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A Tour In Westmorland by Sir Clement Jones, published 1948
WEATHER – CROPS – STOCK
No account of a tour in Westmorland could be considered complete without some reference to the climate, the crops and the stock observed during the course of the journey. You are made aware of their importance all day and every day; they form an abiding topic of conversation. In reading the old 18th century guide books about that part of England – and what good reading they are! – it is interesting but not surprising to notice how much stress is laid on the best season for travelling and on weather conditions; and it is amusing to find the different authors reproving each other for going either too soon or too late as the case might be. Thus in West’s “Guide to the Lakes” (published in 1779) the writer has something sharp to say about two well-known authorities: “Mr. Gray was too late in the season for enjoying the beauties of prospect and rural landscape in a mountainous country; for in October the dews lie long on the grass in the morning, and the clouds descend soon in the evening and conceal the mountains. Mr. Pennant was too early in spring, when the mountains were mantled with snow, and the dells were darkened with impenetrable mist; hence his gloomy description of the beautiful and romantic Vale of St. John in his journey from Ambleside to Keswick. Flora displays few of her charms early in May, in a country that has been chilled by seven winter months.”
Having “plumped” – months previously, during the cold spell – for the first fortnight in June as the most likely time for good weather, we were naturally pleased when that month opened with an exceptionally fine and warm day. (Which of us does not rather fancy himself as a judge of weather?). May had gone out in a blaze of heat, as the illustrated papers of the day bear witness. The sun had shone in all its splendour on the royal garden-party at Buckingham Palace on the 28th, and it was to shine in the same way the following week upon Their Majesties in the Great Court of Trinity, Cambridge, when the King returned to his own, old college for the four hundredth anniversary of its foundation. But if it was hot in London and Cambridge it was perhaps even hotter in the train from Euston to Kendal, especially for anyone who had a seat in the sun. The same people who had complained of the cold in March now bemoaned the heat of June. “Hottest June 2 for 92 years” we read in one paper. On that day we were at Brougham on the northern part of the county boundary and there we watched some young gipsy boys, from a camp nearby, riding their pie-bald horses bareback deep into the Eamont river to cool them. And yet, only a few miles away in the same county, even after a week of intense heat, there were still patches of snow on the high ground of Mallerstang Edge as remembrance of things past. After five remarkably find days the weather turned wet, as we left Kirkby Stephen, and for the next two days in Teesdale a cold wind blew hard from the north-west. However, the sun then came out and except for one more bad day our fortnight ended as it had begun. As evidence of the weather conditions – and it is the best indication I know – we were out walking every day and only on one occasion did we have to send our clothes to be dried when we got home in the evening. Not a “cloudless clime” certainly, but not a bad record for two weeks in Westmorland! Nothing was here to make us alter our opinion that the first fortnight in June is the best time for weather, flowers and birds.
The first half of 1947 was quite exceptional, first in its cold and then in its heat; oldest inhabitants have been shouted at in chimney corners and listened to with unwonted respect while they mumbled that they could remember nothing like it. In no respect perhaps are the results so noticeable as in the condition of the grass in Westmorland; abnormal snow in February and March, followed by an unusual amount of sunshine in May, combined to produce an extraordinarily fine crop of grass. And it all happened so quickly; on Easter Monday, 7th April, there was hardly any pasture at all; as far as fodder for the animals was concerned it was a race between the old hay being finished and the new grass coming on. We were all very anxious. On Whit-Monday, 26th May, however, the race was over and there was abundance. “As long as ar’ve kenned t’grass,” said an old farmer friend of mine, ar’ve mivver seein it graw as fast,” and, to back his affirmation, he quoted an old Westmorland saying: “A cold April fills t’barn.”
