BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
The magnificence of this country is that one never knows what pot of joy or genius one might find down a country lane or hidden away in some random-looking terrace. I suppose that those less appreciative of laissez-faire society would argue the flip side; that British tolerance and enduring liberties facilitate the opposite too. To be fair, ammo dumps are seldom but occasionally found down country lanes and bomb factories discovered in terraced houses.
Fortunately for me, the country lane I went down in blazing sunshine last Tuesday was that of the Webster farm in Webster, Cumbria, where the Webster family have owned a working farm since 1923.
Jim Webster is well known to Country Squire Magazine readers. His no-nonsense articles on farming from an actual farmer are increasingly popular. In 2020 Jim was awarded the President’s medal from the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), recognised for his outstanding loyalty and service. He is a local stalwart – Jim chairs the local foodbank, stands in as church warden, is chief pumpkin supplier to the Barrow area, helped oversee the erection of the wind turbine that towers over his family farm, and both he and his wife are keen members of the local parish church. Orare est Laborare personified perhaps.
I had been threatening to disturb Jim’s peace for a while. My arrival did just that – his sheepdog Sal emerging from her kennel and barking at my car as I reached the driveway of the Websters’ farm. As I climbed down from my car, admired a nearby lawn festooned with an orchard and damsons, then slipped on some boots, Sal’s mood tempered, and her approach became welcoming.
Jim had teased me for a while about getting me working for a day on his farm, in exchange for the continuing flow of articles. He teased me with how he was looking forward to getting me involved in some of the more wretched aspects of keeping a herd. I was game. So, I showed up in scruffy attire expecting to lose my arm down the rear end of a cow and wore double thick socks to guard against kicks from hooves, bearing Merlot in case my performance as a cowherd was not up to scratch. But our gentle amble around the 100-acre Webster farm involved nothing more hazardous than a charge from a black bull, an escaped rabid bulldog frothing at us, and a passing mannerless MAMIL without a bell clipping my left elbow as he went too fast around a bend in the farm lane. We detoured to the local church, now closed, where sheep keep the grass down between gravestones of Victorians who never seem to grumble.
Jim tends to his own and others’ cattle on the farm, juxtaposed between the Lake District and Morecambe Bay, with Blackpool Tower visible on the horizon. A veritable paradise on such a sunny day. I counted 80 heifers and one bull happily munching away on lush grasses, fattening fast and healthily in the fresh and salty air off the bay. In the past Jim has looked after many head of cattle and – now matured, with wisdom – is slowing down a touch, while diversifying the farm to meet local demands.
I already mentioned the pumpkins. Fifteen acres of them. The lanes in Webster forming a useful circle that allows families to visit in their car around Halloween and pick their own or pass by, drive-thru style then return via the loop of single lanes that Lambert Simnel’s army marched down in part of their failed attempt at rebellion in 1487 after landing at Piel Castle from Ireland.
There is a field beyond the pumpkin field that’s secured by a high fence, and I ask Jim what vicious creatures are kept there. He tells me that there is a lock on that field and that locals can hire the space via online booking by the hour to walk or train their dogs in. This Pooch Playground service is so popular that Jim hears dogs barking out of want as they pass his lane. A novel use of space on a farm in the Internet age.
As we return to the farmhouse after a good hour’s walkaround, a red car pulls up and a young fellow emerges with a rifle. Am I to be kidnapped and ransomed? Is that how these Cumbrians operate? No, it’s the rat man. Here to kill as many rats as he can. All farms have rats and he’s given permission by Jim, for leisure purposes, to walk the farm and ethnically cleanse the many barns and farm buildings. Jim tells me of another rat killer, a Filipino nurse, who shows up now and again covered in face paint, who pitches a hide out in a field and shoots what vermin he can. We laugh and exchange stories of armed Filipinos.
Jim writes just as he talks.
I tell him so.
He’s hardly a diminutive lad and the black bull that ran at me only stopped because of Jim’s deafening yell. I do not attempt to edit his utterings.
Back in the farmhouse, after a brief tour of the barns, constructed with gables scavenged off old galleons, we enjoy a sausage roll and a cuppa. I meet Jim’s wife Brenda. Most of the talk is of Christianity, their shared faith, and their innate desire to live the Christian life, helping others and living humbly. Together as partners they run the farm. They have got by with proceeds from the farm and Jim’s income from some freelance journalism.
When I leave the farm, I feel glad to have met such a couple. It’s the same feeling I have had meeting families in Venezuela or Mindanao – decent, quality folk trying their best and striving hard, made honest by the land, no treachery or greed, serenity seeping from their every bone. This farm is a blessed place in one of the most beautiful parts of England (at least on a sunny day, so Jim humbly informs me).
If only more of the world could shine like Webster.
Dominic Wightman is Editor of Country Squire Magazine.