It is ten years ago today since my hometown Cockermouth in Cumbria flooded to a depth of over 10 feet in areas closest to the River Derwent. As its name suggests Cockermouth lies at the confluence of the Rivers Derwent and Cocker, in an area known to be inhabited long before the Romans arrived to set up the fortified town of Derventio.
Cockermouth town centre has flooded many times in the last millennia and at least three times in the last 100 years so it is not a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, when the water strikes it is devastating, financially for the community and personally for many people in the lower lying areas. In 2009, unprecedented levels of rainfall (since surpassed in 2015), had fallen over the high fells of Cumbria, cascading down the rivers, carving a trail of destruction, wiping away roads and bridges, eventually to flood the market towns of Keswick and Cockermouth. More than 900 properties and over 1400 people were affected in Cockermouth alone, as the rivers burst their banks and a creeping tide of floodwater seeped towards Main Street. Across Cumbria £276m damage occurred as a result of this event
By mid- afternoon, Thursday 19th November 2009, in continuing torrential rain, I left my place of work, Cockermouth auction mart to try and get home along the A66 towards Penrith. It was clear that this was turning into major incident. I just needed to get home knowing there were pinch points along the A66 towards Keswick where the Lake could over top the road.
As I got to Bassenthwaite Lake, the water had risen and the A66 was impassable. I did a u- turn and scooted back through Dubwath and Bassenthwaite village heading over the fell road to Caldbeck and Hesket New Market before eventually making it home an hour later. I was lucky.
In Cockermouth, Keswick and along the banks of several rivers there were scenes of devastation. A network of support groups sprang into action. Emergency services began to rescue people trapped in their homes, checking properties to ensure no one was left in danger. Drop- in centres were set up to help those whose homes were under water. Also, food banks and even clothing banks for those who left home with nothing.
It would take many months to recover and yet the local community stoically made a point of turning on some Christmas lights once the waters had receded, even though the shops were wrecked and empty. Sadly, a policeman lost his life in Workington when a major bridge collapsed. Many families were unable to return home for months, living in rented accommodation or hotels.
Research would suggest that the county lost more than £2.5m in tourist trade with nearly all businesses being affected across the county and sadly 6% of whom ceased trading. It prompted the development of a new state of the art £4.4m flood barrier system that could never be over topped. Only six years later the barrier was over topped during Storm Desmond, as new record levels of rainfall flooded Cockermouth. Many properties and much land was once again under water.
Floods in Cumbria will continue to happen. It is inevitable. But if we continue to build houses on flood plains and the government fails to invest adequately in the right flood management solutions in the right place, then we will keep letting communities down.
Currently there is a lot of talk in the media about Natural Flood Management (NFM), mainly due to the dreadful flooding in Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire. After Storm Desmond many hailed NFM as the next big thing. That is slowing the flow of water higher up the catchment, reducing the pressure of flood water lower down the rivers, where bigger towns, villages and even cities tend to be situated. Some thought that this would negate the need for riverbed management or “dredging” as it is colloquially known.
Local communities were aghast. Common practice for generations had dictated that river beds close to communities would be cleaned out on a regular basis to ensure deeper river channels were not clogged up with stone, gravel and silt washed down from the upper valleys. In the river Cocker sink- holes more than 25 feet deep were routinely dug out on a 5- or 10-year cycle to act as gravel traps, slowly but surely filling up again and preventing further depositions downstream. This practice had been outlawed several years before the 2009 storm. All the bridges on the river Cocker above Cockermouth had gradually clogged up with gravel and slate as the river ran shallower and shallower. During the 2009 storm and again in 2015, many bridges were washed away, unable to cope with the volume of water and the shallow draft of the river.
But here is the good news, “slow the flow” interventions further upstream really do work. The Farmer Network is one organisation involved in several Natural Flood Management projects in Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales. In the right setting, leaky dams, grass bunds, tree planting and a range of other solutions all work. In some areas it is appropriate to re- wet the land, in order to hold water. In other areas it would be best to keep soils better drained, aerated and dry to act as a sponge to soak up heavy rain and flood water. Some of these interventions can hold back water and are small in scale, but add together several thousand of them across a long Cumbrian catchment, and the sum of all small parts really does add up.