At the farm we have our own names for wet and windy weather at stated times; in April if there is a wild gusty day it is called a “hogg squarl,” having reference, it seems, to the young sheep before their first shearing; a rainstorm in June is “Cuckoo spattle”; while a downpour round about 1st August – by no means a rare event – is known as “Lammas flood.” I have always found that farmers who, like the rest of us, have their reputations to keep up as weather prophets, are always apt to be very cautious and non-committal in their pronouncements and usually qualify their opinion. On a find morning: “I think it’ll not rain afore t’noon.” For vague uncertainty I always enjoy those three familiar words: “Joost showers, happen.”
Before the days of the B.B.C. and the strange lingo of the wireless weather report, telling us of anti-cyclones or troughs of low pressure, we of the older generation were taught to read the skies by odd scraps of doggerel verse. “Rain at seven, fine at eleven” we would quote optimistically at breakfast when the grown-ups wanted to cancel a picnic on account of the wet. “Signs without mean drought” meant that if there were black clouds without any rain falling then there would be more fine weather. “Red sky at night is shepherd’s delight; red sky at morning is shepherd’s warning.” Those living near the coast kept an eye on the tide for “if it rains at flow you may go to plough; if it rains at ebb you may go to bed.” Whether they rhymed or merely jingled pleasantly like the last one, we put our trust in these old sayings with a far greater degree of confidence than do the modern “listeners-in” who, I notice, are extreme to mark what is said amiss on the wireless by the meteorological forecaster. And on the whole we who believed almost implicitly in the old rhymes were not often shaken in our faith by the results. We were not, however, rhyme-bound in our outlook; there were definite places on the horizon to be scanned; the look of Kendal Fell; the outline of Coniston Old Man at twelve noon; each village no doubt has its own. While I was in Kirkby Stephen I watched a cricket match one evening; dark rain clouds were coming up from the Mallerstang direction; I asked the man sitting next to me on a bench whether he thought it would rain and spoil the match. “Nay,” he said, after looking up at the sky, “I think it’ll keep by t’fells.” And it was so; the hills caught it; the valley and the cricket match escaped.
There is an old saying that “A load of hay in June is worth two in July,” and the Westmorland Gazette has been giving good advice on the subject in its weekly review of local farming. Research has shown that young grass has a much higher feeding value than when the plants have passed the flowering stage. Therefore to get hay of the highest quality, that is to say with a higher protein content and a lower fibre content, the grass must be cut in the leafy stage before the majority of the grasses come into flower. Quality is of much more consequence than quantity in these days, when an increased number of dairy cows are almost entirely dependent on home-produced supplies and milk is so urgently required. Nevertheless, unfortunately there are still a very large number of farmers in the north who prefer to delay cutting with a view to getting more bulk. “More Bulk” is an easy cry and it fits in with the rest of the farmer’s programme, if that is still unfinished. There is the clipping that must be done; and the thinning of turnips, creeping and crawling up and down the rows. All too often hay-making has to wait until these other jobs are done – to the detriment of the quality of the crop. During our tour of Westmorland, from Brougham in the north to Burton in the south, by the end of the second week in June during good hay-making weather, I only noticed one farm where they were “leading” hay and that was on 12th June on the extreme southern boundary between Dalton in Westmorland and Priest Hutton in Lancashire. It was a pleasure to see a full cart going towards the barn and an empty one coming back for another load. Not so much “bulk” perhaps, but more quality.
On my way back to London there was a young Irishman in the train on his first visit to England. When we were passing through Cheshire he was much struck by the sight of hay-making in full swing. He said he had no idea that hay was ever saved as early as June. I asked him when it was made in Ireland. “Ah,” he said with a shrug, “they make it in August or maybe September; it’s the traditional Irish laziness to put it off till to-morrow.”
But, to return to North Westmorland, one afternoon in Ravenstonedale churchyard we found an old man cutting the grass which had grown to an unusual length and strength. On seeing us he paused in his work, pushed his hat back on his head and said: “Grass has joomped oop like mooshrooms.” He spoke about Ravenstonedale – the old days and the old people; one of these families, with memorials in the church, had risen, it seems, in former times to some degree of greatness and had then come down. “Families coom up and gaw doon like t’grass,” he said; after which observation he went on scything. With his white beard and at his particular task, he looked rather like a plump edition of Father Time.
