the beginning of recess
I am writing this on the 0719. Coach A is empty. We haven’t yet reached Shap. The ash leaves are dark and there is rain over Knipe Crag, but the near grass is an electric green and the hidden sun brings out every wrinkle and glow in the limestone walls. I had thought that in describing last week, I would focus on the Penrith show, the 1963 Nuffield 342 tractor in the vintage section, and the points of the Bland’s champion, VJ; but the end of my first session in Parliament was defined by using the wrong words to a Scottish tabloid journalist. I remain very sorry for any offence these caused. I am determined to continue working as hard as I can to push the issues of rural poverty, broadband and local democracy. These last three months – my first in Parliament – have been unlike anything I have ever done and by far the best part of it has been the work in Cumbria. It is also where I hope I can be most useful.
Since Parliament is now in recess, I was able to be in Cumbria in the middle of this week: Wednesday, between Carlisle and Bewcastle; Tuesday, between a surgery in Penrith and Appleby with groups from Crosby Ravensworth and Kirkby Stephen. I am beginning to realise how much my worldview is set by the Boundaries Commission. Bewcastle and Kirkby Stephen feel very close because they are both inside the constituency, but I feel as though I am crossing an international frontier when I go to Carlisle, or when this train comes down into Oxenholme. New rules mean that Penrith and the Border could lose 10,000 of its current voters and gain 20,000 elsewhere before the next election (we could lose parts of rural Carlisle, for example, and gain ports in West Cumbria, or even take in part of Northumberland). This would separate me from areas that I have been very privileged to get to know, and would endanger our ability to speak with one voice for a rural area with its own distinct identity.
If I am slowly beginning to understand something about places like Bewcastle it is entirely because of the patience of people like Steve Pattinson. Every time I see Steve – at Longtown mart, or looking at his British Blues on his farm, or wobbling on my bicycle alongside him this Spring in a Young Farmers’ charity day – I feel that he is teaching me something new. We sat this Wednesday, with five farmers in their thirties, round an Ordnance Survey map on the kitchen table to discuss the five miles on each side of Roadhead. There were common Cumbrian themes: no police nearby and no bus services, schools far away, mobile coverage and broadband is poor and an ambulance which can take a long time from Carlisle (in Winter only one road is gritted and outsiders struggle to find farms , which is why the Air Ambulance is vital). As in every part of Cumbria, farmers were working long hours for low wages; regulations – from electronic tagging onwards – were ludicrous; DEFRA seemed to focus more on catching farmers out than supporting them; and the subsidies created perverse incentives to get rid of stock and let fields grow wild.
But Bewcastle also has its own unique challenges. Farms are as small as a hundred acres. Whereas almost everyone once produced milk, only three farms still do and the herds (80 head) are small. It was not initially given the same special subsidy status as the Lakes. Rainfall is nearly 60 inches a year, the soil is not good for crops and everyone has to pay to winter their livestock on low ground like Cockermouth. There has been a lot of talk about diversification, but the transport costs are too high and there is no tourism. One farmer joked, ‘people forget that there is anything between the Roman Wall and the Scottish border: we seem to remain the debatable lands.’ Archaeology shows that there were settled farms in Bewcastle before the Romans. But we are now facing an extraordinary combination of problems, which makes it increasingly unlikely that the next generation will go into farming at all – endangering the culture and landscape, which has been the heart of the border for more than 2,000 years.
On Sunday afternoon I walked up from Bampton and down to Rampsgill in Martindale. Mrs. Cookson invited me in for toast and tea: her husband was gathering the sheep with Mr. Robinson on the fell. Evensong was at 5.30 in St.Martin’s. There was no electricity in the chapel and I was called in to read the lesson in the half-light. It was Isaiah 50:6. Then I climbed straight back up behind the yew, which was older than the eight hundred year old chapel. Looking back from High Street, before running home, I could see the lake and the whole sharp ridge line running from Helvellyn to Blencathra. It was a very different universe to Bewcastle: the deer, the geology, the silhouette of the mountain, the families, the history, even the dialect. But it felt that evening part of a single Cumbrian culture and a single constituency, and I wouldn’t want to lose touch with an acre of it.