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The Shepherd’s Life

Eloquence, integrity, and lots of sheep

In 1804, when William Wordsworth was wandering lonely as a cloud across the Lake District, he couldn’t have envisaged how his work, along with a merry handful of nineteenth-century artists and writers, would shape public perception of this beautiful landscape for centuries to come. In The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks, we’re given an alternative vision. This beguiling book describes Rebanks life as a sheep farmer. In it he reveals a traditional world, often out of step with modern Britain, and a unique perspective of his beloved Lake District and the invisible, hardworking families who sustain it.

As an avowed urbanite, I was sceptical that an account of rural life could rock my world, but was hooked within the first few typically forthright pages, as Rebanks describes how the seeds of this book were planted in a school assembly. An unthinking teacher delivers a monologue about the Lake District as a wild and romantic place of climbers, poets and artists, while disparaging those students who aspire to be farm workers. For Rebanks, the insult was twofold; the prevailing view of his home as not much more than a ‘scenic playground,’ and the dismissal of those whose working lives are rooted in its midst.

In this compelling memoir, we discover the story of a family and the rhythms of the working year on a farm that once belonged to the author’s grandfather, a figure who looms large in family lore, glowing in their stories like ‘some great dead king.’

As soon as Rebanks can toddle, he’s off on the farm with Granddad, an eager sponge for the old man’s teachings, and he shares some lovely moments of their relationship. A drystone wall still stands that his grandfather taught him to build, conjuring memories of his 8-year-old self filling in the gaps, while Granddad’s weathered hands pack stones, placing the loveliest atop, their ‘silver, yellow and sun-bleached green mosses and lichens facing the sky once more.’

Farming days are long and hard, and as the summers pass, the balance shifts between them, Rebanks growing in strength and stature while his grandfather wanes like the late sun. And then a day of ‘grey silences and mizzling rain.’ Granddad is dead and his will is being read at the solicitor’s office. In a rapidly changing world, fell farming no longer pays the bills and the bereaved family will need to employ some creative thinking.

The path to sustainability is a long one, and Rebanks is excellent on the politics and history of farming. Interwoven throughout is his personal journey, a spiky relationship with his father, a young family of his own, and his years as a student at Oxford University, where he felt like the archetypal caged tiger, desperate for freedom.

His engrossing descriptions of a shepherd’s working year conjure some striking images; the short, sullen days of winter, ‘when the sheep stand sourly behind the walls.’ or the lambing season travails of Rebanks and his wife, like ‘a couple of adults looking after several hundred new-born babies and toddlers in a large park.’

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Written with eloquence and integrity, this is an enlightening and memorable read.

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks is published by