Scratch an Englishman and you soon find a farmer under his skin. Nor is this strange, seeing that for hundreds of years migration has been going on all the time from the country to the towns; and if there are some Cockneys who are so city-bred that they profess to take no interest whatever in the land and prefer to spend their holidays either at the seaside or in a cinema, nevertheless, after a bad harvest and severe winter when the food position becomes serious and rations are threatened, the whole nation becomes crop-conscious and anxious about the livestock. Newspapers publish headlines: “Two Million Dead Sheep and Lambs”; people quote them and misquote them; and conversation in a thousand London streets is all about flocks and herds. Everyone wonders to what extent these sheep losses will affect the Sunday joint, for however much the British public prefers the roast beef of old England to any other form of meat, there are many who would just as soon have mutton. I once heard the Head of an Oxford college solemnly declare at his own High Table that “Cold mutton is the lowest form of human food.” I did not agree with him for I think there is much to be said for this despised dish especially when eaten with a potato in its jacket and a pat of butter and a juicy, pickled walnut. But whatever opinions there may be on this subject the fact remains that when the blizzards and floods came early in 1947 following on the dismal harvests of the previous autumn, there was a widespread concern about stocks and especially about sheep.
There is an excellent book on sheep called by the simple and sufficient one word title “Sheep,”1 and I should like to thank the author, J.F.H. Thomas, for the pleasure I have had in reading it. He gives the figures for our sheep population in Great Britain, showing that from 1885 to 1910 it always exceeded 25 millions; that, while there was a rapid fall in numbers during and just after the war of 1914-18, the last published figures prior to the war of 1939-45 were 24 millions. More recent figures reveal that up to 1945 the sheep population had declined by over six millions, representing a loss of nearly 25 per cent. of the 1939 population. And now, to add to these losses, has come the appalling tragedy of 1947.
When we went to Westmorland for Easter we were aware of course, like everyone else, of the terrible losses incurred by North Country sheep farmers. But worse was to come. The lambing season had started and already it was clear that, as a result of the blizzard, there was going to be an unusually high percentage of deaths and a large number of weak lambs. Of these moorland farms where the sheep are kept on the fells at 1,000 to 2,000 feet, lambing usually begins in late March and does not really start until well into April. The sheep with which we are concerned are the Rough Fell breed of black-faced sheep; the faces are dark with a brownish tinge. Every day the farmer would bring one or two newly-born lambs into the house and cover them with a sack beside the kitchen fire to see if he could save their lives (it was bitterly cold and wet at that particular time); sometimes you would see the sack twitching; then after a while there would be no more movement; at other times after more determined wriggling the lamb would poke its little head out of the sack and struggle to its feet; after that a drink of milk and removal to the warm calf-hull. As Mr. Thomas points out in his book, the main factor in preventing loss of newly-born lambs is shelter, because when born the birthcoat is wet and whilst this is drying the lamb is losing heat from its body. But many small weakly lambs which appear to be at the point of death can be revived by warmth. “It is wet coldness,” he writes, “that is the greatest bane of a newly-born lamb.” To make matters worse this year, after the terrible storms and loss of food, many of the ewes were not able to suckle their progeny.
An estimate of Westmorland sheep losses in 1947 was given by Mr. Allen at Penrith,2 when he said “I do not think the public fully realise the very serious extent of the losses. I am safe in saying that about 40 per cent. of the breeding ewes have been lost. And what is more serious still is that there are going to be very few lambs.” Some weeks later, the Agricultural Correspondent of the Times3 wrote, in confirmation of this: “The lamb crop is the poorest for years. Many of the ewes that survived did not produce live lambs, and in the last fortnight when the sheep have been gathered for shearing, the full extent of the loss has been seen. The wool clip is likely to be less than last year’s by fully a third partly because some ewes, which came through the snow blizzards in poor condition, had already shed their wool.”