Inevitably the responsibility for this work falls on farmers and other land managers. It is their land that is affected and used for temporary flood water storage. This is where it gets difficult. Flood water, when it recedes, always leaves a dreadful mess, including sand, silt, gravel and all manner of detritus for the farmer to clean up. There is also the issue of crop losses and damage to the soil. This is a fantastic public service if indeed the flood measures are designed specifically to flood the land, to save more damage further downstream. Is the farmer or landowner recompensed for this? Inevitably the answer is not well enough.
There have also been serious difficulties for farmers in getting permission to clear the damage and try to reinstate then land to full production. Frankly there have been too many organisations with interests in catchment management all with an opinion, when clearly the right solution would be to have one managing organisation effectively bring catchment management together and able support those affected by the floods. The situation as seen in 2009 when a landowner had several different organisations telling him what he could not do, and not a single body able to make a decision as to what he could do, to repair his land, must never be allowed to happen again. Repair and recovery needs to be managed swiftly with decision making at a local rather than national level and in a spirit of cooperation.
Let’s get back to dredging ( i do detest that word). There are many locations where engineered solutions and riverbed management can be vital and this work is being done in Cumbria to a limited but effective degree especially since Storm Desmond in 2015. It creates much angst for environmentalists who hate the thought of the riverbed environment and habitats being disturbed. It is also undoubtedly costly to perform. In the past it has been allowed only under licence, which is prohibitively expensive, and certainly not encouraged by government. Yet under pressure from flood affected communities and farmers, it has been allowed and it has been effective in Cumbria.
The unequivocal message is that any flood management solution is only effective if installed and performed in the right place. After the flurry of publicity regarding NFM following Storm Desmond, we are now beginning to see a more balanced view, although others may argue differently.
A one size flood management system does not fit all, and anyone suggesting this is sadly misguided or pursuing their own agenda. This includes those who talk of widespread afforestation, re- wilding and getting rid of Cumbria’s hill sheep as a flood management solution. Absolute rubbish.There are numerous options to combat floodwater all with merit, but only in the right location.
Following Storm Desmond Cumbria Strategic Flood Partnership was created to bring together all groups with an interest or indeed an interest in combating flooding in Cumbria. It has designed a flood hub, including a website to detail schemes, surveys and policies that are being developed within the county. However, to give CSFP a fighting chance, in future there needs to be a change in mindset at Government level, much more investment and more community engagement, the full length of Cumbria’s catchments. The key in all of this is to ensure that whatever the planned solution, it must be joined up with others and not created in isolation. There is a lot of work still do with limited resources.
Underpinning all of this is the need to ensure that we have healthy, well- managed rivers, productive catchment areas, and the right flood management solutions, in the right places, all working together. It can be done but is only achievable with the benefit of investment, knowledge, education and cooperation.
Failing that, our future choices may be limited to living higher up the hill and away from the flood plain. Having a home full of dirty water is a nightmare. Having it happen on a regular basis or simply waiting for the next time, must be an unimaginable stress. There are communities in Cumbria constantly living with this pressure. Storm Desmond in 2015 repeated the devastation to an even greater degree. It is clear that we need to do much more.
Last Saturday, I like many watched in dismay as England were beaten in the rugby world cup final. South Africa were big, strong and dominant in the set piece. It was a shock to see the England scrum going backwards to be penalised six times. I also watched as our tight- head Dan Cole was twice lifted upwards, illegally I would suggest. These days referees favour the team going forwards and it would have taken a brave and educated man to make the reverse call against the Springboks.
I have been annoyed by some of the criticism on social media from friends purporting to be scrummaging experts. In reality few will have experienced any form of competitive scrummaging and certainly not in the front row. I thought Dan Cole made a heroic effort having to play 78 minutes with no back up, He had nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. The scrum is a lonely place when you are under pressure and being beasted. You have to take it like a man and battle for all your worth. A proud prop never ever gives in, right to the death. Dan Cole did this in the world cup final.
AS an ex- tight head prop forward saluting Dan Cole’s huge effort, I thought I might try to explain exactly what it feels like as a prop forward when you are being beaten up by a technically proficient and far better opposition loosehead. Only once in my entire career as a prop forward was I ever in this position. It was in National league 3 playing at home for Aspatria against Plymouth in 1994. I should say that the scrummaging laws were different in those days, but the principles remain. Here’s what happened: –
It is a blustery day at Bower Park, Aspatria. We’re mid- table and entertaining Plymouth. I’m now a first team regular at tight head prop. This is my second season with the club and my second season as a front row forward. I’m certainly no great scrummager but I get by with the support of a massively strong pack of forwards. I try very hard to make up for my lack of technical proficiency by running with the ball and playing like another back row forward. I can only get away with this since the scrummage laws have tightened up. Your head must not dip below your hips meaning in theory the scrum should not collapse. Scrums still collapse!
