Reading My Mother: 50 elderly sheep and a lame horse
Eventually my parents begged and borrowed from every relative they could, took out an agricultural mortgage and bought a small, marginal, fell farm at the back of Skiddaw in the Uldale fells. It had been empty for almost ten years and could only be reached across a ford and almost a mile of rough track.
|Rough Close as it is now|
It’s impossible to over-estimate the importance of Rough Close in all our lives. It meant everything to us. For the first time we had somewhere to belong. This land was ours; we owned it. For my brother and I, it became a place of magical enchantment; for my mother it was the ‘dear perpetual place’ where she could make long-term plans; it was my father’s life-long dream – a farm of his own, with no one to tell him what to do. He was thirty-two, my mother four years older.
We arrived on a cloudy northern day in two cattle wagons that lumbered and lurched their way over the ford and up the rough track. Our possessions were in one, the animals in another. The front door was open and a fire had been lit in the grate of the black range. A woman in an overall was on her knees scrubbing the stone flags. She got to her feet shyly and introduced herself as Nellie, one of our new neighbours. A kettle was hanging from the hook over the fire and soon we all had mugs of hot tea. She had brought an apple cake to eat and as soon as we were finished she melted away before my mother had time to thank her properly. It was our first experience of the kindness of the northern fells. In a couple of hours the furniture was all in the right rooms, if not in the right places and the beds had been screwed together so that we could sleep in them as night fell.
|Skiddaw (England's 3rd highest mountain) and Overwater, our nearest lake.|
While my mother unpacked sheets and towels and wrestled pillows into their cases, my father was out in the barns and byres settling the small stock he had brought with him from Low Ling; Prince the horse, Jennifer and her flock of daughters and grand-daughters, two cows with their calves and Flo the collie. It was a small beginning. Dad intended to use the money they had saved to buy more sheep and cattle at auction in the weeks that followed.
|One of the shires between the shafts with Jean and Dad|
Dad took me to auction with him and I listened to the incomprehensible patter of the auctioneers, which he seemed to understand, above the noise of anxious cattle, sheep calling lost lambs and men shouting to be heard over the din. On that first day, Dad bought fifty ‘cast’ ewes. These were sheep that had had several lambs and were now past their best. They were usually sold for pet food, but Dad knew the farmer who had kept these particular ewes. He looked at their teeth and their feet and reckoned that they were likely to have another two or three lambs apiece and their offspring would give him the flock he needed at a fraction of the price. Even after he’d paid the obligatory ‘luck money’ to the vendor, he thought they were a bargain. Other farmers thought he was mad.
In the pens at the back of the mart were the horses. Although some milkmen, breweries and delivery firms still used horses, most businesses were modernising. Milk carts were going electric, the railways had converted to three-wheeled Scammell flatbeds. Petrol driven lorries were taking over everywhere. Farming had also mechanised during the war and tractors were now doing the hard work that horses had done before. My father had never learned to drive. He was happier with four legs than four wheels. Horses, he said, were kinder to the land than tractors, they were also environmentally friendly, and had the great advantage of being able to reproduce themselves. It broke his heart to see so many healthy animals being sold either for export to the continent for meat, or going to the pet food factory. He was committed to cultivating the farm with horses. Over that first year, the stack yard at Rough Close gradually began to fill up with museum pieces of horse-drawn machinery. At farm sales no one wanted them any more, except my father. Everything went for a song, including the harness. Cleaning it was one of my jobs and I loved sitting in the quiet stable, breathing in the smell of horse mingled with harness oil.
|Dad ploughing with Prince and Peter|
Prince was our only shire horse, a favourite that had been with my father since he had worked as a hired lad on the farm at Raughton Head. He’d taken Prince with him to Coldslopes and then to Low Ling. Man and horse were so close Dad said that Prince could read his thoughts. The horse was so tame he would try to come into the house if the front door was left open. Once he had to be backed the whole of the length of the passageway, after he tried to follow my father into the kitchen. Now Dad had his eye out for another horse. Plowing needed a team and there were fifty acres of neglected land at Rough Close that needed to be turned over. Peter was the first of the shires to be rescued from the slaughter house – a young horse in a very neglected state. He limped because the horn of his hooves had overgrown his shoes, one of which was missing, and his coat was rough and full of snags. Properly groomed and shod, my father decided that he would make a good team with Prince. So, we came home in the cattle wagon with fifty elderly sheep and a lame horse.