This shedding of wool was a sad and frequent sight on our walks at this time. It was an everyday occurrence to see a ewe trailing her fleece behind her, walking with head erect, her Roman nose in the air, a timid little lamb by her side, looking for all the world like some Victorian dowager (from du Maurier’s sketch-book) with high-bridged nose and high cheekbones (such as he loved to draw) sweeping the ballroom floor with her long train and beside her a shy, debutante daughter.
At our farm, while the farmer’s losses in sheep were heavy enough and far above normal, they were not nearly so sever as those of some of his neighbours because he had “scented” the storm coming and just had time to get his sheep down from the fell and put them in fields close to the farm, where he was able to feed them instead of having them buried in snowdrifts. The fact that it is a mixed farm and not merely a mountain sheep farm is also a great help. To quote Mr. Thomas again: “From the sheep’s point of view, life must be more desirable on a mixed farm than on any other type. On mountain and moorlands bead weather and snow-drifts cause hardships and perhaps loss of life; the scanty herbage may be covered in snow, and the hay, if available, is not of a good quality. But on the mixed farm with its root crops, its fodder crops and its reserves of hay, there is a much lessened risk that the flock will be short of food.”
There was, I know, a good deal of argument at the time as to whether sheep farmers during the 1947 snowstorms had or had not done all that they might have done in bringing their sheep down from the higher to the lower levels. Into this discussion I do not propose to enter, not am I qualified to do so, and I think it would take a bold man to generalise on this subject. One can only judge each case farm by farm. For instance, there are two sheep farms called Birkdale – “Birkdale House” and “Birkdale Farm,” to distinguish them – on the extreme border of North-East Westmorland, on the Durham side of the watershed, where the counties of Yorkshire, Westmorland and Durham meet.
These two farms stand within a stone’s throw of each other, each under its own sycamore tree in the proper local way, but remote from any other dwelling; eight miles over the moor to the village of Dufton in which vast parish they are situated; two and a half miles to the nearest road that leads down the valley to Middleton-in-Teesdale. Birkdale has the reputation of being the most isolated sheep farm in the kingdom; there is no road to it; the previous tenant used to travel on horseback when he went to do his shopping, but times are changed and the present farmer uses a tractor, in which we saw him on a Saturday morning, bumping and squelching and skidding about over the boggy stretch of ground between his house and the road, on his way to get supplies.
We called at Birkdale on 7th June on our way back from High Cup Nick and heard from the farmer (Mr. Airey) something of his terrible losses. It is to his credit, after what he has suffered, that he still keeps his sense of humour and his complete calm. He was standing in the doorway of the cowhouse, like a modern Hercules about to tackle the task of cleansing his Augean shippon, for it had been a cold, windy night and he had put his two cows indoors. From a dark recess at the back of the building we were closely watched by a young calf with inquisitive stare. This was the total livestock, other than sheep, at Birkdale – just enough to supply milk for the house, and even these animals he was going to get rid of soon and “go over to tinned stuff.” He said his sister would be glad to see us in the kitchen, indicating a glass of milk, and he then started on his cleaning job with the cheery ejaculation: “War there’s mook there’s look!”
