• 18 Gathering in the sunshine

    When I arrive the clouds are low, draped over the top of High Street. We have to wait before walking into the hills to gather the sheep. I join Hannah’s mum in the kitchen, the engine room of the house. As usual it’s full up, and it’s a busy space with people coming and going, and Hannah’s two young sons playing. Clothes hang from wracks on the low ceiling - I have to duck beneath lines of socks as I come in – and another clothes dryer rests against the AGA. There is washing up to be done, and clean dishes to be put away; the table is half full of bottles of cordials and bottled water (when the beck’s low the water here can get gritty); the dresser surface is loaded with bills; several pairs of boots are drying by the aga; water pistols lie on the floor ready for the kids battle; a pile of sandwiches on the table, soup on the stove and the kettle and tea pot too. ‘There’s so much to keep on top of,’ sighs Margaret. She brings in food from the pantry through the kitchen door, and I help with preparations, cutting tomatoes, while we chat about the kind of things women usually talk about around the table: mothering, children, food, the weather, as well as farming and how things have been going in the last few weeks.

    Yesterday, Hannah and her father Ivan were out scampering across the fells from 9 in the morning until around 3, together with several other farmers. When I met Hannah and Ivan in the kitchen today, they were talking about having sore feet from the day before. ‘It’s where the ground slopes so steeply,’ says Ivan, who is now over seventy. ‘Tough on the ankles.’ Hannah’s ankle is still giving her trouble; a long-standing soft tissue injury betrays its presence as I notice her favour the other leg from time to time. But as a farmer, you simply carry on.

    When the clouds lift, Hannah’s partner Stephen is back from a meeting about walling, and we have all eaten, we head out. To begin with, we mount the quad bike. Hannah drives, and I sit on the back. Ivan, Stephen and a couple of dogs are in the trailer behind. Several other dogs circle us as we head down the track. When we have to leave the path and head up the grassy fellside Ivan unhooks the trailer. He joins me on the back of the bike, and Stephen gets on the front. The going gets a bit hairy as the bike slips and slants but we have gained a few hundred metres by the time we get off the quad and set out on foot. Walking is the only way to gather from these hills.

    We settle into a gentle pace, facing the rising slopes ahead. Stones look like sheep, sheep look like stones. We scan Greengrove Folds and the crags and inclines rising to the top of Lingmell Fell. The whiter blobs might be sheep that have already been sheared and have made their way over from the other side of Nan Bield Pass, which is the unwalled boundary between Naddle Farm and Hannah’s farm. Hannah is looking through binoculars, her dad stands next to her squinting at the hill. ‘There’s one, by that rock there,’ he says, pointing his crook at the hill. It’s not the most accurate indication, but between us we think we’ve seen maybe 7 or 8. On the other side of Lingmell and in the dips and rises of the fells beyond, all the way to the High Street, there may be another 50 or so. These are the ‘strays’ - the sheep that weren’t located on yesterday’s gather that took in Kentmere Pike, Harter Fell and the land further east. The span of the Dickinson’s land is vast – far too big to cover in a single day.

    At Nan Bield pass, a height of around 700 metres between Harter Fell to the east and Mardale Ill Bell to the west, we separate. Ivan heads north and downwards to coax some sheep from the land around Small Water. Stephen vanishes up to the crags above Blea Water (he’s the fastest among us) while Hannah and I skirt around the edge of Pilot Crag, covering the ground that Stephen won’t have reached. The gradient is steep and sharp grey rocks are wedged into the soft ground – you need to watch each step carefully. To the north, the sun is glinting on the surface of Haweswater, to the west the hills are stacked one in front of the other in darkening shades of slate blue, and at my feet countless different grasses, bilberry, star moss, spagnum and young heather flourish. The scenery is breathtaking.

    Hannah and I find a few sheep, rough fells with their regal black and white broad faces. They are not as skittish nor as fast as the herdwicks, and they eyeball me calmly as if to say ‘what’s the hurry’. Their fleeces are full, beautiful, hanging in long white locks. Hannah has about 250 Rough Fells, 150-200 Swaledales, and around 4-500 herdwicks. Most of the sheep we bring in today will be Rough Fells.

