Lazonby is a small village built upon the steep western slope above the River Eden, only a few miles east of Penrith. Most of the older houses are constructed of red sandstone hewn from local quarries generations before. The Carlisle – Settle railway runs through the village and just below the station sits Lazonby Auction Mart. The mart has stood there for over 100 years and in that time has seen little change.
Over much of its life time Lazonby Mart has for 9 months of the year been nothing more than a small weekly market, beloved by local farmers along the River Eden and on the East Fellside of the Pennines. For a brief time in the 1990’s the weekly mart flourished in the Spring months with up to 3,000 prime hoggs per week rattling through the ring. The spring months were very cold and very dark. On a freezing Wednesday morning, the prime sheep buyers would alternate between touching the backs of the sheep to assess their condition and quality, to warming their hands against the giant glowing pad of gas heater. As the auctioneer at those sales I was standing in a tiny auctioneer’s rostrum, with room for one person only. There was no heater for me and as the sale progressed my finger ends despite the fingerless gloves became ever colder as did my toes. Even despite this, everyone loved Lazonby with pen after pen of quality hoggs flying off the old manual weighbridge and in to the ring. My colleague David “Syd” Westgarth, would be working out the weights of the sheep on a calculator and writing the information on a frozen blackboard for the buyers to see.
In the ring there the sheep buyers were drawn from all of the Northern counties including Arthur Pooley from Chorley and Bob Sumner from St Michaels on Wyre. Local buyers were Jared Faulder and Keith Ewbank and there were other visitors occasionally. The banter was good natured and trade always competitive. This weekly market worked well. After the sale we would retire to the Joiners Arms for lunch, there being little appetite to rush back to company headquarters at Penrith.
The little weekly prime market was not what Lazonby was famous for. Ask any farmer in Cumbria and probably most farmers around the country what Lazonby Mart sells and the answer would be immediate, Mule Ewe Lambs. Known as Gimmer Lambs in this part of the world. The Mule is the by- product of the Blue Faced Leicester Ram and the Swaledale Ewe. This breeding produces a strong, hardy and prolific ewe lamb much loved by lowland shepherds the country over.
There are many markets across the north of England selling the Mule gimmer lamb. Lazonby was known as “The Foremost”. Why? Well for a start it was the biggest market of its type attracting buyers the length and breadth of the Country. Secondly the quality of the sheep was in those days, second to none. The Swaledale flocks of the high Pennines produced lambs that thrived wonderfully on richer lowland pastures. The Mule sheep and Lazonby market grew several fold under the tenure of auctioneer Norman Little. For years he promoted the sheep, canvassed the producers and earned the respect of farmers as far north as the Roman Wall, across Alston Fell and throughout the Lake District.
At its peak Lazonby could comfortably handle and sell over 30,000 gimmer lambs in a single day and still be ready for business the next day to sell up to 10,000 more castrated Mule Tup Lambs or Wether’s as they are known locally. The sales campaign would start in the summer when the Lazonby team would travel the high roads and by- roads visiting mule producers on the farm, canvassing their support and hoping for their custom during the autumn sales.
The huge list of Lazonby lamb buyers would be transferred to envelopes and catalogues and sales circulars sent out in good time, telling the buyers to make a note in their diaries of the all- important sale dates. Many buyers were regulars, arriving year after year, often purchasing the same sheep from the same producers if they had thrived and done well the previous year. The sensible farmers offered some good luck penny and this was often remembered by the buyers at future sales. Farmers who scurried away after receiving their cheque from the office, without paying their respects and some good luck to the buyers would often be marked down on the catalogue and ignored the next time.
Well-seasoned auctioneers knew which buyers bought which sheep and would deliberately look or “not look” at those buyers depending on how the trade was going. “Old customer” was a phrase auctioneers loved to trot out at the fall of the hammer, meaning these lambs can be bought with confidence.
On the farms the selling process began weeks before market day, with some producers feeding a little concentrate or cake to the lambs to bring them forward after weaning. “Learned to trough” is a phrase that some buyers wanted to hear so that they did not have to spend time teaching lambs the process of eating feed from a trough at their new homes. Also these lambs will follow a farmer shaking a plastic bag to the ends of the earth if they think there is cake to be had.