To judge from the state of the byre that afternoon one would say that Mr. Airey ought to have plenty of luck, but it may well be that the particular proverb which he quoted applies rather to arable land than fell sheep farming for he had lost all but a fraction of his flock. To be precise, he told us that out of a flock of 700 sheep he had only 110 survivors, after the blizzard, and only 30 lambs. Yet his neighbour in the other farm was worse off, for out of a similar sized flock he had now only 45 sheep and seven lambs. But whether these figures are accurate or guesswork, whether the grand total – two million dead in the whole country – be a rough shot or approximately correct, it matters not; it is enough to walk about the fells to see for oneself the vast scale of the disaster. Never have I seen so many dead sheep lying about in various stages of decomposition; everywhere there is the horrid, pungent smell. It may be asked: “Why don’t they bury them?” The answer is that the job is beyond the power of any one man. How could a farmer, with other jobs to do, set out over a wide are to collect and bury two or three hundred sheep? Nature in her own time will do the work of getting rid of them and soon all that will be left will be the bones.
To suggest that the shepherd should have gone out, and rounded up the sheep before the storm, is surely a case of wisdom after the event. For years there have been snow-storms; for years the sheep have survived; this blizzard was abnormal both in severity and duration. Consider what it was like in the kitchen at Birkdale when they were completely snowed-up, with food supplies diminishing daily and not a hope of getting to the village for more. At the height of the storm the provisions at the farm were almost exhausted. The farmer’s sister had jut cooked what she thought would be their last griddle cake and she and her brother were sitting down to eat it when, as though in some story from the Old Testament, there arrived (like ravens) at the farm two men on skis who had set out from Middleton-in-Teesdale bringing a supply of groceries and other food for the two farms. These men, whom I met later, told me that the snow was so deep that when they crossed the Tees above Caldron Snout they were unaware of the river over which they were passing on their skis. When they arrived at Birkdale there were dead sheep lying all round the farm.
From different parts of Westmorland come accounts of how the dogs “located” sheep in snowdrifts and saved their lives. There is a well authenticated story4 of the cleverness of a dog called Hemp on a snowbound hill farm at Bull Pot, over 1,000 feet above sea level, on Casterton Fell between Barbondale and the Lune Valley. This farm was cut off from the outside world for well over a month. The tenant of the farm, who lives in Kirkby Lonsdale, brought most of the sheep down to lower ground, before the blizzard finally blocked the only road to his hill farm, but many of the younger sheep remained on the fell. The shepherd stayed on at Bull Pot, coming on horseback from time to time to get food supplies for his family during their period of isolation. His dog Hemp, aged 14, but keen as ever, working mostly on his own, rescued more than 100 sheep, many of which were completely buried under the snow. These he “set” for the shepherd, Nathan Guy, to dig out. In one of these “finds” Hemp located a two-shear ewe buried four feet under a snowdrift close to a wall which was not even visible until the thaw. This sheep, when dug out, was alive, though it is believed to have been buried for between six and seven weeks.
In the Preface to “Sheep.” Mr. Thomas has paid a fine tribute to those shepherds in lonely places: “The men who look after sheep,” he writes, “play a small but vitally important rôle in our British farming. Like sailors, their lives are greatly influenced by foul weather; they too have the eyes of men who spend much time under the canopy of heaven, gazing on distant things.”
One last look at the sheep before we go down to the dale. We are on the side of Barbon Low Fell with Blindbeck bridge just below us – not so very far from Bull Pot. Across the valley, on the eastern slope of Middleton Fell, large numbers of sheep are being collected by shepherds and dogs and brought down to Barbondale, going forward with an orderly precision, rank on rank, line on line, as they come slowly downhill, the outlying formations gradually linking up with the main body. Down they come, like troops moving across the side of the fell in their thin, grey lines. Occasionally there is a shout – a word of command perhaps – from one of the shepherds; answered by the short bark of a dog; and all the time there is the unceasing bleat of the sheep. A pleasant memory of sight and sound to take back to London, when that grim day should arrive. But now it is time to start on our journey.
1 Published by Faber & Faber Ltd., 1945.
2 Westmorland Gazette, 7th June, 1947
3 Times, 21st July, 1947.
4 Published in the Westmorland Gazette, 29th March 1947.
Thanks to Diane Coppard in Leicestershire for transcribing this! Reproduced by permission of Tim Clement-Jones.