Farming isn't just a way of life for JAMES REBANKS, it's in his blood

Grandad’s legacy? A harvest of happiness: For shepherd JAMES REBANKS, farming isn’t just a way of life, it’s in his blood, passed down through his family for 600 years – as he recalls in our final extract from his gloriously evocative new book

Yesterday, bestselling author and shepherd James Rebanks described how the industrialisation of farming affected his family’s 600-year-old traditional lifestyle. In this second and final extract from his captivating new book, he recalls how he caught the farming bug from his grandfather . . .

The black-headed gulls follow in our wake as if we are a little fishing boat out at sea, their winged silhouettes and screaming beaks filling the sky above my grandfather’s tractor.

We are ploughing a 12-acre field on his little upland farm, nestled between two rounded fells on the edge of the Lake District.

High on a limestone plateau, the land divided into long rectangular fields by silver dry stone walls, it feels as though we are on the top of the earth, with only the clouds above us.

My backside aching from sitting on spanners and a socket set, I am crammed in behind Grandad, who uses two landmarks to guide him. 

One is an old Scots pine, the other a gap in a wall on a faraway hill. He tells me about a young ploughman he knew who used a distant white speck as a mark, but ended up with crooked work because it turned out to be a white cow walking to and fro.

My grandfather (above) knew our fields as if they were extensions of his body. He felt the plough tremor as it scratched across the bedrock, felt it in his hands, through his boots. I walked and rode with him through the seasons

The gulls fall upon the virgin soil and grab worms from atop the loosened surface. Then they take to the sky again, racing away, in a mad wing-flapping dash, gulping down their catch quickly before they are mobbed.

The fells tremble and flicker in the darkening blue light. The tractor headlights shine a halogen-yellow tunnel through the branches that arch over the road back through the village. Fat white stars flicker in the blue-black sky. The work is done and we head home.

Every journey must start somewhere and mine began in the back of that tractor, with the old man in front of me.

I grew up on my parent’s rented farm in the Eden Valley, Cumbria, some 17 miles to the east of Grandad’s.

Often I didn’t get on well with my father. I’d try to help him and would inevitably do something wrong and be shouted at. Skulking inside was easier. But I felt ashamed because I knew this wasn’t the boy I was supposed to be.

My family’s history has played out in the fields and villages here for at least six centuries, and Grandad had sensed that the farm was losing me. 

He decided to teach me how our farm worked through the seasons and he knew that, given a little time, he could make me fall in love with it all. And he was right, because I did.

I grew up on my parent’s rented farm in the Eden Valley, Cumbria, some 17 miles to the east of Grandad’s

He sat in his Land Rover in the farmyard, revving the engine and peeping his horn. My mum said I’d better get a move on or Grandad would go without me. 

I tumbled over my own feet, trying to put my wellington boots on and get through the door. I was to be Grandad’s ‘gate-opener’.

On that April morning, we began by checking on the pastures full of ewes and young lambs. He took care to see that they were all thriving. He knew which lambs belonged to each ewe by sight, and could tell when one was missing or following the wrong mother.

Seeing three escaped lambs galloping down the road, he sent his sheepdog, Ben, to get them back while we let the flock into a new field. Sheep should not hear church bells twice in the same pasture, he said — it meant they had been in one field too long.

The farm was primarily about the hard work of breeding and selling cattle, pigs and sheep, and the crops we grew were the barley, hay and turnips needed to provide food and bedding for our animals.

Unlike the fast-modernising lowland farms down in the valley, we still rotated the crops and livestock from field to field. This centuries-old sequence put different nutrients back into the soil and ensured its future fertility.

I was learning the old ways, and just in time because they were starting to die out all around us, even in our own family. 

I had uncles and cousins with good lowland farms 15 miles away, and it was clear from their new tractors, machinery and big buildings, and their barely concealed contempt for our old-fashioned farming, that things had changed for them.

But I began to realise that, despite some moments of despair, my father and grandfather thought this continuous work was the inevitable price to be paid for a good life on the land. The secret was to settle in your harness and not fight it. Just get on with it.

For him, the plough was king and had been since he was a young man, ploughing with a horse and trudging up and down the furrows in his hobnail boots.

