TROUTBECK MART – THE END OF AN ERA

An abridged version of this piece was published in the Cumberland News last week. My recollections of Troutbeck Mart and the pressure on markets in the modern era.

 On a cold December afternoon in 1990, on a remote hillside a few miles to the West of Penrith, the final winter sale of store sheep was taking place at Troutbeck auction mart. It was around 3pm and the day was darkening fast. The little market stood next to Troutbeck Inn where farmers, buyers and auctioneers could refresh themselves before, during and after a sale. On sale days for well over 100 years, the Inn had been a hive of activity and laughter with the clink of farmer’s beer glasses and the heavy drop of domino on polished wooden tables. This was as much part of the auction day as the sale itself. The mart came alive in the early summer months when after long winters and hard springs, ewes with lambs at foot were brought for sale. Then later through the Autumn months, the breeding sheep and store sales brought ever more farmers and sheep to market.

On a clear day from the market pens you could look west to see the crag rats scaling Sharp Edge on Blencathra or Saddleback as the locals know it. Further down the valley past Keswick you could see the Grasmoor range with the long ridge path ascending Grisedale Pike. To the South immediately behind the auction was the distinctive dome of Little Melfell. Beyond that the northern fells of the Helvellyn range culminating in the smooth slope of Clough Head as it falls towards Threlkeld. Every hill farmer will claim he lives and works in “God’s Country”. The farmers of the Northern Lake District would be no different. Often sheep sold through Troutbeck were in view of their native breeding grounds.

Many thousands of sheep from local farms were walked to market over the generations. The farmers children were part of the droving team stationed along the route to turn the sheep or “send them on”. Sometimes as many as 16 flocks could converge at Troutbeck, all at the same time. Then it was a case of “catch as catch can” to see who got to the gate first.

Later the sold sheep left the market to be transported by wagon or steam train to new homes throughout the country for the market was built just above the railway line. One could imagine the old train puffing to a halt at the station to collect the sheep and deliver them to faraway places. In the modern era auctioneers would be calling out the names of local buyers as well those from much further afield, Jones. Edwards, Davies and more. Throughout the evening a hardy band of drovers and an odd young auctioneer would work by flashlight to gather sheep from the pens and drive them up to the loading docks, helping farmers and hauliers to get on their way as quickly as possible.

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     The young auctioneer opening the gate at Troutbeck alongside local buyer                                                                      Jared Faulder in 1988.

In years gone by at the end of a sale day, a curtain would be drawn around the ring and a band of fiddle players, accordionists and percussionists would strike up. One can imagine the laughter, whooping and clapping into the early hours, as the congregation of farmers and their families danced the night away, jigging and reeling on the smooth cobbled sale ring floor.

Perhaps they would be thankful that another season was over, the auction cheque could be banked, and this would tide them over the long winter. The farmers would go home to tend cattle, mend fences and gap their walls whilst the sheep were tupped and sent back to the fell. A lonely and remote existence in those days for sure.

Each family would look forward to the first sign of spring, the melting of the snow and the bleat of the lamb. The cycle of nature would begin again. More than a job, simply a way of life, a tradition encompassing skills and knowledge that is in- bred more than taught.

The Sale ring was nothing but an old tin hut of circular construction. The ring had a few rickety bench seats around the edges, but many buyers just stood in the ring where it was usually warmest, steam rising from the backs of sheep on frosty mornings. The ring floor was made of sandstone cobbles with some ineffective drainage channels. The Auctioneer sat in a tiny pulpit within the ring, just in front of the office. He folded a hinged piece of wood down in order to sit on it. From there the sale was conducted without microphones or computers for that matter. Just the auctioneer’s book in which all sales details were recorded in the event of a dispute.

The sales leger, all buyer’s bills and seller statements were hand- written in slick and time- honoured fashion. Columns of copper plate, legered figures could be added up in seconds by experienced clerks without the benefit or even need of a calculator. In all these tasks there was a pride borne of long apprenticeships and strict tutoring. I, as a young, trainee auctioneer had to learn the basics and if not opening the gate for hour on end, then I too had to do my stint on the clerking team, chastised should my writing be to scruffy.

It was said that in the old days some auctioneers would visit Troutbeck pub before the sale and imbibe a dram or two to get them warmed up. Many years ago one auctioneer allegedly got rather too warmed up and fell head- first out of the rostrum while leaning forward to encourage a final bid. Calmly and with some panache, he dusted himself down, climbed back into the box and with a flourish, brought the hammer down to complete the sale.

There was a strip light in the ring which fizzed when it rained. One year during an Autumn sale it rained so hard that the pens above the mart flooded and torrents of water flowed right through the ring and out the other side. The sale continued for nothing could stop a Troutbeck sale or so we thought!

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Peter Searjeant in the rostrum.

Now in December 1990, Peter Sarjeant was calling to me to the rostrum from which he had shouted forth for most of the afternoon. “Old Sarj” loved Troutbeck Auction. It was his market. He had sold there for most of his working life, learning the clerking jobs and then progressing finally to the rostrum. He knew every generation of farmer in that market, every buyer and probably their fathers before them. “Sarj” was Troutbeck Auction.

