I’ve been to the Lake District three times now. And each time I go there my love for this remote corner of the country grows a little bit stronger. But I’m very aware that I do little more than skim across the surface of this ancient and revered landscape. I do not truly know it. I do not understand it. And I most definitely do not belong.
In his exquisitely written book ‘The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District’, James Rebanks drives away the cloud from the Cumbrian felltops and shows us what it really means to live and work in this wild corner of our little island.
It’s partly an autobiography, partly a history guide and partly a massive kick up the backside to anyone who wonders why they never get what they want from life.
Autobiography because it narrates Rebanks’s own childhood, his family and his journey to establishing his own farm and flock. History guide because it charts the natural and social history of the Lake District over the last century or so.
And kick up the backside because it makes it extremely clear just how hard Rebanks and his fellow shepherds have to work to maintain their livelihood. How they are at the mercy of fluctuations in the livestock markets that can see their year’s profit disappear in seconds. And how in order to survive most farmers have one, two or several other jobs to sustain their isolated, yet essential, way of life.
Rebanks is a prime example of the entrepreneurial spirit that puts the shepherds of this story into a class of their own. Having fared poorly at school, he later studied for his A levels in evening classes and went on to graduate from Oxford University with a degree in history – while earning the money required to support his studies and helping out on the family farm. He is now possibly best known, of course, as the Herdwick Shepherd on Twitter.
So next time I flit across the Lake District, wrapped up in my Gore-Tex and microfleece, I shall see it in a new light. For it is not just a playground for visitors like me, but the home and workplace of generations of shepherds, farmers and others who make this landscape what it is.