Farm Ireland

Tuesday 20 February 2018

A life less ordinary in the Lake District

Shepherd James Rebanks working on his farm at Matterdale End in Cumbria. Photo: Christopher Thomond/Guardian
Shepherd James Rebanks working on his farm at Matterdale End in Cumbria. Photo: Christopher Thomond/Guardian
The Shepherd's Life

joe barry

I have been taken to task in the past for writing too fulsomely about the books I review. This would be fair comment except for the fact that I only write about those I really enjoyed. The hundreds that I pick up and read a chapter or two of and then discard are simply not worth wasting time on.

Why write a character assassination of some poor struggling author who has had the courage to put words on a page but has failed? He or she will try again and hopefully learn by their errors to improve. Occasionally however an exceptional and memorable book turns up which I must share with others.

Such a book is The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks who is now apparently something of a folk hero in Britain and abroad where his twitter pages are avidly followed by over 60,000 fans. Remarkably, his memoir topped the Sunday Times bestsellers list and was also Radio 4's Book of the Week.

Rebanks farms in the Lake District in Cumbria, tough rugged country which, coupled with its mountainous geography, is also the wettest part of England. The scenery there is spectacular however and was made famous originally through the early 19th century writings of William Wordsworth.

Nowadays more than 20 million tourists visit the area annually which, while contributing greatly to the local economy in summer, must also create many problems for the farming community.

The author comes from a long line of farmers who have worked the same land for over 600 years and despite the obvious hardships, would not exchange their life for any easier occupation.

Shepherding is in their blood and the closeness of the local communities and their love of the land are evident, whether gathering the flocks on the fells or helping each other with shearing, hay making, mending the dry stone walls and other communal tasks.

The writing itself is exceptional, wonderfully descriptive but also at times blunt and tough and the book itself is a fierce defence of small-scale farming. This is in no way the musings of a dreamy environmentalist nor is it some sort of sentimental memoir.

Also Read

Rebanks is still a relatively young man and he tells it like it is, from his childhood to the present day, writing of both the hardships of the shepherd's life in winter followed by occasional rain-ruined harvests but also the joys of a fine spring and early summer when the flocks are returned to the hills.


In 1724, long before William Wordsworth discovered the Lake District, Daniel Defoe commented on the landscape stating that it was "the wildest, most barren and frightful of any that I have passed over in England, or even Wales itself".

But times change and almost two centuries later Beatrix Potter, the author of Peter Rabbit and other famous children's stories moved to Cumbria and fell in love with the fells.

With the profits from her publications, she bought Hill Top farm and later further hill farms and estates in the Lake District. She became an expert Herdwick sheep breeder and when she died in 1943 she left 14 farms, her sheep and 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust.

There is clearly something very special about the area and the people who live and work there. James Rebanks is just one of them but his life story so far is in many ways unique.

Having left school at the age of 13, he returned to further education at 21 but first, despite being an avid reader, he had to teach himself to write using children's manuals.

He was so bright he eventually managed to get to study at Oxford University where he got a double first in history.

Farming was and is his passion and like the flocks of ewes that are "hefted" or bound to the hills, he wants no other life. His academic achievements have however brought him a part-time job advising the Unesco World Centre in Paris on how to help communities benefit from tourism.

This is a vital source of income in remote areas where farming is marginal at best and must have its counterpart in much of Connemara, Kerry and elsewhere along our Wild Atlantic Way.

Roots of Cumbrian sheep farming are as old as the hills

The roots of Lake District sheep farming are almost as old as its hills.

"A thousand years ago we were part of a Viking trading world," James Rebanks writes and tells how his grandfather called things by Norse names, like 'mowdies' for moles and 'mel' for a post hammer. He summoned sheep with strange shouts: "Cus, cus, cus."

Rebanks later recognises these words in a documentary about Swedish reindeer herders.

How such antiquity has survived, and why it matters fascinates him as does the origin of the Herdwick breed, their evolution and exceptional toughness in the face of blizzards and sparse grazing.

Farming in Ireland clearly has many links to what is practiced in Cumbria. The word "Mel" is one I have been familiar with since childhood and I know of no other to describe a double handled post driver.

Indo Farming