Rooted in the distant past

Shepherds: not a group of people we often hear from, not a group of people many of us really know. The term is an archaic one, as there are few people in the UK who simply look after sheep these days, yet they crop up again and again in our culture and language. Our word ‘pastoral’ is taken directly from them (the Latin pastor meaning ‘shepherd’); they can be faithfully found draped in tea towels every December in school and village hall nativities; we make pies named after them; and those of us who are that way inclined are familiar with a drop of Shepherd’s Neame to boot.

John Clare portrayed their lives in the 19th century in The Shepherd’s Calendar; a few years earlier, Wordsworth had taken a early punt at popularising the pastoral way of life as he saw it, on the cusp of being subsumed into those infamously satanic mills of the industrial revolution. Not that either poet was a farmer himself, though Clare was far closer to the land, having worked as an agricultural labourer.

Newland's Valley. shaped by 100 years of farming

Newland’s Valley. shaped by 1000 years of farming

As the son of a lawyer, Wordsworth preferred to spend his time wandering about the landscape on which his fellowmen worked themselves to death, but Michael shows that he understood the yeoman farmer’s deep tie to the land. Their life and work utterly rooted them, and once that tie between themselves, their land and the next generation had been broken then something would be lost for ever.

Shepherds today, whilst being fewer than ever, are certainly much more vocal. Alison O’Neill has carved out a niece as The Shepherdess, and top of the Times best-seller list a few weeks ago is The Shepherd’s Life, the tale of the life of Cumbrian farmer James Rebanks. If you haven’t read it yet, you can listen to it on BBC 4 (albeit in abridged form). It is a fascinating read (or listen), being much more than simply the life story of 21st century man. Rebanks is well aware of his historical and cultural place as a shepherd: Wordsworth and ‘those tourists’ both get a nod as he stands ‘daydreaming like a bloody poet or day-tripper’.

Sunrise over Rydal, Cumbria

Sunrise over Rydal, Cumbria

He effortless elevates the language of his farming life to a quasi-religious state: ‘making good hay is like a commandment from God’. He follows those ‘threads of understanding’ which link him not just to his own forebears but to a thousand years of history and culture relating to the land which he farms. It is the book of a lifetime and no doubt will be as popular with those who have never met a shepherd and those who spend every day heaving sheep around alike.

I am intrigued by the book because one particular shepherd had a definite influence on my life. When I was five my father’s business collapsed and we had to move from our own heavily-mortgaged house to a rented cottage, tied like a tired balloon to the edge of an old family estate. In years gone by one half of it had been a dairy, and the house still had two front doors, one for the milk and one for the people. The whole house was only one room wide: a single stroke of flint, bricks and mortar. My bedroom was directly over the old dairy, now used as a kitchen, and on winter days the wind rustled up through the floor boards, which had nothing but newspapers packed below them for insulation. The house was called Farm Cottage: for that’s what it was, a cottage on a working farm.

In this cottage, the kitchen might now hold an abandoned or orphaned ‘pet’ lamb, one so tiny that it needed the warmth of our cooker and milk dispensed from a grubby bottle. Whilst I made my breakfast it might urgently head-butt my leg until I fed it, and would then proceed to pee all over the floor, carefully missing the newspaper laid down for soaking up these torrents. I loved these lambs because they needed me.

Herdwick sheep, raddled

Herdwick sheep, raddled

I was scared of the huge cows which ambled past the window every day, shit streaming from their tails, and I wasn’t too keen on the adult sheep with their vacant eyes and propensity to drop down dead at any given moment, but the lambs I adored. I would get up in the night to help with the lambing, trudge through thigh-high snow to feed them in the winter, and stripped down to my vest to helping out with the shearing (the men did it topless but I wasn’t encouraged to follow suit.)

My parents did not run the farm; it was tenant-farmed by an old Herefordshire farmer who seemed absolutely ancient to me at the age of 5, but since he is still farming 21 years later he can’t have been all that old at the time. He had an almost impenetrable accent: in Suffolk, one didn’t meet many (nearly) Welsh people and I couldn’t understand why he sounded so odd. (I had a similar problem with my uncle who was from Yorkshire. We didn’t travel much at that time: holidays were invariable taken on the Norfolk coast.) He smelt funny, his clothes were covered in holes – I was sure I could see his underpants through a tear in the seat of his trousers – and his trousers were held up with a knotted piece of thin orange string. I was soon to realise that holding up trousers was only one of the many uses for the ever-present bailer twine!

