A Cumbrian Farmer Writes

BY JIM WEBSTER

Building communities.

That’s what the meeting was about, although that wasn’t the title, that’s what it did and that was what drove people to attend.

And I drove up from the south, through St John’s in the Vale on a gorgeous September morning; the sort that you never get many of. Today the two crags at the sides were bathed in bright sunlight. Blencathra behind was almost lost in a golden haze as the early morning sun burned off the last of the mist. It looked like nothing as much as a Chinese landscape painting.

And later in the day, travelling home, the good folk of the Vale were hard at work. Travelling up I’d seen one field that looked as if it might just bale today, and yes, they were hard at it. A tractor that was older than me pulling a baler which had once had paint on it but was now uniformly rusted. New equipment and old, boys barely out of school driving tractors that cost more a month on lease than the monthly rent of a terraced house in Barrow; old men with rakes, cleaning up the corners for the baler.

And in a field that men were mowing before Christianity came to these islands, a young man is loading bales onto a trailer. His surname and his accent are Cumbrian but his eyes are the grey of the waters of the Vistula and at least one of his daughters will have the high cheekbones of his mother and the smile that captured his father’s heart. And his grandfather is buried in the churchyard a world away from the Polish home he left to fly a Hurricane. Communities absorb, they take in the good and they make it their own.

And if the world keeps turning and we don’t let the political pygmies screw up too badly, in half a century’s time a chap in his sixties will turn and say to his son who has eyes as grey as his own, ‘Stop fretting, we’ve made good hay in September before.’

In some parts of the county we’re not building communities, we’re trying to make it possible for them to survive, help them negotiate the minefield of tick-boxes and departmental objectives. Someone has to temper the wind to the shorn lamb.

And the communities roll on, season following season, year following year. I saw a chap at a funeral one day and at an agricultural show the next. Our conversation drifted to the funeral and he commented that he’s got to the stage when he wonders whether he ought to start leaving a few notes as to what he wants for his funeral.

And he is right. On a wet Mothering Sunday, the old lad will go to church with his daughter-in-law because his grandchildren are singing. He’s walked from a steading that was old when the Normans finally came to the valley and the church isn’t all that much younger. He feels the place in his bones, and when the grandchildren put a posy on his late wife’s grave he turns to his daughter and says, ‘And when my time comes, put me in there with her.’

And on a glorious day a month later, when his son takes him up onto the fell on the quad (one of the dogs being forced to run alongside to make room for the old man) and the ewes are looking well and the grass is growing and the lambs are bright, inquisitive and without fear, he breathes deeply and the world he loves floods over him. And when his son stops the quad and they look round, the old man says, ‘You know, when my time comes, cremate me and have my ashes scattered up here.’

And may the Lord have mercy on the clergyman who has to untangle that little lot!

But the cycle continues; the funeral with its grief and shared memories and meeting with old friends on the edge of an open grave. Then there’s the baptism, bedlam in a small church, with those who know how to behave in church and those who’ve never darkened the doorstep before.

And if the vicar knows his job, a young couple look serious because he’s explained just what’s going on, what they’re swearing to do, and asked them whether they really want to make that sort of commitment.

It’s funny really, at baptisms and funerals they sit in their cars, or they cluster outside the porch in the drizzle, waiting for enough of them to arrive so they can screw up enough courage to enter the church. A dangerous place where you might have to be silent, or -dread the thought – think.

And the wedding, which shouldn’t be sombre but sometimes is as women who were once girls and men who were once lads look down the aisle and the years fall away and they wonder. And the bride, wearing white as she marries the lad she has lived with for three years. But she’s right because today is a day where commitment means more than the technicalities of biology and the first time down the aisle is not a road you can walk twice, however often you marry.

And in spite of ourselves, we keep the show on the road somehow, knitting together somehow the threads that make the community and we hold it together.

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quadbikes and dogs) It’s available here.

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