Props can’t dance…….

Last week i had the great pleasure of attending Aspatria RUFC annual “Tattie Pot” supper as a guest speaker. Having spent a few seasons in the 90’s with the club playing national league rugby, it was great to catch up with many old pals including club legends George Doggart and Les Mctear together with the Presidents of the England RFU and Cumbria. I also recounted this tale about my introduction to the dark world of the front row………..

 

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It is a cold and miserable Saturday afternoon in November 1992. The rain is lashing across the Solway Plain and is almost horizontal as it wisps in towering curtains across Bower Park, Aspatria. The first XV is playing a friendly against Middlesborough who are themselves a strong team from the North East. It is an inauspicious game for Aspatria supporters, as several star players are away on County duty. This gives many squad players a chance to play first team rugby and make a mark. It is particularly auspicious for me as it is only my third game at tight head prop – ever, and I am in the starting line up!

Two weeks ago I made my debut for Aspatria 3rd XV. Last week I played for the 2nds, and this week I am playing for Aspatria 1st XV. Some of my old playing colleagues at Penrith laughed at me when I left and said that I would never get a 1st XV game no matter how long I tried. I took the view, that if I didn’t have a go, then I would never know. It is unusual for a back row player to make the change to front row. I’ve nothing to lose, and at 27 years old, I will never get another chance.

However there are certain things in my favour. Firstly the rugby laws have changed making the body position of prop forwards in the scrum far more regulated. We are supposed to scrummage with heads above hips and bind on the opposition’s shirt on top of his body. Traditionalists argue that this has made it easier to scrummage. It is true, but you still have to have a technique and some strength. Secondly Aspatria have a massively strong pack. It is feared by most local opposition and many southern teams hate making the trip to Bower Park. All that experience and knowledge means that I have several good men and an odd “bad man” watching my back.

Physically I am about ready to go, technically as a prop forward, I haven’t a clue. Syd Graham is an Aspatria legend, many times capped at prop for Cumbria. Now retired, he is brought in to give me personal coaching. As part of my pre- season training he has beasted me on the scrummage machine and in live scrummaging. Aspatria prides itself on the scrum. They have tested me out, run my legs to jelly, but I keep trying. Sometimes I want to give in and say “enough”, but I won’t.

Syd has been great. He’s ripped up the law book and taught me some “get out of jail” tricks at scrummage time. My absolute favourite is to bring my right knee forward and then crouch low in the scrum so that my right shoulder is actually resting on my knee. It is a brilliantly comfortable position which means I am scrummaging with my head less than one foot from the ground, but there is no chance of me collapsing down to the ground as I am propped up by my own leg. Only the very strongest of loose head props can lift me from this position and by the time he works in to that position on our put in, the ball is long gone.

So after the beasting and the initiation, the coaches believe I am ready to be thrown in at the deep end. My opposition is a wily old fox, many times capped for Yorkshire and now near the end of his career. I stand in the tunnel underneath the new grandstand. Above me is a sign saying “Welcome to Bower Park”. Any teams that play here know they are going to be a given a hard game. The nerves are jangling. I want to run with the ball, which is my forte, but I am constantly reminded that my job is to secure the scrummage. We run on to the pitch. It is waterlogged and frankly horrible.

Due to the conditions, it is not long before the first scrummage is called. I get in to position. Nigel Brown is playing beside me at hooker and he is talking to me all the time, “binding, head up, don’t paddle, lead us in”. We thump together and immediately we go to ground. It is my fault. I’ve tried to hit so hard that I’ve over- balanced and as we collapse in a heap I face plant in to 6 inches of mud. This sets the tenure for the game. I am steadily worked over by my prop. He knows where to put his feet, where to bind, when to go low, when to go high. I am always a few seconds behind him, trying to work out a way to counter- act what he does.

In one scrum, he puts me under so much pressure that I collapse in to the tunnel and even lose my left arm bind with my own hooker. The entire Middlesborough pack trundles over me, and every one of them makes sure they accidently stand on me.  It doesn’t really hurt but it is embarrassing. All I can do is get up and smile and go back for more. The scrum reforms and I realise that I just need to survive, so I use the “shoulder on knee” technique that Syd has taught me. It works with immediate effect. The pitch is so wet, that my opposition can’t push from such a low position or he loses his feet. He tries once, slips and is penalised. I don’t take a step backwards for the rest of the game, as I just sit on my knee.

We lose the game but I am not really bothered. I have had some dodgy moments, but survived the game and we only lost one put- in to the opposition. The coaches think I have done alright. I haven’t let anyone down.