I must admit that I don’t run too hard for the first five minutes of any game. I do not want to be blowing hard at the first scrum. I want to hit hard and establish my platform for the afternoon. Being inexperienced I need to get the first one out of the way and gain some confidence. I still worry a lot about this before games. I don’t believe I am good enough.
The Plymouth loosehead looks a big strong guy, and he is. It is their put- in at the first scrum. I charge in trying hit as hard as I can. He doesn’t take a backward step. I try to exert some pressure with my right arm by squeezing my elbow down over his left arm. I often have some success with this move. On this occasion I can’t move his elbow one inch. Not a good start. Alarm bells.
As their scrum half prepares to put the ball in, I go for a big downwards dip to try and stop their hooker from striking cleanly for the ball. My prop immediately collapses and as I am pushing downwards, I face plant hard on to the grass. It hurts – “bastard”.
We reset. This time I am wary of driving downwards at the hit, so I try and hit upwards. He seems to anticipate this and as we engage, he tries and succeeds to pull me down rather than I push him. For a second time, I try to drive up, but nothing happens. I can’t move him. They heel the ball and the scrum breaks up.
Next time we meet it is our put- in to the scrum. We engage in a thumping hit. Now I need to stay strong, but this guy is altering his body position constantly. Little shoulder drops, hip drives, changing the position of his head. I push down hard and clamp my right arm inwards to try and bend him. He responds by immediately dropping his body position. I feel like he might collapse the scrum and we are actually slightly going backwards so I don’t want to give a penalty, I then drive upwards and in doing so move my right leg forward, Immediately he has a window of opportunity and he too drives up. He nearly lifts me off the floor. I’ve never yet been airborne. I survive – just. Hell, this guy is making me uncomfortable. I’m definitely on the back foot and not enjoying this one bit.
At the remaining scrums in the first half I am decidedly under pressure. He never lets me get comfortable. In one scrum as I clamp with my right arm for all I am worth, trying to twist him. He simply lifts his own elbow below mine and raises my right arm up, relieving all the pressure I have been trying to bear. No one has ever done that to me before. Fuck me this guy strong, too strong. In fact, I’m in trouble.
At the next scrum I look him the face. Is he laughing at me? Nothing, no reaction, no acknowledgement. He is cool, calm and thoroughly professional. He knows he has the ascendency and he is in control. Just doing his job.
In the second half my losing battle continues. I’ve got my “sit on the right knee” get out of jail card that Syd Graham taught me. We engage and he sees me bring my right knee forward. Before I can get my shoulder on to it, he drives up and lifts me. Jesus, I can’t even get down to my knee, then he changes the angle and he is pushing straight and I’m going backwards in short steps. This is a bad scrum.
Our hooker Nigel Brown is annoyed “stop fucking paddling” he shouts as we break up. There isn’t much I can do. I’m being beaten by a much better prop. I need to run around with the ball and show what I can do. The problem this battling in the scrum has taken it out of my legs. I haven’t much energy to get on to the ball. I’m just running from scrum battle to scrum. We’re not losing them against the head, so technically I’m still doing my job but it’s hurting. I’m lucky to have Nigel up to his usual box of tricks. He’s negating their hooker, but he can’t do anything about my prop.
We’re in enemy territory, mid field between their 10m and 22m line. It’s our scrum put- in and we have a back row move called. Tank Richardson our powerhouse No 8 and captain is going to pick up from the scrum and there is a fancy run around involving our young flanker Mike Tinnion and Scrum half Graham Campbell. I know the back row are not going to be pushing that hard in the scrum because of the planned move. I urge our other flanker Martin Maughan who is pushing on me, to give it all he has got. I’ve also got the legendary Fred Story behind me in the second row. Despite is age and lack of fitness he is the strongest second row scrummager I have ever played with. He has bony shoulders and I have a bony arse which is often bruised after games because Fred pushes so hard.