We have never once, in all the years our family has known him, called him by his first name. We know it, of course, and his middle names too, which were carefully printed inside his glasses case, held together with sticking plaster. No-one else I knew had any one of those names, let along all three – they were imbued with a sense of spell-like strangeness and we steered clear of speaking them. He had had three wives (two simultaneously, we were told), was a Mormon, and saw women as inferior to men, so that when my brother was big enough to help out on the farm he was paid £5 a day, whereas for the last three years I had done the same work without a penny. This didn’t bother me at the time, but it infuriated my mother!

Farm fence at dawn, Grasmere

Farm fence at dawn, Grasmere

What I instantly recognised in the shepherds in Rebanks’ book were the same complicated contradictions and inherent antagonistic behaviour that I’d seen in this farmer. The passionate love of animals (one oft-repeated phrase my whole family still use is ‘if I see a sheep, I have to have it’) combined with a hard-edged realism when it came to life and death decisions. The intense competitive need to rear sheep which were better than everyone else’s, juxtaposed with a huge amount of fellow-feeling displayed both at market day over a cup of tea and a greasy bacon roll and whenever another farmer was down on his luck. The desire to be right, to have the courage of your own convictions, but also to take the losses and hardships of the farming life philosophically, to recognise that there is a power beyond the individual when comes through farming that land. Farming allows strong characters to shape their own world, to immerse themselves in the physical rough and tumble of life. It certainly seems to be more than just a way of earning a living; it is a chosen path, and one that cannot be easily turned away from.

Reading on the hoof

Reading on the hoof

…and I’m back! Scotland furnished me with a whole heap of exciting new books to get my teeth into (metaphorically, of course, but I am one of those people who reads in the bath and writes in the margins), so here’s a quite overview of my recent acquisitions:

IMG_0612The Hedgerow Handbook, Adele Nozedar – a gift from the aforementioned lovely friend, this came accompanied by a massive jar of delicious beetroot and orange chutney. I love foraging, preserving and – of course – ingesting, so this book will enable me to do those more safely, more successfully, and more enjoyably. It has beautiful hand-drawn illustrations, and is handily sized to fit into a small rucksack or large jacket pocket. You can read much more about it here. It’s not the sort of book you can ‘read’ like a novel, it’s more like a poetry anthology that you dip in and out of as the mood (or need) takes you. Some of the recipes sound bizarre (Himalayan Balsam Curry), some delicious (Rose petal Turkish Delight) and all interesting. Nozedar gives a history of the plants and their uses, as well as practical recipes and tips on how to find and identify them. The perfect present for autumn!

On the Black Hill, Bruce ChatwinOn the Black Hill, Bruce Chatwin – another gift from the lovely AND generous friend, this one I devoured in a few hours on the long journey to Inverness via Blairdrummond. A name I vaguely new, but an author whom I’d never read, Bruce Chatwin cuts a rather mysterious figure; he died, tragically prematurely, of AIDS at the age of 49 in 1989. On the Black Hill is the tale of two twins and their lives on a farm in Wales, whose lives roughly span the 20th century. The brothers are bound together by love, hatred, biology and duty; their tale is hypnotic in the transfixing madness, stubbornness and inscrutability of its characters. The book embodies all that is cruel, beautiful and inevitable about the farming life, telling the story of a century as it charts the life of this remote family. Thoroughly recommended; now to find something else by him to read…

The Time by the Sea, Ronald Blythe – this appeared in the ‘Sale’ box of the wonder that is The Watermill in Aberfeldy.

Time by the Sea (and my duvet)

Time by the Sea (and my duvet)

The Time by the Sea is Blythe’s autobiographical rememberings of Aldeburgh in the 1950s, peopled with such luminaries as Benjamin Britten, Imogen Holst, Peter Pears,  and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. I have high hopes for it as I love, love, love Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, set in a Suffolk my father’s family grew up in but which has now almost completely disappeared. It was made into a hugely popular film in 1974 by director Peter Hall, and charts life in a Suffolk village through the 20th century without pathos but with a clarity which makes you look anew at the world around you. If you can’t lay your hands on a copy of the book (and don’t want to pay for the film before you’ve seen it!), you can watch a snippet of it here:

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver – another Watermillian find, this one is by the author of the brilliant Poisonwood Bible. IMG_0615I haven’t read anything by Kingsolver for years, but this one features real-life characters  including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo fictionalised in the story of Harrison William Shepherd. For a full review, have a look at what the NYT had to say.

Also, long car journeys have been perfect for long sessions in thrall to Radio 4 – here’s one of my favourites, a snippet from the fantastic Listening Project: Peter and Amy – Ronnie’s Recipes (The Listening Project)