Training sessions at Aspatria can be pretty brutal. Senior player and forwards coach Malcolm Brown loves a game of no holds barred Murder Ball. Two packs of forwards locked in a 10 metre grid, fighting to get the ball to the opposition end. It is usually all out warfare. You have to go in head first, as hard as you can or you will get hurt. At the start of the first coupIe of murder ball games I play in, Malcolm throws the ball straight to me. He is testing me out. I have never experienced this level of intensity in my rugby life. What it does do, is build unbelievable team spirit and camaraderie.

Amazingly as the season progresses I am holding my own and have yet to be dropped. Slowly but surely I am learning the ropes playing in a strong and very able pack of forwards. I am also running around the park and scoring tries on a regular basis which can be the only reason I remain in the side

In to the New Year we play Broughton Park, a top Lancashire side. They are now plying their trade in National 3. I am propping against John Russell whom I have heard referred to as Psycho. He is a strong player having been capped at England U19 level and in the current North of England set up.  He looks menacing with a shaved head and a constant glare in his steely blue eyes, especially at scrum time.

There is an unwritten rule which Nigel and Steve, my fellow front rowers have drilled in to me. If I am ever able to put so much pressure on my opposite prop that he breaks his bind and puts his hand on the ground, then I have to stamp on it. This is front row union law and it has to be obeyed, indeed it is expected.

Half way through the first half, the strength of the Aspatria pack is beginning to tell. We are grinding them down in a series of rolling mauls, one of our specialities. Indeed the “up the jumper” style of rugby is a feature of our powerhouse game. We play nine man rugby, which is the entire pack plus George Doggart our internationally capped scrum half. He controls the whole show and is the orchestrator.

I’m propping against John Russell. He is as strong as ox but i am holding my own. In fact in one particular scrum I feel that I am putting him under pressure. He breaks his bind and his entire left forearm hits the floor. He is stuck there while I am still on my feet. Then I hear Nigel Brown’s voice. He removes his false front teeth prior to the game, so it is not a good place to stand in front of him when he is talking or shouting.

“Go on then” he says through the large gap in his teeth “Thoo ‘im” I realise he means “shoe him”. I can’t get out of it. It is the law of the jungle. I’ve hardly ever stepped on anyone in my career and if I did I would probably apologise”. There is nothing else to do. I begin to rake my studs up and down John Russell’s arm. The scrum breaks up and Nigel is laughing. He is wind up merchant and niggles the opposition constantly throughout the game. He says to John Russell. “He’s had a good dance on you there pal”. I cringe and want to say “actually I can’t dance” Psycho looks at his arm which is bleeding and then he looks at me. A big smile breaks out on his face and he nods his head. Just one nod, but that nod tells me “don’t worry sunshine. I will catch up with you before the end of the game”. All i can think is “oh no, this is going to hurt”.

I know it’s coming but not when. Then the best thing that could possibly happen!  With only 10 minutes to go, I am substituted. I pretend to be disappointed nay distraught as I leave the pitch shaking my head and ripping the tape off my ears. In reality I am very glad to get off before Psycho extracts his revenge. It is the only time in my career that I play against him. When I next see him, many years later, he is a media personality on TV as an expert adviser on Cowboy Builders!

Best in show – “The Judge is always right”!

Some farmers and also some auctioneers thrive in the show ring. That is acting as the master Judge, picking out a class winner or indeed an overall champion from a ring full of cattle and sheep. Many times in my career I have had the honour of being asked to judge livestock at agricultural shows throughout Cumbria. My preference was always to say no. Despite being an experienced auctioneer, the thought of putting myself up for even more criticism than usual from farmers was never that appealing.

How many times have we heard farmers with loud voices talking in the local vernacular around a show ring; “See yon Judge theer, he’s got that wrang he has. Ah would nivver hev given it to that owd yow. He’s wrang thoo nas, he’s wrang and that’s aw there is till it……”

Working on the premise that the Judge is always right, it should never have bothered me but hiding behind the excuse that I didn’t want to upset a potential auction customer, I always politely refused. Later in my career however I began to realise that the older I got, perhaps less chances I would have to do some show judging. Knowing as many farmers as I do, I thought I should perhaps start to do my bit and prove that I had learned something over the years.

As it happened the very next judging invitation came from an old friend, Richard Vickers, of Loweswater Show. Technically Loweswater was always my local show. Having been brought up in a little hamlet called High Mosser, on the most Northerly slopes of the North West fells, a short walk over the hill behind our farmhouse brought us down the steep fell road to Loweswater Lake.  Golden summer nights were spent swimming in Loweswater Lake beneath the wooded slopes of Burnbank Fell as the sun descended over Graythwaite Heights.

Loweswater show was the only show that as children, me and my sisters were allowed a day off school to attend. Indeed one year I managed to win the local boys under 14 Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling class, before being destroyed in the open U14 class by Dave Kirkby, a farmer’s son from Egremont. He was a highly skilled, experienced wrestler, strong as an Ox who simply squeezed me in to his chest picked me up off the ground and with my legs paddling in thin air, gently laid me on my back on to the ground. That was the end of my wrestling career!

