James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life

James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life

James Rebanks' The Shepherd's Life The Natural Fibre Company

Like many people, particularly those in our little woolly world, I had heard of James Rebanks via his Herdy Shepherd Twitter blog and then he shot to fame in the rather bigger world of Radio 4’s weekly book serialisation!

So I thought I ought to read the book … and here is a rather personal and reflective review. 

Firstly, I should say I did really like it and would recommend it to those interested in learning about keeping sheep in the Lake District and also more generally, though this book is very rooted in Cumbria.  Secondly, it gives reality to this life: there are conception, birth, death, slaughter, competition, rivalry, amongst the sheep and the people.  And thirdly it caught something inside me and pulled …

The book is mainly set in four parts, named for the seasons.  After the introductory chapter,  Hefted, he starts with Summer, goes through increasingly difficult times and then ends with the hopeful forward-looking Spring.  It also follows James’ own life from childhood to adulthood, and deals with learning to cope with being both rooted and also unrooted: James was something of a misfit, being clever and rebellious and this is something I can relate to!  Though being a girl (as James points out much too often) I did the school bit and have just become increasingly rebellious over time …

It was Hefted which captured me first and then I had to follow through.  Why?  Well, hefted, as sheep people know, relates to a knowledge and sense of place, so that hefted sheep will know their own ground and teach it to their offspring.  James uses it to relate to himself as well and the whole of the book is based on this sense of belonging in a place, feeling displaced when away and wanting to return, despite the issues.  This is how I feel about Cornwall, where I was born and raised, even though my parents were from Yorkshire and Somerset, so I do not have the generations of hefting of the Rebanks family.  Nowadays,I think Cornwall is in me wherever I am, so I am learning that I can be elsewhere and yet still hefted to Cornwall!

Cumbria is a relatively poor place, with a remote and challenging landscape, economically exploited and underdeveloped by the richer parts of the country – and here I felt the link: because of course Cornwall is the same.  The Cumbria and Cornwall of the visitors are not those experienced by the natives or those who have been there for a generation or two.  The land and climate are hard and soft by turns and awareness to minimise the risks is vital to survival.  Cornwall, which I know better, is also subject to a flywheel effect which means that the good times are very good and the bad times very bad – there is an exaggeration of both prosperity and adversity compared to the rest of the country.  This happens more the farther one goes from London in particular and also other metropolitan centres in the UK.  It is only possible to understand this by being there for some time,  and feeling it rather than simply observing it, which is an unfortunate aspect of urban and rural viewpoints today.

I went away from Cornwall after school, as pretty much everyone who could did in the sixties and seventies.  I lived and worked in London for some twenty-five years and yet, I confess to being very surprised when I found that some parts of the Home Counties were actually quite attractive, as nowhere in my mind could be like Cornwall.  This was not true of my siblings, which is another interesting story perhaps … And now I keep sheep and run a wool mill, in Cornwall, because, apart from the convincing business aspects, it simply had to be done.

So, if you want to know more about sheep breeds and how they work, or about shepherding, and more particularly about wool, about which James is somewhat dismissive, you will not find it in this book.  What you will find is passion and love of landscape and tradition, of roots and warts and all, told well and with considerable humour.  It’s a lovely book for this.