Home truths from the fells

THERE’S a brutal and unflinching honesty about James Rebanks’ memoirs of a shepherding life in the Lake District that takes you by surprise.

Not that you would expect a book of this type to shrink from telling tough tales of a harsh climate, a difficult lifestyle, an imposing landscape…

But what gives Rebanks’ 2015 bestseller such a resonance is the author’s lack of equivocation when it comes to discussing his own flaws and shortcomings – as well as those of the education system, politicians, bureacrats, thoughtless incomers, naive consumers, irresponsible dog walkers and all those who understand little about the practicalities of a modern farmer’s life.

The-Shepherds-Life-by-James-Rebanks

The last time I read a book about shepherding it was 1983 and Iain Thomson had just published Isolation Shepherd, an extraordinary account of 1950s shepherding in the wilds of Wester Ross.

Although there are inevitable parallels in that account of an intimate and often harsh contact with the untamed world, and the shared all-consuming sense of purpose which shepherds share, Rebanks’ starting point is very different.

Indeed the opening pages are a devastating indictment of the comprehensive schooling offered to his generation of rebellious 1980s teenagers that has more in common with an Alan Sillitoe novel than a rural memoir.

Rebanks pulls no punches about the negativity and disillusionment this engendered in his 13-year-old self and  he is equally open about the fractious nature of family relationships at times: “Fathers and sons in our family tend to  bicker like hyenas around the remains of a zebra,” he recalls.

He is equally straightforward about the positive influence of the young woman who would become his wife: “From the moment we got together twenty  years ago she made me want to buckle down and make our life a good one. She makes me better than I am.”

But there is a pattern emerging here, of a straight-talking, unsentimental portrait of a way of life that has changed little across the hundreds of years when previous generations of his family tended flocks here.

The narrative is as firmly rooted in the landscape as a Grassic Gibbon novel, and some aspects of that daily routine are every bit as harsh and unforgiving. This is the land where Rebanks trailed around in the footsteps of his grandfather as a child, argued with his father as a young man and which he still works today with his wife and three children.

This is where he tends for the beloved Herdwick sheep which are such an intrinsic feature of these fells. And while his book chronicles a year in the changing landscape, it also flashes forward and back from boyhood to manhood, chronicling not only the daily challenges but some of the momentous memories across the years, from his grandfather’s death to the horrors of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak.

There is irritation and anger here too, inevitably. Farmers are vulnerable to the whims of too many people far removed from their isolated farmsteads not to have strong opinions about the impact of the policymakers, bureaucrats and supermarket buyers on their precious but precarious existence.

Hence too that youthful frustration and anger with teachers who seemed to believe that anyone with the remotest hint of talent and ambition would surely want to seek a living elsewhere.

Rebanks detested school and left at 15, able to write only in block capitals. But that didn’t snuff out his desire to learn — far from it. At 21, he took his A-levels at evening classes in nearby Carlisle, where in due course he discovered that he might actually be Oxbridge material.

The dreaming spires beckoned, but if they helped to cement his literary credentials, they were to provide only a temporary change of scene from those beloved fells. The young couple spent a couple of years in Carlisle after Oxford, but moving back to the farm was always Rebanks’ longer-term dream.

Much of his autobiography chronicles the trials and tribulations of that life, the colourful local characters, the high points in the farming calender, the crises, the triumphs, the sheer blood, sweat and tears.

Rebanks could hardly have hoped for a more effusive reaction from the literary establishment for his authentic, moving and passionate book, as lean, sharp and tough in its writing style as one of his loyal sheepdogs.

But if the author is always keenly aware of that link across the generations that ties him to the land, he is also no enemy of modern technology, with more than 110,000 Twitter followers enjoying his words and pictures chronicling his family’s way of life (and perhaps half a million or more sharing the farm’s puppy videos).

That disgruntled 13-year-old has come a long way — if not geographically, then at least in his knowledge of the ways of the world.

And as he later wrote, reminiscing over those fiery family clashes: “I know my dad, and grandad, in ways that most people never do. I saw and shared in their finest moments. I was part of their world, and understood the things they did and cared about.