During the many years working at Cockermouth Auction every single farmer in the parish was known to me, many but not all, becoming friends. Richard Vickers was an old pal from school days. He was truly a “Loweswaterite”, growing up at Askhill farm at the Western end of the Lake. As well as farming with his father Willie, he also worked for a few years at the old market in Cockermouth on leaving school. Then he set up a small contracting business which included cutting all the hedges around my father’s land. Later he was to build his own farmhouse and buildings at Mosser Heights which rose up and over the hill to almost join with his father farm in the Loweswater valley.

Richard called to offer an invitation from Loweswater Show committee to act as the master judge to pick the overall champion or best sheep in the show. I was about to give my usual apologies when I realised that this was a real honour and I may never get the chance again to judge at my local show. I had to say yes. The thought of standing in the show field to the south of Lorton Village almost in the shadow of the famous fells of Grasmoor and Whiteside, with Melbreak just to the south, was at the time, quite appealing.

Agricultural shows are a part of the fabric of rural life. They are celebration of all that is good in local communities. It is a chance to showcase the very best livestock, perhaps with a view to selling in the auctions later in the year. Shows are about people. It is as much about socialising as it is about business. Old friends meet up, stories are shared and there is always a happy atmosphere. The commentator drones over the tannoy, reading class results, calling competitors and sometimes just recounting a funny tale. In valley shows like Loweswater, the tannoy can echo and be heard as clear as a bell on fell tops. It is strangely comforting. Without the farming community, all of these shows would simply disappear and to a large extent so would many of the communities. That is why agricultural shows are so important and why so many people work on committee’s to ensure the shows take place. It has been done this way for generations. It is a wonderful custom and very much part of Lakeland’s heritage.

Before I knew it I was actually there on a bright sunny Sunday morning during the first week in September. The view of the fells was quite spectacular but no time to dwell, I was there to do a job. As I arrived, the judging of various breed classes was in full swing. I decided to keep myself at a distance, close enough to see what was going on, but far enough away to remain uninfluenced by the farmers discussions or indeed judging criticisms.

The craic was good with lots of banter among friends and soon the tannoy was bursting in to life again.  “Would our master sheep judge Adam Day make his way to the show ring please”. A quick hop over the pens and I was right there in the thick of it.

In front of me stood the breed winners from all the previous classes. These were the sheep that in the opinion of their own judges were the breed champions on the field that day. My job was to pick the champion of champions, the best sheep on the field!

There were several sheep of all breeds in the line-up. Slowly and methodically I worked my way along the line. Every shepherd was known to me. They are trained how to handle and show sheep from the moment they can walk. There is a huge skill in breeding these quality sheep, in other words putting the right tup on to the right female sheep to produce a top quality lamb. The shepherds have an honest eye for the best traits in both the ram and ewe. In their minds they see what they hope will be the perfect match to produce a sheep of showing potential.

The shepherds are also taught how to present the sheep to best advantage at show time. Each one is washed, dipped and crimped to perfection to highlight best features and perhaps even to disguise an odd gentle fault. This is a skill akin to any beautician or hair stylist trying to make the most of their clients attributes.

When showing, the shepherds are taught to watch the judge at all times, make sure the sheep is standing perfectly with four square legs under the body and a high head carriage to show off a straight back or top line. As a judge you can feel the eyes watching your every move as you proceed along the line. Each sheep that I came to needed a soft steady appraisal, looking from the back, side and front. Then a closer inspection, a quick look or feel along the sheep’s teeth. The mouth should be correct, the teeth, neither over- shot nor under shot. Then a firm pressure along the back to judge the amount of muscle, the width across the loin and on down to the hind legs. These are the basic requirements of all sheep breeds, good strong head, correct in the mouth and square in the leg.

Each breed also has different characteristics which are important to them. The lowland breeds producing the very best quality butchers lambs need lots of muscle and a good coverage of meat on the carcase though not too fat because that is not what the modern housewife likes to buy or cook. The hill breeds need to be strong in the leg and tight- woolled to keep out the rain in the winter months as they graze the high fells. There are also breed trends in terms of colouring on the legs, the fleece and even the hair on the faces.

Soon I had reached the end of the line. I immediately picked out two special sheep that I knew in my own mind would be champion and reserve, but which one?  The words of one of my old auctioneering mentors Peter Sarjeant came back to me. “If in doubt, stick to your first instinct, it is usually the right one”. But there is a protocol to be followed and that is to ask the shepherds to “lowse” the sheep, meaning let them go. All of the sheep ran together and huddled in the corner of the pen, here I was able to judge different sheep side by side, trying to pick out why one sheep was better than the other. Nothing changed my mind from my first viewing and now we were down the nitty gritty on judgement day.

