Sheep and Shepherds

Being home in Suffolk also brought me back in touch with sheep farming, and the first shepherd I ever saw at work. Whilst working shepherds may be few in number today, figurative and metaphorical shepherds crop up again and again in our culture and language. Our word ‘pastoral’ is really theirs – the Latin pastor means ‘shepherd’ – and the fundamental metaphor of Christianity is taken from their way of life: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want’.

John Clare portrayed their lives in the 19th century in The Shepherd’s Calendar; a few years earlier, Wordsworth took a early punt at popularising the pastoral way of life as he saw it, on the cusp of being subsumed into those infamous 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. Wordsworth was born in the high fell country of what is today called the Lake District, but never farmed.

The son of a lawyer, Wordsworth preferred to spend his time wandering the landscape on which his fellow men worked, 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.

October walk with Kate
Lake District dawn

shepherds lifeShepherds today are adept at speaking for themselves. Alison O’Neill has carved out a niche as The Shepherdess, and top of the Times best-seller list in 2015 was The Shepherd’s Life, an autobiography of Cumbrian farmer James Rebanks and his family’s long relationship with farming in the Lake District.  I worked with James as part of the Land Keepers project in 2014 and he is a man of powerful intelligence and physical strength. The project combined photography, creative writing and sheep farming – James was the ideal person to work with, his love and encyclopaedic knowledge of sheep streaming from him like water as we visited the flock and walked the farm’s boundaries.  James showed us some treasures from his library (including the flock book of Herdwick sheep) before his wife fed us with home-grown Herdwick burgers for lunch. The Shepherd’s Life was then in gestation. It is a fascinating read; 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’.

Throughout the book James effortlessly elevates farming life to a quasi-religious status: ‘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 on the land he farms. It is the book of a lifetime and no doubt is as popular with folk who have never met a shepherd as those who spend every day heaving sheep around.

The shepherds in the book remind me of one particular shepherd who shaped my early 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 farming estate. In years gone by one half of the house had been a dairy, and the cottage still had two front doors, one for the milk to come in by and one for the people. The whole house was 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, packed with nothing more than newspapers for insulation. The house was prosaically named Farm Cottage: a cottage on a working farm.

In this cottage, the kitchen might 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 would urgently head-butt my leg until I fed it, before proceeding 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

I was scared of the huge cows which ambled past the window every day, shit streaming from under 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 Welsh Border farmer who seemed absolutely ancient to me then, 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, you 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 his views on women were not the most progressive. When my brother was big enough to help out on the farmer 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, and I feel a flicker of righteous anger about it today.

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 from which it is hard to turn away.

I first reviewed The Shepherd’s Life for Discriminating Brevity in 2015.


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