The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District
by James Rebanks
(Penguin Books 2015) pp xx+293, £8.99.
Reviewed by Mark Greenstock.(first published in the Sherborne Times)
I finished this book on Carron Crag in the Coniston Fells area of the Lake District, basking in strong sunshine. Away to the north-east beyond Fairfield and Helvellyn lies Matterdale where James Rebanks and his wife Helen have their sheep farm. I wasn’t particularly interested in sheep before, just thought they were a part of the landscape and rather daft creatures. I remember years ago rock-climbing with a friend on Bowfell Buttress and hearing the plaintive moans of a cragfast ewe, so we decided to rescue her; she was dirty and flea-ridden and resented our intervention, more than once trying to leap into the void, until she was tied into a sling cradle and roped to safe ground.
Now however, thanks to Rebanks’ book, I have a profound respect for her breed, especially for Herdwicks and Swaledales; and I’ve learnt a new word, ‘hefted’, which means ‘attached to an area of upland pasture’. There are no maps and the few black-and-white photos are mostly of white woolly animals (Beatrix Potter appears with one of them) – yet I find I am looking at sheep with a quickened interest and understanding: tups, ewes and lambs have magically acquired a new personality. James has given us, not quite an autobiography, certainly not an academic handbook, but the inside story of three living strands: the animals, the people and the land. All are part of a living tradition, passed on through wind and snowstorm, hay harvest and foot-and-mouth cull (a tragic episode, this), from grandfather to father to son and daughter, and Rebanks is familiar with it all.
He confesses his debt to W.H. Hudson’s similarly-titled A Shepherd’s Life (1910), which was incidentally recommended by Hemingway as a model for writers. His easy, loping style, colourful and coolly objective, carries us through the four seasons of the year in an episodic yet skilfully-woven narrative. James was a bit of a wild character at school, and the mystery is how he ever got to Oxford University – the secret has to wait till the end, where he pays tribute to his Primary School teacher ‘who helped me to love books and learning and who encouraged me later on from a distance.’ All teachers take heart! This book won the Lakeland Book of the Year as soon as it came out and has been showered with rave reviews ever since. Here, short as it is, is another.