    Hannah asks me to go to the top of Mardale Ill Bell (she doesn’t name it, it’s just ‘over there’) and drive a ‘packet’ of sheep forwards along Lingmell End. The aim is to get them to head down to the river and back onto the path above the reservoir. I head off, coaxing the sheep on, but I don’t know the land and I’m not completely sure how far I’m meant to be driving them. I spot another glut of sheep much further on and wonder how I’m going to get them round. After some time I turn and look for Hannah. The fells are empty, huge sleeping green backs under a sky of faded blue. The usual flow and speed of gathering is replaced by a pause and I am rooted to the hill, awe struck. The wind is on my hair and my skin, and it’s still warm enough to stand here, still, in my T-shirt. The beck is so far down below me that I can’t hear the tumble of water and there are no aeroplanes overhead. I dwell in the silence, standing still and gazing out onto the land. The land is big and open – yet it’s mapped out in my awareness by the routes I know I need to take with the sheep, and there’s an alertness in my gaze that’s primed to spot a sheep, and in my ears that’s ready to hear a bleat or a holler.

    Eventually, I spot Hannah, a small figure in the lap of the hills. She stands with a certainty of presence as she surveys the land and decides on her next move. She guides me to hold a section of Lingmell to ensure the sheep don’t flow back over. Ivan is holding the northern part, and Hannah is going to run off to the west to gather from High Street. I’ve got it easy, in that I don’t have to go all the way over there, but it’s still a bit challenging keeping the sheep from moving in the wrong direction when I don’t have a single dog to help me.

    The grasses take on shades of brown, yellow, pale green, a lushness that’s set off by the black pyramid shape of Ill Bell in the distance. I pace to the summit of Lingmell, ensuring I know where the sheep are, then I walk back on myself and pick a spot that allows me a good view of what they’re up to. I don’t want to start driving some down, knowing that others are way off to my right and I will lose them. I even have time to sit and stare – a privilege and a pleasure, simply to be, out here, in the moment, with the hills around me splayed out like the fingers of a giant hand, rising 800 metres from palm to knuckle. I breathe easy.

    Stephen appears from the north, having skirted round the other side of Lingmell. Then Ivan and Hannah are yelling at the dogs, making sure they stop the sheep from running back over Nan Bield Pass. Ivan seems to be dragging a sheep by its horn. Stephen goes round to fetch the sheep that are off to my right, coming at them from behind. My job is to stay above the sheep – just my presence does help stop them from moving up. Sheep don’t like to go towards humans.

    We work in formation, like pincers on three sides of the sheep, urging them towards the river, which they cross, then up the other side onto the path where the dogs keep them from edging back up the slope. After the ankle-challenging screes and eroded patches of steep hill behind us, the gentler path is a relief. The sheep (except for the couple of herdwicks speeding ahead at the front) are almost sauntering - we chat and relax into a stroll. Ivan shares out some chocolate bars – it has been over four hours since lunch. I discover that the sheep Ivan was handling off the hill is a lamb with a broken leg. He has left it in the lee of a rock – Stephen will go back and fetch it later.

    Beyond Smallthwaite Knott Hannah and I branch off to track down two sheep, leaving Ivan and most of the dogs to drive the others further down the valley, while Stephen goes back to get the injured lamb. Hannah talks about what’s growing – bilberry, flowering heather in small patches, and a range of grasses. Neither of us know all the names, but I’m curious. ‘When you look from far away it just looks green,’ says Hannah, ‘but there is so much here. Look at this – and this.’ It’s nice to share our appreciation of the beauty that’s in the detail, and it flows gently into our ongoing chatter about our families, the fells, the bracken, trees (Hannah is due to plant around 3000) and sheep.

    We eventually find the two ewes where we meet Ivan, and the dogs round them up to join the others. The small flock flows into and across the river. Then it’s another 40-50 minutes’ walk back to the farm. The sun is getting warmer – even though it’s nearly 7 o’clock now – and the walk is gentle.

    Before I had experienced a gather I wouldn’t have imagined it could take so long, or so much leg work, to gather in just forty or fifty sheep, but it does. The fewer sheep there are, the harder a gather can be. And I imagine it’s even harder if you’ve done one the day before, as Hannah and Ivan did. Still, we make it back as the sun is sinking low, and we end up back in the kitchen, with the boys playing around us, fresh cups of tea in our hands and several cakes to choose from (I’m discovering that a farmer’s table is rarely short of excellent cakes). Hannah and Ivan have to go back to sort the sheep, ready for shearing tomorrow, and I go home. Unlike last year, my legs aren’t throbbing. In fact, I feel quite spritely. Maybe the extra time on the fells is getting under my skin in more than one way.

    A huge thank you to Hannah, Ivan, Margaret and Stephen for welcoming me again. Next time we gather with the Dickinsons Rob will be with me, and will be sure to get some great shots.

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