• #33 The Shepherd's Life

    If you haven’t already got a copy of The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks, then I advise you to find one, settle down, and start reading. Since its release last week it has caused his twitter following to rise by more than twelve thousand, and its reading on BBC Radio 4 as book of the week has certainly got people talking. He weaves together his and his family’s personal story with the story of the land and the culture of shepherding here, and does it so well it’s hard to put the book down.

    If you know the Lake District well you’ll feel its fresh air, fells, mists and rains as you read the book; if you don’t you may well be packing your bags for your first visit. Either way, however well you feel you know the place, as you turn the pages you’ll learn things you didn't know about the human culture that’s inseparable from the land: the shepherds and their practices that have shaped the landscape for many hundreds of years. It's something that has not been written about enough, and this book puts that to rights.

    We first met James in 2012. At the time he was still tending his flocks while living at a distance from the fell (you’ll learn about the reasons for this separation when you read his book). After walking through the fields and getting wet, very wet, in the process, we sat in a caravan to warm up and talk. The piece writtien after that first interview are on this website here.

    We went on to join him later in the year as he washed his tups, ready for sale at Cockermouth, and have since joined him at shows and auctions. Always the same dedication to the sheep and their place in this beautiful land comes through. ‘People think you are soft in the head, if you tell them your thing is breeding sheep,’ he told me. ‘But that's what we do, and that's what made this landscape. It's a good way to live and I want to keep our little bit of it going. I love this place, it landscape, its people, and, yes, its sheep, more than anything. Helping in however small a way to keep it going feels to me like a life well lived.’

    Our own copy of James’ book has settled into our house well, and seems to sit comfortably on our herdwick wool rug. Quite appropriate really – book and rug are both here only because of the specialised tradition of herdwick farming in Cumbria’s uplands, and both speak of this tradition, one that is key to the Lake District’s bid to be recognised as a World Heritage Site. James has been keen to support this quest. We won’t discover whether WHS status is awarded until 2017, but the process of going through the bid is hugely important. James puts it this way: ‘It’s already changing the emphasis from looking at the Lake District as a natural landscape to one that is a cultural landscape. It would enshrine the importance of farming this landscape in the eyes of the world. ’ Now that James’ book is out, it’s clear that his words, along with his twitter feed (@herdysheperd1) and the broadcast of the book on Radio 4, are all helping to do just this.

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    The rug in the top photograph is from woollyrugcompany.com, a company run by the wonderfully creative Jane Exley, who will make bespoke rugs to suit any space, using the traditional wools of the Lake District.

    You can buy the The Shepherd’s Life at any good local bookshop. If you can’t get to your local store, it’s easy to find on amazon.

    And you can buy it as an eBook directly from Penguin.

    Enjoy!

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