He used tractors, and the machinery that came with them, but he didn’t like what they did to us, because the moment we stepped up onto them, we raised ourselves from the earth, no longer touching it, smelling it, feeling it.

My grandfather knew our fields as if they were extensions of his body. He felt the plough tremor as it scratched across the bedrock, felt it in his hands, through his boots. I walked and rode with him through the seasons. 

In the midst of Thatcher’s Britain, I was a boy on a tractor listening to my grandfather’s tales from the Thirties.

There was a kind of magic in those stories, because the sun was beginning to set on his world. He was in his final field days.

 

A week after we ploughed the barley field we went back to remove any rocks and stones. 

My grandfather didn’t spell it out, but I see now that the field was to be my classroom, where I was to learn all the stages of growing a crop.

The soil had dried and crumbled in the wind and sun. I was told to steer the tractor in the lowest gear and, as I crawled along the furrows, Grandad and John, a bandy-legged farm worker, threw fist-sized rocks into the metal crate suspended on the back.

I was a lonely kid, awkward and easily embarrassed. Other people made me feel nervous, and as a result I’d do or say stupid or clumsy things. But my grandfather made me feel important.

I would do anything to make him proud of me, so I paid attention to my field education, even if I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a farmer.

The next day we broke up the furrows into a seedbed, using harrows, big upside-down iron rakes pulled by the tractor. Then my father appeared at the top of the field with the seed drill, an ancient-looking contraption that sowed the grain at intervals.

He drove past and mimed: ‘You OK?’ I nodded back.

Three generations of us. The field a blur of tractors and dust. And with each pass, the work got done.

A week later, the soil glowed warm in the first days of sunshine. Then we were rolling the field, tucking the seed beneath the pressed-down surface, away from the rooks that sought to steal it.

But I began to realise that, despite some moments of despair, my father and grandfather thought this continuous work was the inevitable price to be paid for a good life on the land. The secret was to settle in your harness and not fight it. Just get on with it

Suddenly, Grandad stopped the tractor, climbed off slowly, cursing his stiff old legs, and picked something up before putting it in his cap and placing it on my knee.

I looked down at the eggs and held one in my hand. It was warm, and the mottled colour of those imitation pebble sweets you can buy at the seaside.

They are curlew eggs, he told me. They nest in these fields.

We bounced on. When we had come full circle, he took the cap full of eggs, climbed out and placed them back on the ground, recreating something like a nest with the back of his knuckles. 

I asked him if the parent birds would come back to them, and he said: ‘Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t . . . but this is the best we can do.’

When we came around the field ten minutes later, the mother curlew was nestled in the dusty seedbed like nothing had happened, and my grandfather grinned.

Planting a crop was an act of faith. Every year, there was a very real fear that it might all end in failure, so there was a notable sense of relief when a fortnight later the barley was poking up through the earth, the little spears of green racing for the sky, even if some were nibbled by rabbits.

They were Grandad’s enemies, as were the crows. One day we found a ewe lying on her side in a field. There was no hope. An udder infection had spread into her body and the crows had stabbed out her eyes when she couldn’t get up.

Her month-old lamb watched from about 20ft away and then ran off down the field.

The ewe was in pain and blind. Grandad said that if we left her and went home for a gun, the crows would torment her, and she would suffer horribly. He pulled out his knife and sharpened it on a stone.

Then he held the ewe’s head and cut her throat with two quick slits. I thought I heard him say sorry, but so quietly I couldn’t be sure.

I was learning the old ways, and just in time because they were starting to die out all around us, even in our own family

She shook a little, legs thrashing, then breathed her last. Grandad said we’d come back for her corpse in the morning. Until then the crows would have their way, but they couldn’t hurt her any longer.

By June the barley was up to my knees, and on windy days silver-green waves raced across the field. It needed us less for a while, and I was swallowed up by school, but come the summer holidays Grandad continued my education. It was time I knew grasses by name, he said.

So he splayed out a variety in his hand and pointed at each one. Timothy. Common Bent. Cock’s Foot. Yorkshire Fog. Sweet Vernal. Meadow Foxtail.

He said each species told a farmer something. The good grasses and plants showed that the soil was full of fertility and ‘management’.

The ‘weeds’ told him it had been losing condition, that they had been robbing it of nutrients, taking more than they had put back.

