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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Counting Sheep


I’ve loved the English Lake District since I was a child reading the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. When I was sixteen I went on a hiking holiday there with three friends. We stayed in Youth Hostels including Black Sail, the most remote in England. We hiked the fells with the help of our Cumbria Ordnance Survey map and climbed to the top of Helvellyn with its glorious views of the vales and lakes. I longed to go back and many years later I did when my children were teenagers. It was a memorable trip in a different way. My daughter put fashion before practicality and insisted on wearing sneakers without laces instead of hiking boots. Slipping and sliding on sheep droppings on the steep fells soon made her regret her decision. Meanwhile, as my husband and son disappeared over a ridge to see a tarn, a thick mist swept over the fells. Only I knew how dangerous was their situation. Every summer, when inexperienced tourists swarm the fells, there are numerous incidents of helicopter rescues. This time we were lucky and made our way safely down into the valley.

Book cover of The Shepherd's LifeThe Lake District I loved was the romantic landscape of Wordsworth’s verse, of Constable’s paintings, of Beatrix Potter, of Wainwright’s fell walking guides. The sheep dotting the fells were just another appealing part of the rustic scenery. But in a wonderful new book, The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks, I learned that the real Lake District belongs to the working farmers who follow an ancient way of life little changed for thousands of years. The sheep on the fells don’t just make the scenery pretty, they represent centuries of careful breeding and backbreaking hard work. The book follows the seasons of the sheep farmer’s year interspersed with autobiography. I highly recommend it whether you are interested in sheep or not. For if you think sheep all look alike and that sheep farming doesn’t take much intelligence, you will learn otherwise.

Rebanks tells of his anger when he finds out in school that poets and painters and hikers think they own the place that is his family heritage. His is an amazing life story. He hates school, preferring to work on the farm amid his beloved sheep. He leaves school at 16 having failed all his exams and becomes a full-time farmer alongside his father. But he discovers books, becomes a voracious reader,
and eventually realizes the point of education. If he wants the family farm to survive in the modern world, he must find another source of income. Incredibly this self-educated farm boy, who lists his occupation as stone wall builder, talks his way into Oxford University. During most holidays he returns to work on the farm but, realizing he needs some professional experience, he spends a summer working as an editor in London. Here he finally realizes why city people idealize wild rural areas like his home; the need to escape the suffocating city is overwhelming. So when he graduates, Rebanks returns to run the family farm and develops a professional career that fits in with his first love. He is now an expert advisor to UNESCO on sustainable tourism policies that preserve traditional cultures.


Over the years I’ve visited the Lake District vicariously many times through books, just as I did as a child. Here are a few of my favorites:

Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George
Part of the popular Inspector Lynley series, in this mystery he heads to the Lake District to investigate the drowning of a member of a prominent local family. Was it really an accident? George’s talent for evocative descriptive writing is put to good use in this landscape.

The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid
When a tattooed body is found on the fells, a Lake District legend about Fletcher Christian of the Bounty and a lost Wordsworth poem is revived. Wordsworth scholar and Lake District native Jane Gresham finds herself in danger as she tries to locate the missing manuscript.

Book cover of The Arsenic Labyrinth
Haweswater by Sarah Hall
In the 1930’s, a Lake District community is threatened with destruction by plans to flood the valley for a new reservoir serving industrial cities in the midlands. Hall’s lyrical writing brings the wild beauty of the Cumbrian landscape to life.

The Lake District Mystery series by Martin Edwards
Titles in this series featuring Detective Chief Inspector Hannah Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind, who retires to Tarn Cottage in the Lake District, include The Cypher Garden, The Serpent Pool and The Arsenic Labyrinth.

And if like me you fall in love with the Lake District, check out this list of more reading suggestions and enjoy a virtual visit to the Lake District National Park. 

That's all for now, baa baa.

Post author, R Tull






R Tull

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the book tips, Rita. As my wife is a lover of both the Lake District and detective stories, I think she might be getting one or two of these for her birthday ...

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