The Shepherd’s Life: A tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks
Wordsworth may have given us the romantic and poetic view of England’s Lake District; Wainwright wrote the walkers’ guides to that area; but Rebanks grounds us with stories of the farming families who have made it their home for hundreds of years. There’s a whole vocabulary to be learnt as we read about the seasons and how they affect the men and women who farm those valleys and fells. It is no romantic Wordsworth view of this corner of northern England. There is snow and rain, mud and blood as Rebanks tells how he, his father and grandfather have cared for their flocks of hardy sheep.
He proudly calls himself a ‘shepherd’ and finds the traditional crook indispensible. He left school as early as po
ssible so he could join in the life on the farm that he loved. But Rebanks is no ordinary shepherd. Post school, he developed a voracious love of books, returned to adult education to qualify for university, and went to Oxford in his 20s. Sheep and the farming way of life have always been at the centre of his existence but to provide for his wife and three children, he also works as an advisor to UNESCO to help ensure that tourism benefits host communities around the world.
He started sharing brief snippets of his farming life, along with photos, on a Twitter account which now ha
s 65000 followers. His book, a UK bestseller, shares the activities on the farm, from lambing to preparing animals for shows and sales; the annual migration of flocks to the common ground on the high fells; the rigours of keeping sheep fed in rainy and snowy winters; and his overwhelming love and respect for the people in his family who have farmed the area for 600 years.
The appeal of his memoir is universal and Rebanks has used poetry and prose from many sources to introduce each season, including part of a poem on race memories by Australian Aboriginal poet, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, for the section on Spring. Rebanks writes lyrically and lovingly about the land he works; the sheep he raises; and the family and community life often not noticed by millions of visitors to the Lake District.
It is his life. He wants no other.
5 stars – Allen Lane $39.99
Reviewed by Jennifer Somerville