Steve was repairing a dry stone wall. It was almost eight feet high. I suggested it was unnecessarily high. He agreed that a sheep did not need a wall so high, and did not offer a theory on why it was so high. But he implied that whoever built it must have had their reasons. He was a sheep-farmers’ son; his passion was walling.
As we talked, Steve worked through a large pile of stones, fallen from the wall. He would stop, stoop, hold a slab, bounce it in his hands, as though to test its weight and edges, and then advance on the wall. It was not quite a jigsaw puzzle. He did not reassemble them exactly as they had been; nor spend three minutes looking for the perfect place. A stone could go in a number of places, what mattered was the overall design and direction. He moved steadily, placing it seemed, about three stones a minute on the top of the wall. But equally, he was not taking everything. I offered what I thought was a plausible stone – a neat thin rectangle.
“That’s a bit too tall…Might go in. Will have to go in like that.” He placed it narrow side out, so that it stood on its edge, and stretched half way through the wall. “I don’t like doing that. It’s called a soldier that one, when they’re stood up straight.”
“And you don’t like them?
“Not really no.”
“What’s wrong with them?
“It doesn’t quite look right to me but anyway…” He laughed.
“How much can you build in a day?”
‘A good drystone waller can build four meters in a day. A bad waller can build six.”
In Swindale, the drystone walls were now little more than abstract sculptures. For there were no sheep to be seen. As early as 1580, there were eighty people in the valley, a church, and a school. It was a remote parish – there was once a famous disagreement when the church bells rang about whether it was Sunday, finally resolved by the vicar’s naked assertion of authority.
The valley was now owned by United Utilities, the water company, which was in turn, it seemed, owned by a hedge-fund in New York. The tenant was now the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I was shown the adjoining land by officers from UU and the RSPB. Both men were in neat hiking gear: fit, smiling – I might have taken them for canoe instructors. They wanted to show me how they had managed the land, in a way that ‘increased biodiversity, decreased flooding, increased carbon capture.’
“We don’t believe,’ one said, ‘that there is any contradiction between good environmental practice and farming. We believe in including farmers, and retaining sheep.”
They led me into a side-valley: rushes grew deep and tall along the bottom, on the slopes were great fields of bracken, and beyond them scrub trees, and higher, heather. Pollen samples suggested that bronze age people had cleared this land, and kept livestock on it. The new approach seemed to be restoring a landscape which had not existed almost since the first human settlement. I could not see any sheep. They told me, however, that they had kept about one sheep for every four or five hectares. They showed me a section of eight hundred hectares, which was being planted as forestry. ‘How many sheep have you kept in that area?” I asked.
‘Are there areas in your plans, or the plans of the Lake District National Park, which have been designated to be preserved for dense sheep grazing?”
“Not as such. But we have nothing in principle against sheep-farming.”
They employed a contractor, on a one year annual contract, to look after their sheep and land. I suggested that densely-cropped green lawns – alongside the wilder fells – had been for almost two thousand years one of the beauties of the Lake District. A man on a one-year contract was not the same as a small family sheep farm, with generations of occupation and security of tenure. Small family farms were links to the past: the last traces of our indigenous population. I argued that if the Lake District became a wilderness reserve occupied by professionals from elsewhere, we would have lost something very precious. And, rather than bringing professionals in from other parts of Britain, we should be running training courses for local farmers to do the same job.
We talked at cross-purposes. They replied by talking again about bio-diversity, water management, sustainability, and carbon capture. Farming for them seemed to be about employment, incomes, subsidies, and environmental impact assessments. I sensed that behind this dry language they had strong views on what they thought was right, and beautiful. I guessed that they loved the idea of a much wilder landscape, more packed with wet bogs, and bird populations; that they felt that farming and dense sheep-stocking were often destructive. They were careful not to say these things. But they did not seem comfortable engaging in a discussion about the history of the valley, about the traditions of small farms, or about the beauty of farmed land.
Swindale has always felt like a hidden miracle – a tight-necked valley, opening into bright green fields by the river, a great tongue of land in the centre, neat and fierce as a fairy-castle, and the cold waterfalls coming down from pool to pool. In the bright sun, it might appear a corner of Jurassic Park. But, on the facing slope you can see the long-lines of dry-stone wall running almost vertically up the fellside – enclosing the mountain-face in irregular geometrical slices. Each stretch is perhaps the work of a different generation: brothers dividing their patrimony, and extending their grandfather’s work. In New Hampshire I have seen such walls only as broken hints, buried under a wilderness of scrub and forestry. What future are we planning for our landscape?