We engage and there is a quick feed from Graham and lightning strike from Nigel. We have won the ball, but Plymouth instigate a huge secondary surge. I sink my hips down desperate to keep a straight back. The straight back is everything here, I must stay strong and ride out the pressure. The ball is stuck between Fred’s feet, but he is pushing behind me for all he is worth. He doesn’t yield an inch. Sadly, I am starting to yield. Fred is starting to lift my feet off the ground and my opposition prop has worked his head underneath my chest. It is slow motion but slowly I become airborne. My back is still straight, but my feet are at least two feet off the ground. My neck is still bound into the scrum and the pressure is enormous. I’m holding my prop in the scrum with everything I’ve got. I mustn’t let my head pop out. I feel like I want to scream loudly but can’t.
“Ease off Fred” I groan. “put me down” But he doesn’t. in fact, he pushes harder. It feels like an hour goes by as I am stuck in mid-air being concertinaed with my feet dangling. Eventually Tank manages to drag the ball back, the planned move is executed to perfection and we score a wonderful try in the right-hand corner which I don’t see at all. The Bower Park crowd goes wild.
I am now on terra- ferma and walking back to the halfway line with big Fred.
“Fucking hell Fred why didn’t you ease off”. Fred laughs at me,
“Sometimes Adam Lad, you’ve just got to take it like a man”.
Later in the changing room the banter starts. Lots of pig squealing noises. My teammates are letting me know that I am now officially a member of the Flying Pig Club. I’m more bothered by the fact that my opposition prop totally destroyed me. Had me beaten all ends up. I know I tried my best and never gave up in any scrum. I know I did take it like a man and would have battled all day and night if I had to, because that is the pride a prop forward must have. “You can beat me, but you will never beat me” is the attitude all props carry with them.
Now I have even greater doubts about my own ability. What if this starts to happen to me on a regular basis? What if I’m shown up for what I really am, a back-rower masquerading as a prop? Thoughts of comments made to me by many people keep ringing in my ears. “You’ll never make a prop”.
Despite the win I’m not in good spirits. On Monday evening on ITV Border news rugby round up. The opening credits feature that scrum with me in flying pig mode as Aspatria score the wonder- try. The clip is repeated twice more. I am so embarrassed, especially as the good- natured banter continues at training later in the week.
On Friday afternoon we are on our way down to the South to play another league game. Our coach Tommy Borthwick decides to put on the video of the whole Plymouth game. I hunker down for a long 80 minutes watching myself being obliterated in the scrum. On the screen it doesn’t look as bad as it felt at the time and I see a couple of opportunities for things I might have tried.
Later we’re at that point of the game where we score and course I’m up in the air. Again, there is a chorus of pig squeals and I have no choice but to laugh and shrug my shoulders. You are only as good as your last game. Despite my fears, in the next game I end up playing loose head prop for the first and only time for Aspatria. I did quite well and had the better of my prop. Who knew that could happen? It just goes to show, every game and every prop is different. You have to put the bad days at the office behind you and know that there will be games in future when the boot is on the other foot and you are the one inflicting pain.
As Fred Story rightly said, “Sometimes Adam Lad, you’ve just got to take it like a man”. As for the flying pig scenario. That game against Plymouth was the only time in my whole career as prop forward over many seasons that I was ever lifted off the ground. Never again was I forced to endure the pig squeals. I wish I had known that would be the case back in 1993!
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.
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!
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.
All that is left of Troutbeck Mart sale ring, almost thirty years after it closed.
This article featured in the Cumberland News during July 2019. Thirty years gone in the blink of any eye. But how will be farming and feeding the nation in another thirty years?
At the end of my second year at the Royal Agricultural College, I worked for a young arable farmer called Bob Burdon. His small family farm was located on the perimeter of Kemble Airfield, a few miles south of Cirencester. It was an alien world for a boy from Cumbria. Thin Cotswold brash, more rock than soil. Fields of swaying, ripening barley baked in the hot summer sun and a few moderate Heinz 57 bred sheep to eat the rotational grass. There were few fences and I often wandered the airfield in search of sheep. No one seemed to mind!
Bob and I dipped the sheep with Chris De Berg blasting out “Lady in Red” over the radio. Then a battle damaged USAAF A10 “Warthog” aeroplane flew low over the farm trying to get back to the airfield where they were stationed. It might have been returning from a raid on Libya, for that and Chernobyl were the two crises of the summer.
“See that plane” I said to Bob, “it is built to withstand 70% damage and keep flying”.
“You’ll be withstanding 70% damage if you don’t dip those heads” he replied with a thick west- country burr. It was so hot the Ministry man who had come to inspect us downed tools. He went home promising to come back at 6 o clock as the evening cooled. By the time he did, we had finished the sheep and moved on to the Combine. We didn’t get in to trouble. These were more pragmatic times. Life seemed somehow easier.