Closer to auction day the lambs were wormed, injected, scratched for oarf, which is an immunisation process against the oarf disease. Then a series of dipping’s in the sheep dip trough with a final soaking in pearl dip would produce a lovely dark hue to the lamb wool. Add to that a good face- washing and fleece trimming that any professional crimper would be proud of, then the lambs would right and ready for sale. So much work and so much time spent by the shepherds for one minute in the sale ring for the auctioneer to work his magic and draw the best price possible out of the crowd. A whole seasons work from tupping time the previous autumn for less than 60 seconds in the sale ring to achieve a year’s wages from those sheep. No wonder some farmers get nervous and stressed on these days. Maybe the auctioneers do too, although the farmers would never know it!
It is mid- October. Finally sale day has arrived. A myriad of trailers and huge wagon transporters are unloading constantly at the unloading docks. Local people know and accept that the tiny back roads to Lazonby will be a constant procession of trailers and wagons, for most of the day. These days are the “harvest of the fells”, the most wonderful time of the year to most local farmers.
The sheep are taken from the docks to pens with all haste. There is a constant noise of whistles and shouts as the lambs are ushered down the alleys. Some farmers are lucky and had been balloted or drawn in the concreted top pens close to the sale ring. Others are further down the field in grass pens. The unluckiest haven’t made the first penning and can only arrive later in the day for a second penning of lambs. On the very busiest days, there is even a third penning with these lambs unable to arrive before 6pm with daylight fading fast.
Farmers aided by drovers pen- up their lambs. Often the farmers are carrying huge sacks of sawdust. Too much washing and preening has gone on to allow the lambs to get dirty. They now stand on a thick crust of dry wood shavings. Nervously the farmers scan the sky for sign of rain. Rain turns the golden fleeces in to a bedraggled tangled mess, not what anyone wants to see. Farmers with pens for the prize show diligently work away with soapy cloths to give the mottled faces of the mule gimmer lamb a final wash.
Closer to sale time, buyers begin to arrive. There are warm welcomes from the auctioneers and the farmers. Many buyers have become friends over the years. They are in time to see the judging completed. A championship has been awarded and the winning farmer is photographed with the sheep, the judges and the trophy. The trick is to look reservedly happy without beaming. These farmers are modest and the real joy of success will be shared later either at home or in the pub, depending on prices of course.
9.30am and the sale is about to commence. Norman Little is the man in charge. He is the manager of the market and has spent years building up the trade, the breed and the market. He is in his element. A tannoy message calls the buyers to the ring and quickly the narrow wooden benches around the sale ring fill up as people take a pew and settle down for the sale. Beside Norman sits Gordon Teasdale a man who left school to work at the auction and has come through the ranks. After Norman’s day, “Tizzer” will start the sales. His photographic memory ensures that he never forgets a buyers face and can recall names at will. Norman and Gordon are experienced auctioneers at the top of the game. I am lucky to be an apprentice in this arena.
The first lambs enter the ring followed immediately by the farmer and his family all armed with sticks or crooks. Norman is immediately in to his stride. His style is beautifully lilting. He knows the sheep, their value and the buyers. He knows who will buy what and within a few minutes how far they are prepared to “travel”. Norman rarely has to take more than five or six bids to get to the price. He has the complete confidence of the both buyer and seller.
In less than thirty seconds, the hammer is down. “Let them run” shouts Norman. The ring drover and young auctioneers who police the huge oak doors in to the ring are trained to get the sheep out of the ring just as the last bid is being taken. At the same time the next lot of sheep is entering the ring. The trick is to let the new sheep just catch sight of the old sheep leaving the ring. If they do see them they charge in to the ring with ease. Get this process right and the sale runs swiftly and smoothly. Get it wrong and there is a mix up and a telling off from the auctioneer.
Behind the wooden doors and all the way back to the pens there is a team of drovers each working their station to get the lambs up to the ring. They rarely change their position except for a swift break and a bite to eat. They will spend many hours just doing the same job, pen after pen. Behind the doors the final drover is often a brilliant counter of sheep. I’ve known some men be able to count the sheep in fives as they work through a large pen of sheep. This is hand/ eye coordination at its very best. Most of work in two’s as we count. The sheep are counted in and counted out at Lazonby. Pride is taken in the job right across the chain.
From the ring the sheep are taken to the buyer’s pens by another team of drovers working as fast as they can. Some large buyers have four deck sheep transporters waiting at the docks to be loaded. At the largest sales it has been known for a wagon to be loaded with over 400 lambs and be driven down to Salisbury Plain, arriving before the auction staff have left the market at the end of the sale day. Other sheep are driven on past the field pens and in to the huge paddocks at the far end of the market. The paddocks can hold hundreds of sheep. This process is vital ensure the smooth running of the sale without any great delays. The whole droving team is working flat out to achieve this, all day and in to the night.