I was daydreaming about the clouds above, not paying attention, and forgot all the grass names for many years.

But when August came, and the barley ripened to gold, I felt, for the first time, a kind of pride about a crop, because I had helped to grow it.

Like most small farms, we couldn’t afford a combine of our own, so a local machinery contractor sent a man to do the harvest, and later that day I rode home with my father down the lane with the last load of barley in the trailer behind us. 

To my boyish eyes the work of our barley field was done, the cycle complete.

But my grandfather thought no such thing.

Growing and harvesting were merely a prelude to the winter, when the cattle were brought down from the fields to live in the barns, and his days would be full of feeding and bedding them with barley and straw.

First came Harvest Festival, one of the highlights of our year. We trooped to the church from school and sang ‘We plough the seed and scatter’. That night there was an auction in the village hall. Everyone crowded in the little back room. The women poured tea and handed out custard creams and pink wafer biscuits.

At the back, the vicar’s wife was organising all the items for sale.

The trestle table groaned with food the women had baked or given, ranging from golden loaves of bread in the shape of a sheaf of barley to tins from the back of cupboards that no one really wanted. My dad was the auctioneer for the night.

Afterwards, the vicar said he wanted all us children to go to his new Sunday school — but none of us was listening because we were stuffing our faces with my grandma’s gingerbread.

Her kitchen in the farmhouse became a jam factory every autumn and she was an expert at turning the things the farm grew, harvested and reared into meals.

Grandma viewed shop-bought food as a waste of money. I can remember going to only one restaurant with my grandparents. My father had a row with the snooty waiter because he called the turnip he served a ‘swede’ and Grandad said he was daft, because it was definitely a turnip

There wasn’t a choice and she cooked to a schedule. The main meal of the week was the Sunday dinner — a well-cooked lump of beef usually, but often a leg of lamb or shoulder of pork. Any sign of pinkness in the meat was considered dangerously continental.

Grandma viewed shop-bought food as a waste of money.

I can remember going to only one restaurant with my grandparents. My father had a row with the snooty waiter because he called the turnip he served a ‘swede’ and Grandad said he was daft, because it was definitely a turnip.

I escaped to Grandad’s farm again in the Christmas holidays. The old man was getting weaker and needed my help to feed his cows now that they were ‘laid in’.

The previous year I had been sulky when asked to go out to work. But I was a different boy now. I was up at 6am and his smile was one of pure pride on seeing me ready to go when he was.

Every Sunday we visited his friend, George, who lived half a mile away. Grandad sat on one of the old armchairs, and George in the other. I perched on a little wooden chair behind them. 

Over a cup of tea, they talked of people they knew and almost everyone could be traced back to a farm — ‘He’s a Weir from Borrowdale’ they’d say, resolving everything worth knowing about that person.

After a while Grandad lifted himself from his chair and we headed out the door — pausing to look down the valley to our fields.

At the start of that year of learning, I had thought working on the farm was something to escape from. 

But I began to realise that, despite some moments of despair, my father and grandfather thought this continuous work was the inevitable price to be paid for a good life on the land. The secret was to settle in your harness and not fight it. Just get on with it.

I was a lonely kid, awkward and easily embarrassed. Other people made me feel nervous, and as a result I’d do or say stupid or clumsy things. But my grandfather made me feel important

Grandad seemed to have found a way to endure it through enjoying the wild things around him, and in taking pride at doing things right. 

He seemed to be saying to me: learn to enjoy the skill of the scythe, learn to tell stories or make people laugh so even the toughest working days won’t break you.

He thought, harshly, that modern people were like children, free to play, but bereft of meaning in their lives and disconnected from the things that mattered.

He had become stubborn in his old age and suspicious of change, and increasingly sentimental about his ragged old-fashioned fell farm.

My father didn’t have that luxury; faced with growing debt, he seemed trapped somewhere between the old farming values and the new economic realities. I felt the tension, but didn’t yet fully understand it. That would come later.

By the end of that year, I had fallen in love with that old farming world. Grandad had achieved what he had set out to do: I was no longer a boy hiding from the farm; I was a true believer.

  • English Pastoral by James Rebanks is published by Allen Lane, £20. © James Rebanks 2020. To order a copy for £16, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0203 308 9193 Free p&p on orders over £15. Valid until Saturday.

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