Day after day I carted corn, operated an unfathomable grain dryer and after harvest bounced around on a tractor pulling a plough or harrows. I set fire to fields of stubble including a hairy moment when in a field next to the ancient Fosse Way, the wind changed and I had to get my tractor off the field rather sharpish. Wouldn’t that have been a moment? “Sorry Bob, I torched the tractor”……
I worked throughout the summer with only two wet days off and made enough money to make my final year at college more comfortable. It was a long monotonous summer and it made me realise my heart and my future remained up North, where the grass was greener, the weather rather wetter and the sheep far better!
The hot summer of 86 is now thirty three years distant. Gone in the blink of an eye. The total UK population was 56M people. Today it is 66M. In another 33 years- time the UK population is forecast to be the largest population in Europe at over 75M. Whichever way you look at it, we are going to need more fields of golden barley, more sheep, in fact more of everything. This is one half of the coin. On the flip side, we have to look after our planet far better than we have in the past. Unlike the A10 Warthog, Planet Earth cannot withstand 70% damage and keep flying.
Now more than ever we need a Rural Grand Plan. Farming, food and conservation must work side by side in one sustainable and viable business. Without this, we will be, to quote another 1986 classic, “living on a prayer”…….
A Cumbrian farm visit for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Amid the clatter of stone on stone, I took a deep breath and surveyed the scene across the upper reaches of the Ullswater Valley in Cumbria. 150 years ago my forefathers were engaged in hewering iron ore from the deep depths of the Helvellyn range. My maternal Grandfather X4, William Jackson, owned the contract or “bargain” which from the 1860’s allowed him, followed by four sons, to spend several years breaking through from Glencoynedale to Greenside Lead Mine in pursuit of the grey gold. You simply cannot imagine their working life in those conditions as they trudged up the miners trod from their home at Seldom Scene six days a week.
I was pondering my local family heritage as I watched William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge gap- up a dry stone wall above Deepdale Hall, Patterdale. It was a rather surreal situation. I offered His Royal Highness a pair of work gloves but he politely declined. That being the case and not to be outdone, the Duchess also declined the offer of gloves.
As they set about their task, the farmer, Jimmy Brown was telling them that the walls on his farm were over 250 years old. This was part of his heritage and they weren’t going to be allowed to fall down on his watch. He does this work with pride to enclose and protect his sheep. However the general public, walking the many miles of footpaths that cross the farm, gets the benefit of this landscape free of charge.
It is truly a working landscape and it is is free for everyone to enjoy. For Jimmy, this work is unpaid and an on-cost to the farm business. It is simply part of his life and the traditional way in which farms are maintained. Jimmy and many more farmers get little recognition for the work they do. As we talk of placing a value on the natural capital of beautiful areas like the Lake District, what value do we place on our people and our communities? What is our cultural worth and how do we define it?
Heritage is a current buzzword in Cumbria. Whilst few families can compete with the documented history of the royal family, those of us accompanying the royal couple were struck by their knowledge and understanding of rural life, farming issues and the importance of farmers to local communities.
Taking part in a Royal Visit was a huge honour that I shared with a number of farmers from all over Cumbria. Inside Deepdale Hall farmhouse kitchen, we were struck by their easy- going nature as we took tea and cake whilst having a chat. They genuinely appeared to be having fun with us on the day. The huge media presence and a blur of whirring cameras and TV lights did not detract. In fact it gave many of us the chance to give a positive spin on Cumbrian farming and also raise some of the many concerns.
Jim Cockbain talked of how he engages with tourists on a daily basis, explaining what he does to build understanding about sheep farming in the hills above Keswick. Many visitors to Rakefoot have little or no understanding of sheep production or the life of a working shepherd. Jim can often dispel many of the falsehoods perpetuated by certain anti- farming groups or others who would seek to reduce sheep from the hills yet further.
Young couple, Jack and Rachel Cartmel discussed their difficulties in securing a viable tenancy in Martindale, to enable them to farm together and simply make a living. These days it is so difficult for young people to get a foot on the farming ladder. Despite coming from strong farming backgrounds, in order to simply make ends meet and pay the rent, both Jack and Rachel have other jobs as well. Rachel is a sheep dog trainer and runs the farm bed and breakfast business. Jack is a professional sheep shearer, clipping thousands of sheep for many farmers, throughout the summer season. His expert guidance ensured that the William and Kate did not put a foot wrong when clipping some Deepdale Hall Herdwicks. The Duchess stuck to her task with much determination when the young sheep which had not previously been shorn, started to kick. This caused some merriment for William and clearly they are a quietly competitive couple!