As every lot of sheep is back- penned, a message detailing the buyers pen and the pen number is relayed by walkie- talkie back to a trainee auctioneer in the office who compiles a list in order to make it easy for buyers to find their sheep after they have finished buying, The young auctioneer is desperate to get out of the office and back in to the buzz of the market.
All day long the auctioneers maintain their rhythm, stopping only to clear those buyers who have chosen to stand in the way of the sheep exit gate. Eventually the young auctioneer gets his turn to sell and for a couple of hours he is in a whirlwind of endless lots of sheep, trying to value them before he starts to sell them ,remember buyers names as they bid and generally not make a cock- up on his shout. Very often a senior auctioneer sits close by with a steadying word or an odd new buyer’s name.
It is late afternoon and darkness has fallen. The ring lights are on, and way down on the field pens the temporary light twinkle brightly as they dance in the evening breeze. A chill is settling in the auction ring, but the seats are still full and the lambs keep coming. The same phrases keep coming over the tannoy, “high- gone lambs”, look at the colour”, “here’s some power”. Meanwhile the drovers are working away at the same pace, never breaking stride. At the bottom of the yard the café is doing trade. Up the stairs on the loft, farmer and buyers are sharing the long tables, eating pie and peas or a selection of cold meats. The young auctioneer hopes there will be something left for him at the end of the day. He has no wife to go home to and no supper waiting. That will come rather later in life.
It’s almost 10pm. The sale has been running for 12 ½ hours non- stop. In the Joiners Arms some of the farmers who were sold in the first half an hour, have been in the pub since them. Two of them are now downing their 30th pint.
In the sale ring, all of a sudden the shout comes from behind the oak doors “last chance tonight”. In a flash the last pen of sheep for sale has entered the ring and been sold. The auctioneer, the fourth of the day, thanks everyone for their attendance and bidding. In seconds the ring seats have emptied and an eerily cold and still calm pervades the air along with the rank smell of sheep dip and soiled sawdust. A drover quickly begins to sweep the steps. He once found a tenner under the seats after a sale and has been looking out for another after every sale since.
There is a large queue of buyers in the auction office. The clerks are exhausted, white faced with the mental strain of a 12 hour shift, counting money, writing bills and taking cheques. As soon as the last buyer is accounted for they will be away.
The two youngest auctioneers scroll through the lot sheets writing the sale report and selecting the highest prices and best flock averages. Immediately after they head for the café for foo,d a warm up and plenty of banter with the lasses.
Norman Little sends a message that the auctioneers are needed to check buyer’s pens and count sheep. In the distance throughout the sheep pens there are flash lights moving backwards and forwards as buyers look for their lots. Some are even dosing their lambs before they leave. Gradually the hive of activity quietens down. Some of the full- time drovers will work through most of the night, counting, moving, loading, counting, moving loading.
Now the office is closed down and the ring- lights are turned off. Even with the big doors closed, a cold draft whistles through the gap. The ring has become cold and lonely, where just an hour or two before it was buzzing with people and lambs and the rapid fire lilt of the auctioneers. Now the sale is done and lambs will be on their way to new homes to live the rest of their lives.
The young auctioneer is dead tired but makes it to the pub for last orders. It is still heaving with a swell of farmers, still in auction gear. The mood is joyous. Trade and prices have been good all day. It is a fantastic atmosphere. Lazonby the “Foremost” mule market has done its job once again. Everyone heads for home tired, rosy cheeked and happy. Meanwhile the handful of dedicated droving staff are still there trudging through the mud of the field pens, finding lambs for anxious hauliers who want to get on the road and drive through the night.
In the morning, it will all start again, with 8,000 wether lambs to sell, because this is the back- end, the harvest of the fells and no one working at Lazonby Auction blinks an eye. This our job and our life. It’s what we know and what we love. It is also why some of us will it miss very much as we progress our careers and move on. There is always a feeling that it would be good to go back and with the knowledge gained in later years, do it all again.
Now the times have changed. There is less sheep on the hills and less buyers to purchase them. Lazonby still goes strong and always will but we never again see the days when 30,000 lambs go through the ring. Boy did we enjoy it!