My love affair with the Lakes
During the summer of 1999 I visited the famous Rydal Show – held on the second Thursday of August in the little village of Rydal, next to Ambleside, in Cumbria. I went to get a “snapshot” of Lakeland culture for the book I was researching at the time, The Hunting Gene. Three weeks ago I returned, yet again, to see locals who had gone beyond “research” and become good friends. One by one during the day they emerged: Geoff Hetherington, chairman of the Westmorland Red Squirrel Society, a man who spends all his free time fighting for the survival of the Lake District’s red squirrels and putting some of the large conservation bodies to shame; Elli Logan, a singer of hunting songs, with her partner Brian, the maker of top-quality damson gin and a follower of the Blencathra hounds, the famous footpack; then at the stickcarving competition, Dennis and Linda Wall. One of my most prized possessions is a thumb stick featuring an otter carved by Dennis – what a craftsman. Suddenly, there too was Alison O’Neill, the famous “Barefoot Shepherdess”, wearing shoes – extraordinary.
Over the tannoy came a familiar name: Chris Todd. At 81, he is frail, but with a smile and twinkle in his eye. With
Ihis sheepdog Tess, he ran a brilliant round at the Open sheepdog trial, which he won by a mile. He said it was his “last competition”, although there have been at least 20 “last competitions” before. Chris was a competitor in the very first BBC programme of One Man and His Dog that I presented at Buttermere. I have seen him many times since, in competitions and on his farm. “Toddy” is a man who understands the hills, the flocks, the seasonal shifts and the working dogs of the Lakes, and the Rydal Show proudly shows off this culture. Rydal is an annual celebration of the dogs of Cumbria, and the men and women who work and follow them, the Border collies, the foxhounds and the trail hounds. The hound trailing prizes are presented by Melvyn Bragg (Lord Bragg of Wigton). For me, the Lakes have become a love affair – more of it in a later Diary – and I hope to be back at Rydal next year. suppose my Lakeland love affair started on that fateful day at Buttermere in 1994, in that mighty valley of the River Cocker. I had my little lurcher Bramble with me. I managed to look through the cameras and see and feel the hill farming beyond the competition. How do you feel hill farming? I felt it when a shepherding mother cried on my shoulder because she could not afford to send her children on a school trip. I felt it again through the anger of a hill farmer burning his fleeces because the transport costs were so high. I was there in 2001 and saw the funeral pyres of foot and mouth, the smoke hanging like a shroud over the whole landscape, its culture, its livestock and its people. How Beatrix Potter would have cried. I certainly did.
But recovery has come. There are red squirrels in the woods, wild highland butterflies on some of the high tops, deep valleys, snow, heat, beauty and shepherds still looking after their flocks. And what flocks and what sheep, including that unique breed of the Lakes, the herdwick, the sheep that give the appearance of being fathered by a rampant, runaway teddy bear. It was a breed that inspired Beatrix Potter and it was her love for the sheep and their shepherds that made her one of the greatest benefactors the National Trust has known.
For years the ancestry of the herdwick was a mystery. Were they brought over with the Vikings, or did they swim to safety from a sinking Spanish galleon? Amanda Carson of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association thinks their ancestry has at last been unravelled and their DNA takes them back to the sheep used by the Vikings. Research carried out by the Sheep Trust through the University of York shows a genetic link with sheep in Scandinavia, Finland and Iceland, and links with two other breeds found in Britain, the rough fell and the Texel.
Photographer Ian Lawson was also at the Rydal Show. He greeted me clutching one of the biggest books I have seen, its 432 pages measuring 11in x 13in and weighing nearly 10lb. It is the most astonishing, moving book I have ever seen. Herdwick: A Portrait of Lakeland is huge in every way – beautiful, inspiring, emotional and, yes, spiritual. It captures the spirit of the Lake District with a series of stunning images. With the fells in all the colours of the seasons, it encapsulates time, season, space, people – the flocks, the hill farms, the shepherds, the wildlife, the Border collies. It brings back the whistles of man to dog, the autumnal smell of fallen leaves, ice forming on your eyebrows, the stillness and heat of a hilltop day in high summer – and the herdwicks, shearing, lambing, collecting, showing.
The book becomes a personal gallery of memories, hopes and fears in a world in which the culture and beauty of the fells is becoming distanced from the lives of most people. It is like visiting another land made real through Lawson’s lenses.
It is inaccurate to call him a photographer, as his Herdwick is high art. And the art has been embellished by writing of the finest quality, all introduced by that great supporter of the Lakes and its upland farmers, the Prince of Wales. There are words by Alfred Wainwright, the Canon HD Rawnsley, Beatrix Potter, Jessica Lofthouse and many others.
In 2008, Ian abandoned “commercial photography”, up-sticked and moved to the Lake District National Park. Herdwick took him five years to complete. He was simply captivated by the beauty and mystery of the herdwick sheep, the landscape in which they lived and the people who worked with them. He writes: “Like the shepherds who care for them, this remarkable and hardy breed is ‘hefted’ to the land, held there by an intuitive sense of belonging.
“Theirs is not a life lived out of time, but rather one deeply attuned to the rhythms underpinning our very existence on this planet.”
In fact, Herdwick is the second massive and amazing book produced, published and overseen by Lawson at every stage. The first, From the Land Comes the Cloth: A Journey to the Heart of the Hebrides, has already been reprinted – printed and bound in England, which makes the whole project even more remarkable.
Herdwick: A Portrait of Lakeland costs £125 plus £12.50 for next-day delivery by courier. Call 01931 716977 or visit lakelandherdwick.com To see more images from Ian Lawson’s book visit telegraph.co.uk/earth
Ewes as muse: an
image from Ian Lawson’s ‘Herdwick’