Sam Rawling raised fears of future agricultural policies and the pressure of not wanting to be the first to fail in a 500 year old family farming tree in Ennerdale. He is forceful in his belief that Farmers who voted for Brexit may have committed a huge mistake. No one knows for sure and therein is the uncertainty for all farmers at this time.
Mary Bell talked about her 40 year career in Patterdale, producing and promoting wool based products, to add value to what is now a loss- leading commodity to many farmers. Mary wants more commitment in trying to raise the profile of wool and thereby the price. In times gone by an annual wool cheque could pay the farm rent or even buy a tractor. Nowadays, sheep shearing is a huge cost to the farmer, the excercise only performed for the health and wellbeing of the sheep. There will be little payment for the wool from Deepdale Hall, being dense and thick fleeces from one of the hardiest of hill breeds.
Danny Teasdale spoke with passion about embracing farming with conservation, side by side in the Ullswater catchment, rather than the polarised views which too often grab the headlines. These hills and valleys are not for blanket re- wilding but can be farmed and conserved in equal measure with the right support and policies. With all the talk of climate change and greenhouse gases, perhaps extensively managed farms like Deepdale Hall actually store much more carbon than they produce. If this is true then it will fly in the face of those who constantly seek to do down the farming industry. This must also have a value and gain some recognition.
All the while the Duke and Duchess, listened, questioned and commented. At the end of the visit when the goodbyes were said and the royal procession took off down the dusty track (it didn’t rain all day!), we were left in no doubt that our future king understands who we are and what we do. Farmers are one of the greatest public goods of all and we need to shout louder. What a great afternoon!
Sometimes it is hard to get the general public to understand the relationships that farmers have with their animals.
I was 8 years old. It was mid-summer and I was doing what I loved best, working with Grandad amongst his sheep. We went to gather his furthest field, next to a main road. Accompanying us was Grandad’s pride and joy, his sheep dog Laddie.
On command away went Laddie tearing down the field on a wide outrun. The sheep were ewes with strong lambs at foot, ready for weaning. As Laddie gathered them, a lamb broke away running full tilt into the hedge at the bottom of the field. In an instant Laddie was through the hedge and on to the road to turn the lamb back. A car was approaching at speed and the inevitable happened.
I didn’t see Laddie get hit by the car but remember vividly the screech of brakes and the bump. I also remember Grandad’s words, “oh no, me dog’s dead”. Then he was shouting at me to stop where I was, but I was over the field gate in a flash, running down the road to where Laddie lay. Grandad came scuttling along as fast as his old bowed legs would carry him.
“He’s alright Grandad, look his tails still wagging”! It was nothing but the last vestiges of nervous energy leaving his body. Grandad had to explain that he really was dead. Then he told me to run back home and tell grandmother what had happened. Away I went half running, half walking as I choked back tears. Later that day we drove down the road where poor Laddie had been killed. All I could see was a pile of sand.
Sometimes it is hard to get the general public to understand the relationships that farmers have with their animals. The perception is often that farm businesses are like factory units. Joe Public doesn’t get that despite the fact that farm animals are working animals, very often there are relationships and bonds. I came across some stark examples of this in the dark days of 2001 when foot and mouth disease tore farmers from their flocks and herds. From the pulsating throb of a vibrant dairy parlour to empty silence in a few hours. A field full of sheep one minute, to an empty field of nothing but grass. For many farmers this was so hard, as bad or even worse than a family bereavement.
Many times in my career as an auctioneer I have unloaded trailers as farmers bring cast cows to market. If I’d had a £1 for every time a farmer has said “this is a sad day”, I could probably do a better job of keeping the Mrs in the manner to which she is accustomed!
Programmes like “This Farming Life” do sometimes show the bond between the farmer and his stock as well as the skill and total commitment of so many in our farming community. Frankly we could do far more of this to educate the public. The government may not recognise food production as a public benefit, but through the media and meeting the public face to face, this is a message we absolutely must get across in future.
