It is a freezing cold January morning as I make my way along the narrow roads of Wasdale. This is a truly remote part of the Lake District. Only a few miles from the Irish Sea, the Valley is dominated by some of the highest fells of Lakeland. Great Gable stands magnificently at the head of the valley flanked by the Scafells to the south and the Ennerdale fells to the North. Wasdale Screes fall sharply in to Wastwater. At 258 feet deep, it is the deepest lake in Cumbria. The lake bed is actually below sea level. The geography is stunning on any day of the week. A mass of tumbling rocks and boulders, with great swathes of scree, carved out and exposed by dying glaciers at the end of the ice age. At this time of year, with the winter wind and rain howling in from the Irish Sea, it is no place for the timid.
One can but imagine the Norsemen of the 10th century clearing the valley bottom to settle and colonise. For them perhaps it was almost a taste of home. Much later William Wordsworth was to describe the valley as “long, stern and desolate”. Perhaps he was visiting on day rather like today!
The working farms up here a hard places and it takes a special type of farmer to work them, in a land where local knowledge and custom is time honoured, trusted and proven.
Beneath the highest mountains at the head of the valley sits England’s smallest church. Dedicated in modern times to St Olaf, the main church beams are reputed to be taken from a Viking longboat over 1,000 years ago. My journey will not take me that far today.
It has been snowing hard and freezing at night. There is a bitter nip in the air and the swirling eddies of bitingly cold wind, chill to the bone. My car heater is on full, as I press on up the lake side road, my tyres smashing through the icy puddles.
I am on my way to see Jos Naylor at Bowderdale Farm. Jos is a legendary character. A world champion fell runner, he was often called “The King of the Fells”. His achievements on the hills are incredible. In 1975 one of his greatest feats was to conquer 72 Lakeland peaks, running over 100 miles ascending 38,000 feet and in a time of 23h 20m.
The Cumbrian hills are both his work place and his hobby. Passionate about this landscape, he is both proud of the sheep he breeds and the landscape they live upon. Naylor’s have worked this valley for a few generations and Jos’s son Paul is following on behind and doing a great job. These are hard, cold and wet farms on the western fringes of Lakeland. It takes special people with unique skills to thrive in this environment. The sheep bred on the hills are also hardy. If they can survive harsh winters grazing on these fells then they can certainly do well later in life when they are often sold as draft ewes to more lowland climes. In my time as a Lakeland auctioneer in the autumn months, I sell many thousands of sheep from most of the farms in the valley. These are my dog days and the sales that I will later look back on with most pride.
I arrive in to the yard, and Joss is working amongst some young Herdwick sheep he has penned up. There are snowflakes scurrying and diving around the in the air. The cold makes me catch my breath. From the boot of my car I quickly don extra layers and some fingerless gloves. Jos acknowledges me and keeps working. I’ve come to see the sheep, and I start to work with him. After a while the job is done. He is satisfied with the outcome.
Only then do I notice that on his upper body Jos is wearing nothing but a cotton checked shirt, sleeves rolled up above the elbow and unbuttoned down to the navel. He is it seems oblivious to the cold. I expect that as the snow begins to fall faster we will retire to the kitchen for a drink. Not a bit of it. Jos leans back against the sheep rails and folds is arms across his chest. He begins to question me about Cockermouth Auction. This is the late 1990’s and we are still no nearer to getting our much- hoped for market. The old town centre site is working at maximum capacity and we are selling thousands of lightweight lambs from most of the farms in Wasdale and nearly every other valley.
“You would wonder where all these little lambs go” he says. I tell him that the vast majority of the lambs are slaughtered in Britain and sent in carcass form to countries all over Europe. Thousands of little fell lambs produced by Cumbrian farmers weighing around 30kg as they are sold, end up on tables from France to Turkey. This growing market is a godsend to all hill farmers who breed such lambs in the hills that have a limited market in our country.
I crack a joke. “You know Jos, these little lambs are Cumbria’s second best export after nuclear reprocessing. Jos laughs because he has a working relationship with BNFL and the Sellafield plant is just a few miles distant from Wasdale.
By now my fingers and toes are going numb. Jos doesn’t seem to notice. He is impervious to the cold. He asks me if I am still playing rugby. I tell him that I am however at 33 years old, I’m getting towards the end of my career, and my knees are hurting more and more.
Jos looks me in the eye. “Listen lad. If you enjoy it and still want to do it. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t as good as you used to be. Just keep doing it, because there will come a day when you just can’t”………
Those words stick with me and I often think of them years down the line when I am in my forties and still lacing up my boots. I still love it and still want to do it. I do so in the knowledge that soon the day will come when “I just can’t”.
“Still running then Jos” I say though chattering teeth. “Oh aye” he replies. “I like to get up on the tops, clears me head, and gives me time to think”.
“Not on a day like today though” I joke. “Oh yes” he says in all seriousness, “wouldn’t be a problem. You see I know these fells, every bit of them, and I know me, what I can do and what I can’t. Too many people go on to the tops and they don’t know them, and they don’t know when to get off. Then when they realise they need to get down, it is too late”!
He goes on to tell me that not too many years ago, a crack squad of Special Forces people approached him to go out for a training session on the fells. Jos says that one by one he left them for dead as they gave up and dropped out, until the last one finally could go no further. Jos had to help him back down to safety, so exhausted was the soldier. “I kept him going with boiled sweets” he said. “He thought he could break me but it “nivver” happened”.
Jos tells me that all his power is in his legs. He is remarkably tall for a fell runner, but he is stick thin in the upper body. His legs are made of steel and judging by his dress code on a freezing January day, he is impervious to pain.
He does admit though he does like to warm his bones and has rather taken to spending time in the Canary Islands where he has bought a home. The thought of being in such a place at this very moment is very appealing, at least to me.
Our meeting has come to an end and Jos is eager to get on with more sheep work. He is going out in to the fields to “look the sheep”. I bid him goodbye and by the time I remove my winter clothing in order to get back in to the car, I lose Jos in the gathering wisps of winter snow as he half walks and half runs up the in- bye land above the farm. In a minute he is gone from view. It is a good job that I am not required to go with him. I couldn’t keep up!
By the time I leave the valley, my fingers and toes are coming back to life. His words of advice stick with me for years as I carry on dragging my ageing body around the rugby pitch, loving every minute of it until at the age of forty four I am forced to retire, because finally, “I just can’t”.
Jos also heeded his own mantra. For some years later at the age 70, he successfully ran over 70 Lakeland fell tops, covering more than 50 miles and ascending more than 25,000 feet. All of this in under 21 hours. I don’t think the words “Just can’t” are in Jos Naylor’s vocabulary.