My love af­fair with the Lakes

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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’

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