Grandad bought a new sheep dog, but it was never the same. Laddie was irreplaceable. Long in to his dotage, grandad would sit in his chair by the fire. There would be a little gulping cough and a sigh, followed by, “Best dog I ever had”……
During the summer of 1984, part of my pre- college year was spent working for Dick Clark at Mosser Mains farm, near Cockermouth. One sunny afternoon Dick and I went to his land in the village of Pardshaw Hall. On this very site in 1650, George Fox the founder of the Quaker movement preached the word to thousands of onlookers. Now Dick was going to preach the word to me on how to “brae” posts in!
The old post and wire fence had been removed and in its place, Dick and I were going to hammer in brand new fence posts. Dick told me that I was to learn the proper way. He carefully positioned the post and instructed me to hold it firmly. Then he spat on both hands and took the mell hammer in a wide arc above his head bringing it firmly down on the top of the post. He repeated the movement a number of times, each one expertly hitting the post flush on the top. His swing was as attuned and rhythmic as a professional golfer!
After several more blows Dick handed the mell to me. From a height of about six inches I began to tap away on the top of the post. It didn’t take long before Dick shouted up. “Were you not watching? Get that bloody hammer back over your head and hit it properly”. So I did just as told. My first blow hit the post perfectly and it sank 3 inches on to the ground. The second wobbled a bit on the top, and my third mighty smote ran Dick’s fingers right down the post.
He went purple and I expected him to blow. But all he said through gritted teeth was “You…….” Then with hardly a grimace he placed his hands back on the post. The message was clear. He wasn’t giving in and neither was I. Soon the post was solid in the ground and we moved on to the next. By the end of the afternoon I was exhausted but there were several posts in place, all straight and true and I had mastered the required technique. Another lesson was learned that day, you don’t give in. You just keep trying until you get it right.
The fencing analogy may be appropriate with regard to farm business. In the near future, many farmers will be wondering whether to mend the fence and make do, replace it or move it to a different place altogether. There will be choices but these presently remain unclear. We are effectively waiting to brae in our new posts with no idea if we are in the right place, or even the right field!
Resilience is the current buzzword. What are the opportunities and the threats to current farming practices? What support measures are out there? How can we tap in to funding? Are we supplying what the market wants? Are there new income streams to look at? The million pound question: “do we need to do something different”? So many questions to consider. One thing is clear. This is a time for heads up, not heads down.
There are also the thorny issues that for some families continue to lurk in the background, like succession planning, retirement and bringing younger people in to the business. There has never been a more important time to reappraise the business and be in a position to react to whatever changes may hit our industry.
Time then to lay the thorny hedge, get the fence posts in position, and keep a firm hold until they are properly “braed” in. Like my old mentor Dick Clark found out with me, the ground might be rocky, there will be a few scrapes and some pain along the way, but get it right and the new fence will stand strong for years to come.
What value do we place on farmers and their role in society when looking at the capital assets of beautiful areas like Cumbria?
Old grandfather Jackson farmed close to a small village on the Furness Peninsula in South Cumbria. It was always his dream job and a successful coal merchant business allowed him to invest in land and stock. He was a dog and stick farmer relying on his friends, Alan and Harry Wood, to “bale” him out (literally). Many happy hours I spent as a young child sitting on someone’s knee on a Fergie tractor as Grandfathers meadow was baled by a farming neighbour.
Grandad always insisted on turning a few swaths by hand. As a young boy in the early 1920’s he spent many hours working on local farms. These were truly austere days following the First World War. Everyone worked together, everyone helped. They had to! Turning his own hay with a huge hay fork reminded him of his own heritage and the culture of that time.
Today we are trying to embrace the concept of Natural Capital as part of the 25 year Environment Plan. In 2015, attempts to value the UK’s Natural Capital estimated this at £761 billion. Bearing in mind Cumbria’s exceptional environment and abounding natural assets, it is fair to say that our County contributes considerably to that estimate.
Within Cumbria’s 6,800 square kilometres we have 2 national parks, 3 AONB’s and 2 World Heritage Sites – the Lake District – and a Roman wall. We also have something equally important, a human population of around 500,000. For all the natural capital we are so fortunate to have, our geography, location and infrastructure ensures that we have the lowest population density in the country and one of the poorest performing economies when measured as Gross Value Added (GVA).
These are challenges to the future economic viability of Cumbria and there are other challenges. As we seek to embrace natural capital as an asset, there is another piece to the land management jigsaw that needs to be slotted into place. The common denominator in the countryside and natural environment of Cumbria are the people that farm the land, manage the environment and do so much to create the landscapes that attract over 47 million visitors every year to our county.
