My country life: the soap maker

Cumbrian farmer's wife Dorthe Pratt helps to keep the farm afloat by making soap

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From software to soap: it’s not an obvious leap. But then neither is a move from the Danish suburbs to the Cumbrian countryside, but it’s one that Dorthe (pronounced Dor-day) Pratt has taken to like, well, a horse to hay. One day she was a successful businesswoman working for a multinational corporation and travelling around Europe, the next she was a hill farmer’s wife – making organic soap in a barn full of sheep.

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“I used to joke with Andrew that I wouldn’t do any of the dirty jobs. Now look at me,” she laughs. Dorthe met Andrew Pratt at a friend’s wedding in 2003. Their romance was whirlwind: three weeks on the phone, three days together. He proposed, they got engaged and had a big country shindig. It sounds like something out of a novel by Hugh Walpole – Cumbria’s answer to Thomas Hardy.

The 350-acre farm, cradled by the Howgill Fells, is just outside the little village of Sedbergh. She meets me at the door of the old stone farmhouse. Dorthe is a bundle of energy, petite with a dark bob and talks 19 to the dozen. Andrew is tall and blonde and doesn’t talk much. They have two children, chatty four-year-old Ella and Kristian, who’s one. We sit in the kitchen, drinking tea and sniffing soap.

“I always say Andrew is the farmer and I’m the diversifier, although when I moved here I did help him with the shearing, lambing and haymaking,” says Dorthe. As with so many farms at the time, things were financially tough. They had taken over the farm from Andrew’s parents but, as they were classified as new starters, they received no subsidies for a farm of 800 sheep and 125 cattle. Foot and mouth disease struck in 2007, and it was then that Dorthe began to experiment with making soap.

She had battled with eczema all her life and, frustrated at not being able to use anything with a fragrance, decided to make her own with all natural ingredients – in the pantry with a few old pots and pans. “I had a few disasters at first but eventually got it right. I started out using an old microwave to melt ingredients and a mini-mixer to chop herbs and nettles.”
She needed more space, however, so asked Andrew if she could have a section of one of the barns. “He moved some of his farm machinery out of the way – reluctantly. I had to walk through a barn full of sheep and newborn lambs to get to my little workshop.”

Family affair

The lavender, lemongrass, nettles and mint used to scent the soap all come from the farm. And it’s become a real family affair – Ella even joins in stripping mint leaves from the stalks at the kitchen table.

The first soap was such a success with friends and family that Andrew suggested selling it at the local farmers’ market in Sedbergh. That was the summer of 2007. “My background is in business development, but strangely it was Andrew who said ‘why don’t you take a stall?’

“It was such a success we sold out – and a couple of local shop owners asked if I could supply them wholesale.” The Sedbergh Soap Company was born.

Her first soaps were lemongrass (still the best seller), rosemary and nettle, and ‘Farmers’ Hands’ – which does what is says on the label. “Andrew’s hands smelt of silage, so I made a lemongrass and pumice soap for him. And it worked!”

Over the last couple of years, the business has continued to expand. Dorthe now makes shampoo, body wash and other toiletries, and supplies a handful of luxury B&Bs and boutique hotels.

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So does she miss her old jet-setting life? “The 60-hour weeks? No, I love the country life. Just look at that view. Even on a bad day it lifts your spirits. I could never move away from here. I love being a farmer’s wife.”