and never take the life and opportunities I have for granted.
I value the time I have left and want to make the most of it, feeling now that I squandered so much of it in the past.
Tell us about the animals on your farm – do you think they contribute to your wellbeing?
I love working with animals, and just like people, you have your favourites that you want to spend time with. However, like any friendship, it’s a two-way thing. I’ve noticed that I become friends with the animals that approach me first. You can’t make a cow or sheep like you, but if one runs over to see you and is happy to be petted, you start thinking of them as a friend and look forward to seeing them. I think in every case, the animal always makes the first move!
The animals contribute to my wellbeing in a fundamental way. They keep me in the present, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
Your beautiful handmade soaps are a far cry from the plastic bottles of shower gel and body wash - have you seen an increase and a rise in demand in conscious consumerism?
When I first started thinking about making soap it was suggested by lots of people that I make liquid soap too. However, I knew I didn’t want to be responsible for even more plastic consumption so I didn’t go down that route. I’m so glad I didn’t as people are really thinking about packaging and ingredients far more now and I see this as a fundamental shift, not just a short-lived trend.
What are your top tips for incorporating wellness into your busy schedule and do you have any wellness rituals that you swear by?
I am quite a workaholic and I find it hard to stop as there’s always so much to do. I love my work but I know a bit of time and distance away can be beneficial, not just for me but for the business. Recently, I thought if I had a dog, I’d have to take it on walks, therefore I’d be forced to step away. John wasn’t so keen so we compromised and got two! They are from a local rescue centre and are mother and son.
Everyday I now spend a good few hours out in the woods, fields and our garden with the dogs and it has made a massive difference. I’m fitter and where I might have had a number of tea and biscuit breaks, I now have quick dog walking breaks which really refresh my mind and I go back to work with a bit more clarity and vigour.
You can find more about Nibthwaite Grange Farm, and The Soap Dairy by visiting their website