What value do we place on our people? How do we begin to value our Social and Cultural Capital and how do we slot this into the jigsaw to form the perfect picture alongside Natural Capital? Perhaps it comes down appreciating that farmers matter more than we realise. The bedrock of many rural communities? Is that too strong?
What of the heritage and culture that our forefathers have created? My old grandfather, even in his own small way, was a proud farmer. Happy as he was turning hay by hand on a sweltering summer’s day in July, his great joy was visiting Ulverston auction to sell his lambs, just one man in the farming community, supplying and supporting many more communities country wide. What value should we place on that?
The Lake District World Heritage Site inscription delivers the perfect summation: – “Both the long duration of our farming culture and the survival to the present day of its distinctive character is considered to be of outstanding universal value.”
An abridged version of this article was published two weeks ago in the Cumberland News.
I left school in 1983 and immediately went to work at Mitchell’s Auction Company Ltd, Cockermouth. The idea was to gain pre- college experience in an industry in which I one day hoped to find employment. Gap years to “find oneself” didn’t exist in those days.
The Auction owned an abattoir on Lorton Street adjacent to the mart. In those days several men in whitecoats (butchers not psychiatrists) stood at ringside buying stock which were then slaughtered “over the road” before being transported back to butchers shops all over West Cumbria. There were beef cattle, lambs and pigs, all brought to market by farmers every monday and then walked across the road to the abattoir. This was a perfectly normal activity, local food produced, purchased and processed by local businesses for local people. It was accepted althoughthe good tonwsfolk of Cockermouth did draw the line if the waste skips weren’t removed in timely fashion, especially in summer.
I found myself delivering the slaughtermen’s wages every Friday morning. Entering the building for the first time I was immediately met by a bovine body part, coming sliding across the red- tiled floor towards me. I’m no footballer but I was able to trap it and return it with a swift side foot. After that I was accepted in to the team but stopped short of joining the Friday morning fry- up’s with the lads. The kitchen area and self cleaning 50 year old frying pan, would certainly raise an eyebrow or two in the modern age!
Sadly like so many more, Cockermouth abattoir is long- gone. In fact during the last fifty years we have seen the closure of almost 97% of all abattoirs. There are now only about 60 left country- wide.
Stifling EU regulation was always gold- plated in the UK whilst perhaps only tolerated in some member states. Small and medium sized abattoirs were unable to compete, suffocated by high costs and reducing profit- margins. Add to that significant grant- aid and tax breaks for larger abattoirs and it is clear why the trend continued.
The resultant economies of scale have resulted in huge numbers of Cumbrian lambs, cattle and also milk transported out of the county for slaughter or processing as far afield as Wales and the South West. Some products might then be returned to Cumbria for retail. We cannot do without the national slaughter- framework as it supplies both the home and export market. However, we do mourn the passing of small abattoirs and with it much of the local supply chain. It has become much harder for independent shops and restaurants to stock local food.
The Sustainable Food Trust, backed by many industry bodies has recently pleaded for small abattoirs to be recognised as a public good and continues to campaign for future policies to re- localise farm animal slaughter.
If government is serious about achieving targets to reduce environmental impact, improve on already first- class animal welfare regulation, increase traceability and support local supply chains, then short-term solutions won’t cut the mustard. What is needed is a long term vision to reverse the trend, reduce the food chain and re- join the links at both ends.
Recently Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership commissioned local company Thomas Jardine and Co to examine the food and drink sector in Cumbria. The resultant report “Developing support for Cumbrian food and drink manufacturers” sets the scene very well having engaged with businesses the length of the Cumbrian supply chain from farmers to retailers including hoteliers and other food businesses. The Farmer Network attended a stakeholder event and witnessed real desire from within Cumbria to both buy and sell more locally produced food, given the opportunity.
As always with such ambition, it will come down to money be it public or private investment. With 85m people to feed within the next 20 years of which more than 30% may visit Cumbria each year, there is a real opportunity here to create a sustainable and ethical local food supply chain. Investment is only one aspect of the plan. To succeed properly, we need much more in the way of education. Food is a cheap commodity and as such, not respected and therefore by definition neither are farmers. The general public as a rule, has little appreciation of food production, provenance or welfare standards. This must change in the future.
A further personal hope would be that auction marts seize an opportunity to become stronger central hubs continuing to supply the national market but also to a greater degree at local level again. In doing so one would hope that a greater share of the end price might land in to the farmer’s pocket. Food for thought?