To James Rebanks’ fell farm in Cumbria, where we sit in the farmhouse kitchen with James and Helen and the kids, talking about Time, Memory, Viking stonewalls and how to choose a breeding ram? So all the interesting questions in life.
James has just had a best-selling book published about farming, but when the Museum of Marco Polo knew him he was an adviser to UNESCO’s Heritage programme. Now it turns out that he is also a fell farmer and proud owner of 1,000 sheep. Open up his book on farming and you will discover that it is packed full of Time and Memory. Read a little into it and you will discover that he was born on a fell farm, was one of those village children who are lost to education (that’s his own description), but then got a degree from Oxford and now has come back home again to farm the same valley his family has farmed for hundreds of years.
So how, you wonder, does all this knit together?
So to start with his farm and his valley. We are not far from Penrith, and yet this is a world of its own – a world of long, narrow valleys, broken fields, stone farmhouses and fells rising up like green walls. It is also a small world, a handful of interlocking valleys where a system of managing sheep has survived that goes back for thousands of years. In the winter the sheep are brought down to the valleys. In the summer they are walked back up again to the open grazing land on the high fells. The fell farmers have grazing rights in perpetuity up there on the mountains that they wrested from the landowners, and not even the landowners can overturn these rights. (Hence, I guess, the stroppy individualism that you see everywhere in these valleys.)
But to understand this farming world you have to understand Round Time and Long Time.
Round Time is the turning of the seasons (the farming life has no end) but Long Time is the chain of the generations on which you sit, like a bead on a necklace. Long Time, or to be more accurate, Very Long Time is everywhere in these valleys. Ask James why he rates winning a prize for his sheep higher than an Oxford degree and he’ll tell you that it’s all down to Long Time.
Building up a flock of sheep takes skill over many generations. The flock is bigger than any one individual. Winning a prize for the flock will honour the intelligence and talent that your father and grandfather put into them. It make you the Man in the Long Time. Getting a degree? – well, that’s just a stunt in Short Time.
And later on, when I ask him why he came home to these valleys, he says, ‘Well, if you believe in Long Time, why wouldn’t you?’
We talk about the Gathering of the Flocks, which takes place every year – two hours to walk up to the high fells and two days (and many men and sheepdogs) to sort the flocks and walk them home.
We talk about how you learn to be a farmer – ‘You learn it from the generations before you’ – and the power struggle between fathers and sons that plays out on all these farms. Sometimes the Father wins and the Son is cowed. Sometimes the Son wins and becomes bolshy. And sometimes neither wins and the power struggle goes on.
‘My dad lived in Long Time,’ says James. ‘The Farm was all he ever wanted. He wasn’t like me, switching from one world to another. I found him frustrating growing up, because I wanted to talk about books and he couldn’t see the point.’
And we talk about rural novels and how they generally paint farming as a bitter, hard-scrabble existence. ‘Like Tess of the d’Urbevilles?’ I suggest, to which James says, ‘Yes but they are usually written by the smart kid who got out and so they are bound to paint farming as something to escape from.’ ‘Like Thomas Hardy?’ ‘Yes, like Thomas Hardy.’
Later on we go down in his jeep to meet his neighbour Mason, and James says, ‘The thing is, there’s no sense in what we do. There’s no money in fell farming and yet we keep on doing it.’
I can guarantee that if one of these farms came up for sale there would be young men trying to buy their way into farming even though they couldn’t possibly put together a convincing business case. We are all of us chasing the irrational.
‘So fell farmers are like poets, artists and lunatics?’ ‘Exactly.’
And then we meet his neighbour Mason, who is another fell farmer, with a dog called Dog, and stonewalls that go back to the Vikings (all of which is sheer delight for anyone who loves history).
I ask James if he has ever been to a farming museum that captured any of this? ‘No’ he says, ‘Never.’ ‘Hence the book?’ ‘Yes, hence the book. I wrote the book to prove that these valleys matter. And because I believe in the power of books to change the world, even though it may happen very slowly.’
At which I think, It’s all romantic, beautiful stuff, saturated with Time and History and all coming back to the question of what kind of life should a human live?
Life in these valleys is very communal. When James’ father died 500 people turned out for his funeral, big even by farmer standards.
‘You know,’ says James, ‘there’s a concept in small town, Nordic communities that for the good of the community you shouldn’t get too big for your boots because communities need genes for communal living and not too much individualism. Sometimes I wonder whether it is in small valleys like this one that the genes are preserved by which human beings will survive.’
And the question in the title: ‘How to choose a Breeding Ram?’ Well, a good breeding ram has a massive value, far above the usual value which is based on the cost of its meat. But the question is, how to identify that value? And so, come the autumn shows, each ram is examined in the minute-est detail with every farmer out to take a punt on a ram that may make the difference. And if it works and you have chosen the right ram? ‘Well then,’ says James, ‘it’s all a bit like Breeding Paintings.’
The sheep in the image at the top of the page are James’ neighbour’s. Very beautiful. James’ book is called ‘The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District’. Published by Allen Lane. 2015.NEXT STORY PREVIOUS STORY