“I let them down at times, as they let me down to. I made them proud at times, as they, too, made me proud. We clashed sometimes. But who wouldn’t.

“Our lives were entwined around something we all cared about more than anything else in the world. The farm.”

The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks 2015. The Herdwick Shepherd is on Twitter @herdyshepherd1

 

 

Kate goes back to the land

201853162_Back_to_the_Land_witSEAWEED FEAST: filming in Cornwall  [PICTURE: 7 Wonder Productions/BBC]

THERE’S a growing appetite for lovingly produced high quality food – and for rural success stories, it seems.

That was certainly the message when BBC2 placed a supersized order for Kate Humble’s Back To The Land series following a three-part debut run last March.

After whetting audiences’ appetites with a handful of extraordinary tales of aspiring businesses turning seaweed into food and goat’s milk into probiotic drinks, the TV production company 7 Wonder got the go-ahead for a 12-part series of the 60-minute programmes after the show picked up an average audience of 2m on its first outing.

Presented by Kate Humble, the series celebrates rural Britain by championing the UK’s most inspirational rural entrepreneurs and meeting them at different times of the year as they struggle to bring their business dreams to fruition.

Screened four nights a week from May 8 until May 24, the new series allows Humble to roam the country from Cornwall to Yorkshire seeking out more aspirational and innovative businesses fighting to turn their ideas into commercial successes.

The series was ordered by head of popular factual and factual entertainment David Brindley and is executive produced by Alexandra Fraser and Sarah Trigg.

Trigg was quoted in Broadcast magazine as saying: “What we all enjoy about the creative process of making it is witnessing these incredible and aspirational people doing what they love to keep the countryside alive.”

Kate-Humble-Back-To-The-Land-776438RURAL RETURN: Kate Humble [PICTURE: 7 Wonder Productions/BBC]

Humble is the ideal host for this sort of show, not just because of her long-standing interest in animals but because she brings a cheery enthusiasm and empathy to the task that  helps her interviewees to shine on screen as they describe their dreams and dilemmas.

The presenter was born in 1968 and grew up in rural Berkshire in a house next to a farm. She describes on her website how she enjoyed a ‘proper childhood’ – building camps, racing snails, and climbing trees, interspersed with trips to A&E to patch up things when they broke.

Of the first series, David Butcher wrote in Radio Times: “Some series have a cool, wholesome kind of vibe to them right from the off and this, happily, is one of them. It’s warm and watchable and full of heartening tales of rural entrepreneurs who are taking gambles with their livelihoods on innovative (in some cases, slightly crazy-seeming) business ideas.”

These days Humble and her husband, producer/director Ludo Graham, live on a smallholding in Wales where in 2011 they set up a rural skills school on a working farm in the Wye Valley. They live with a variety of feathered and furry livestock and three dogs.

Back To The Land may boast heartwarming tales but it’s not a rose-tinted portrait of rural life. Humble isn’t slow to play up the financial risks and gruelling working hours faced by the budding entrepeneurs – or the personal tragedies encountered along the way, as when in episode two, Mangalitza pig farmers Lisa and Tim in Yorkshire lose two broods of piglets.

In the first episode she meets Caro and Tim (above), who harvest seaweed by free-diving off the coast and have got big plans to cultivate their own crop by gluing seeds to ropes that are strung out next to a mussel farm. Elsewhere, we meet a mass of very sweet ducklings bred by egg-to-plate experts Tanya and Roger, and a forager who puts what he picks into craft beer.

Then she’s off to Yorkshire, meeting 69-year-old ex-submariner Bob, who on retirement bought a boat and set about catching lobsters off the beautiful coastline. We also meet a sustainable game-keeper who sells what he hunts directly to the public and visit an award-winning glass-blowing business based in the heart of the Yorkshire Moors.

Critics may find the hour-long slots a little slow paced on occasion and there’s always the danger of sounding too much like an advertorial when you home in on business ventures, but Humble steers a nice path through these challenges, introducing us to some intriguing and courageous individuals along the way.