“Reet Day you can finish off” he said in his deep, gruff, auction- worn voice. With that he stiffly climbed down and I jumped up. The lambs were the tail end of the crop. The smallest and plainest, left until the very last sale. Little Herdwick and Swaledale wether lambs worth little more than £10 each were gobbled up by willing buyers. For the smallest lambs can often make the best return. I was taught at an early age that in farming terms, pride does not always equal profit.

By a quarter to four my job was done, the sale was over, and I too climbed down from the rostrum with numb fingers and toes for the afternoon temperature had fallen considerably.

Later, we turned off the fizzing light, padlocked the doors and left the pitch- black interior of the sale ring for the final time that year. A few of us went to the pub and had a pint and a game of bar billiards. I was designated driver and drove Old Sarj home after a whisky or two for him. It was a role he had undertaken many times all those years ago as a “junior”, now I was apprentice to the master.

What none of us knew then was that this would be the last ever sale at Troutbeck. Due to increasing rules, regulations and fears over pollution from the sheep pens, the market could not carry on. In January 1991, the auction company announced that Troutbeck mart has closed its doors for the last time. The little tin hut would be silent for evermore, the farmers and the sheep gone for good. The Cumberland and Westmorland Herald called it “the end of an era”. The Troutbeck sales would continue but now in the modern confines of then new market at Penrith.

All that would be left were the memories of the auctioneers, Peter Sarjeant and his predecessors, Jack Thorburn and Jack Proctor who would beat his hazel stick against the auctioneer’s pulpit. Also, the Kidd family and the Thompson’s. Who could forget Mrs Mitchinson’s tea dinners in the austere war years when sugar was rationed? Woe betide the young farm boys who had more than a sniff at the sugar bowl.

Understandably local farmers were upset and disappointed. Local farmer Wilson Titterington spoke for many when he said “The biggest tragedy is that for generations buyers have come to Troutbeck to buy Troutbeck sheep but now the sales will no longer be just Troutbeck sheep. The local farming community felt like it was losing some if its identity.

Wils Titterington carried on saying, “I suppose you can’t stop what is supposed to be the march of time”. Prophetic words. Every time an auction closes and there have been many in recent years, farmers wring their hands and beat their chests. The reality is that in the last thirty years the pressure on livestock markets has ramped up, driven by regulation and an ever-decreasing pool of meat companies. The big buyers get bigger and with it, more powerful.

The little marts and the little abattoirs have slowly but surely been disappearing. It would be a great shame if the rise of bespoke collection centres and increasing deadweight sales forced more closures in future, or even Worse! This is not increasing competition in the industry it is dividing and conquering the farming community. How many farmers supporting a deadweight collection centre try and haggle? The competitive bidding within the mart system is under threat. Frankly it is a good job we have willing buyers for a growing and vibrant ethnic market for sheep meat, many of them thrive in the mart system.

Without the competition of marts, farmers will be nothing but price takers. Should the last hammer in the last market finally fall, it will be the end of another era and with it the last of the price makers but “I suppose you can’t stop what is supposed to be the march of time” ………

This would be such a shame as marts are so much more than sales centres in the modern age. Let’s look a few years down the line. Much as I would like to see it, sadly I don’t think we are going to persuade all farmers to use their local live market exclusively, but is there a way to combat an anti – competitive deadweight system?

What if all Cumbrian marts tried to work together selling a new brand, “Cumbria lamb”. A single farmer selling twenty prime lambs in any given week, has little or no bargaining power. But if they were part of a bigger group of farmers selling 2,000 lambs, all correctly drawn and graded! Now wouldn’t that give the farmer some elbow- power?

United Auctions of Cumbria anybody??????? No, I can’t see it happening either! However the reality is that primestock marketing through the auction ring has never been under so much pressure. It begs the question to all farmers, “How important is the auction mart you and your business”? 

Old Sarj was a good mentor. He gave me two great pieces of advice which I always stuck to: – “Remember you only work for the man selling in the ring”. Then one day up in the sheep pens at Troutbeck he said, “you must treat all farmers alike whether they have 5 sheep or 5,000”. Wise words that any young auctioneer should heed, for the success of any auction is based on many farmers selling small amounts of livestock on a regular basis.

Sadly, some years later it dawned on me that I was the last auctioneer to sell at that little tin hut called Troutbeck. Like most marts, Troutbeck was an auction, a meeting place and a collection centre for both people and livestock. I was privileged to have been one of a small band of auctioneers that graced the pulpit.

On that cold December day had Peter Sarjeant known that it was to be the last sale, I’m sure he would have continued to sell to the bitter end and still enjoyed a pint or two afterwards, probably with many local farmers who never got to properly say goodbye to Troutbeck. I for one cannot help but think that it would have been the most fitting finale.

derelict Troutbeck Auction ring.

      All that is left of Troutbeck Mart sale ring, almost thirty years after it closed.