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Book Cover

Helen Rebanks

The Farmer’s Wife

It sounds discourteous to start this review by explaining that the author, Helen Rebanks, is the wife of the highly respected Cumbrian sheep farmer, environmentalist and author of two books, James Rebanks. But this book is very much her story – that of a farmer’s wife, mother of four and vital part of a very busy and successful farming and family team.

Like James, Helen is from Cumbrian farming stock and her family history is so very typical of many farming families as each generation has its own ideas as to how to manage the land and the business and does not always treat the views of the next generation with the respect they deserve. Helen provides a quite brutal insight into the tensions that often prevail within such a family which is to an extent also mirrored by James’s back story, whose father and grandfather had very different views from each other on managing the land.

Helen and James met as youngsters just before he left for a year’s farming experience in New Zealand. But they were both smitten and so when James returned and, having studied at night school to gain some A-levels, he got a place at Magdalen College, Oxford and they started their lives together away from the home comforts of Cumbria. It was here, while seeking to generate some income, that she developed her culinary skills, drawing on her experience of cooking for her busy farmer’s wife mother. The resulting recipes are a feature of the book and a treat for the reader. I must admit to not having tried any of them but they sound both delicious and easy to follow.

Bringing up four children is, in any circumstances, a full-time and demanding role and to do this while being very much part of the farm team and living in various, often remote, houses in an area of regularly quite demanding weather adds a whole new dimension to the stresses and strains of family life. The section in the book which covers surviving the 2018 ‘Beast from the East’ brings home very clearly some of the struggles that those living in lowland Dorset never even thought of experiencing.

But bringing up a family while surrounded by nature, glorious surroundings and all the exciting life of a livestock farm has its compensations from which they all benefit, particularly when other pressures can cause feelings of despair. Likewise, living within a community that looks after its own and which brings joy often through very small gestures by neighbours.

For those who have read James’s two best-selling books, this is a fascinating and complementary volume about Cumbrian farming life. For those who have not had that pleasure it is an excellent insight into the various and many demands of a farmer’s wife who has such a vital role to play beyond that of a mother, housekeeper, cook and lover. And the recipes look delicious too!

John Gaye

Faber & Faber

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