letter from a small corner of far away
by William Castle of Shropshire, UK
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
I spent a couple of hours in the garden yesterday playing catch up. We have been away for a week, a neighbour coming to keep the greenhouse plants alive, but despite a relatively dry week, the germination of weed seeds outside has been plentiful. Besides weeding, I also planted out the peas from my second attempt and the pumpkin plants that were in the greenhouse, but over the next few days, there is still more to do.
Last week we were in one of the most visited rural areas of England, the Lake District. It is popular because it is beautiful, with lakes in many of the valleys, fed by roaring streams which tumble straight down from the high fells. The Lake District boasts the highest mountains in England, but by continental standards they are tiddlers, rising to only 3000 feet or so, though Scotland can do better, its champion being over a thousand feet higher. Nonetheless, these mountains can be tricky, the bare rock faces, screes and rugged terrain combined with quickly changing weather making them hazardous, especially for the unprepared. One day many years ago, I experienced just how fast the weather can change. At the start of the walk it was shorts and T-shirt weather, at 1000 feet it was just the same and at 2000 feet as well, but by the time we got to 2500 feet there were forty mile an hour winds driving heavy rain and temperatures near freezing with 60 yard visibility – good job I had my thick clothes and waterproofs in my backpack.
This visit, however, was different, as we didn’t get any scorching sun and the rain came right down to us for part of each day. Another difference, forty years on, is that between the two of us, we were sporting a still-healing broken ankle and shoulder, along with a couple of dodgy knees and another questionable ankle, so we stayed mostly amongst the lower lying land, amongst the green and temperate. And thinking about it, that is really what I prefer, terrain with soil, with green and the hope of productivity, rather than the bleak inhospitable tops. For many, the peaks and ruggedness are the glory of the Lake District, often described as magnificent, serene and majestic. I do get it, I do understand the momentousness of mountains, and if you can see anything because of the rain, there is something about gaining the highest of views, the panorama laid out before you, the world at your feet. But when I look down into the valleys, I always think how nice it looks down there, a lot nicer than up here, where really us humans have no right to be. So I descend, knee hurting on the steep bits, happy to be back amongst the living, happy to be among the trees, amongst the farms.
For this is a farmed landscape, shaped by generations who ploughed the valley bottoms before it became cheaper to buy their flour and feed for the horses, and who ran sheep on the fellsides since, well, who knows when? And the answer is, at least since Viking times, when those hardy Scandinavians colonised the north, leaving their influence in the place names and in the language which I share, the fells, the becks, the forces and the dales; which in southern English are mountains, streams, waterfalls and valleys, or for comparison in Norwegian, fjell, bekk, foss and dale. In addition, they supposedly left their sheep whose descendants are the Herdwick breed, tough and resilient, probably the hardiest breed which can survive throughout the year high up amongst the short-nibbled grass, bracken and rocks.
Below the fells is the enclosed land, the ‘in-bye’ land, framed by drystone walls, where at this time of the year some of the ewes and lambs are confined. Looking at them as we drove through the field to the cottage, the lambs were all twins. Twins a relatively rare occurrence in the Herdwick breed, and were being kept down on the more productive grazing to ensure enough milk flow in the ewes, and grass growth to support two hungry youngsters. Roughly at the same level as the top of the in-bye land where the terrain gets more rugged, is the tree line, about a third of the way up the fellside. It is not a natural tree line, but one created by the unenclosed grazing of the sheep on the fell which nibble off any new saplings. With the increase in sheep numbers for economic reasons over the last thirty years, the trees have had a hard time of it, and it makes me wonder what the landscape was like back twelve hundred years ago, whether those Viking sheep were grazing amongst trees, and whether, because of the length of time trees live, the inhabitants realised that the trees were getting fewer, even back then.
The story of farming in the Lakes continues to change. For those Lakeland shepherds, the income from sheep has dropped significantly in my lifetime, so those who have been able to raise the capital have often converted farm buildings into holiday houses or tried to get more land to breed more sheep. You might think that such marginal land which is less productive economically would fall in value, so farmers could buy more cheap land and have bigger farms, but there is a physical limit to this tough way of farming, and anyway, the price of land here, as over the rest of England, does not go down. Because the Lake District, desirable to visit, desirable to have a second or even a first home in, is within two hours’ drive for perhaps five million people, many of whom have purchasing power way beyond the means of a hill farmer. Then, with the floods of recent years, the beleaguered farmers have people saying they should give up their sheep and the hill shepherd’s way of life, plant more trees and rewild the rivers over their good bottom ground because of the increased flood risk with greater rainfall. And the farmers can see it too, the devastation in towns and villages downstream, as we saw in the village of Pooley Bridge, when in 2015 the bridge that had been there since the Middle Ages was swept away, the concrete and steel replacement costing five million.
On the horizon, there is another change coming, too. Since Britain left the European Union two years ago, suddenly we needed an agricultural policy. As an interim measure the Government has cut farmers’ funding which used to come from Europe, year by year, but has not decided how it will be replaced. They say they want it to reflect environmental concerns, but not how it will happen. And the truth is, well, my guess is, they don’t really know. Because they are stuck in a philosophical bind, the party of Government’s core position being not to interfere in the ‘free’ market, even though they know that it is not working for farming or for food quality, nor, especially now with inflation, is it providing food at prices everyone can afford. So on one corner of the argument there are still some stone-heads amongst the farming fraternity who see the ability to make a profit as the only criteria of importance, and some fuzzy minded nature lovers who want it all to go wild. The argument is framed as either food or nature. But it ain’t so. It’s both. It’s both at the same time, and often in the same place, particularly in a heavily populated place like Britain. The politicians sort of know this, but they can’t fully comprehend it, for by and large they are artificial creatures of the metropolii, of late nights and bright lights, of shady deals and easy fixes, trying to make the arguments and prejudices they imbibed in their youth fit a complex new reality.
Meanwhile, in the vacuum of intent, in the vacuum of hope in political and economic arenas, farmers are doing the best they can, sometimes assisted by other organisations, held back by inertia and uncertainty, making the best of today for today, and hoping something will turn up for tomorrow. In some ways it has always been so, the slow and encumbered struggling, while the audacious, the enthusiastic and flexible of mind edge forward, stone by stone, trying stuff out, expanding and deepening their knowledge, making their own places the testing grounds for the future. And if you can manage to do that, whether just for five minutes, for a five-month experiment or as part of your own five-year plan, then good for you; throw off those shackles of inertia and doubt!
Take care, William