The sheep were “gathered up” again, each shepherd generously helping all the others, as there is always camaraderie and respect in the sheep show ring. It was time for a last look, a scratch of the chin, a final glance and short walk and a gentle pat on the rump of my champion pick. This I followed with a hand shake and a respectful kiss on the cheek for Barbara Stagg, the owner of the Herdwick Twinter. Also a handshake for her partner Andrew who was holding the sheep.  The crowd of farmers and show visitors clapped respectfully as I congratulated them with a few words of praise for their lovely sheep. I have known Barbara for many years and her father and grandfather too. In fact, many, many years ago, her grandfather Gordon Stagg from Croft House Farm, Buttermere was the first Herdwick Breeder to sell a tup for 100 guineas!

Quickly I moved over to my reserve champion, a tap on the rump of the Swaledale ewe and a shake of the hand (no kiss) for The Gill family from Newlands near Caldbeck having originally farmed in Loweswater. Two outstanding sheep, the young, previously un- shown Herdwick and the older Swaledale ewe that had delivered much success in the show ring in recent years. So why the Herdwick? Well she was so clearly an outstanding girl, the muscle and power meant she was solid as a rock to handle. She had a beautiful head and very strong legs, with a tight brown fleece that will lighten in colour as she ages. My instinct was always to pick her. Thankfully a few other knowledgeable farmers told me they couldn’t have gone past her either. When Arnold Lancaster from Torver thumps you on the back says and says you haven’t done so badly, then you know you’ve got it right. Had I not then he would soon have told me. Only at that point did I begin to relax a little!

With the judging completed it was time to enjoy the show, have some lunch in the catering tent enjoying good banter with some of the sheep breed judges as to why I didn’t pick their sheep! Then a final look around the show field before setting sail for home.

As I pulled away from the show field I took a last look down the Lorton Vale, past Melbreak and on to The Buttermere Fells, Red Pike and High Style. It is quite simply a beautiful landscape, created by sheep, managed and conserved by shepherds and enjoyed by so many people who visit and admire our county. These are my fells, my farmers and my friends. I have enjoyed working for this community very much over the years, every farm visit a pleasure, actually being paid to drive through and work in these Lakeland valleys. Driving my car over Whinlatter Pass heading for home I felt contented, honoured and proud. I’ve had a good working life as a Lakeland Auctioneer. I hope it’s not quite finished yet.

THE LAKE DISTRICT – OUR LAND, OUR LIVES, OUR HERITAGE.

He talked of his spirit being lifted every time he visited the Lake District. This he said would be the same for the many who come to our county to appreciate the landscape and the views. The landscape, he said, was created by communities, a living breathing landscape where sheep roamed the fells. To him this agro- pastoral system was important, vital and must be protected.


Much of my family history is entwined with Cumbria and the Lake District. We can get back to the early 18th Century through a number of lines. Along the East Fellside of Cumbria and in the industrial villages of West Cumbria we’ve worked the ground above, as farmers and labourers, and we’ve worked the ground below as miners of iron ore and coal. One thing hasn’t changed too much in all that time. My forefathers, had they lifted their eyes, would have seen the same craggy fells, rolling Pennines, the green valleys and the deep lakes. For this land is our land. It’s where we belong. There are many more people just like me, with same ancestry.

Today I attended the opening of the Lake District UNESCO World Heritage Site on the shores of Derwentwater, at Keswick, one of Cumbria’s most popular tourist destinations. I had no idea what to expect other than a few scant details on an e- mailed invitation from the Lake District National Park Authority. What we did know was that His Royal Highness Prince Charles was to officially open the World Heritage Site accompanied by Michael Gove, Minister for the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs. This is the department that governs farming without actually mentioning it in the title. That is a pretty good clue as to how farming has been viewed and treated over the last couple of decades. Our food producers have been unloved, unappreciated and frankly down- beaten. The public perception has been one of greedy, subsidised farmers doing little for it and driving round in large expensive 4 x 4’s. Reality is far from perception. Food health scares, disease crises, years of dreadful farm gate prices and poor support from supermarkets and over- zealous, ill- informed government agencies have left their mark. Things must change. Perhaps that’s why so many farmers supported Brexit. A huge leap of faith for them, or a belief that things must be better for them?

In Keswick I bumped in to several farmers as we arrived together and went for coffee prior to the ceremony. I caught up with Joe and Hazel Relph who farmed at Yew Tree, Borrowdale before retirement. It was common knowledge that the Prince of Wales regularly used to stay at Yew Tree farm on his annual Lake District break although they would never talk about it. Will Cockbain was with us too. I’ve sold hundreds of sheep over the years for the Cockbain family at Cockermouth Auction and admired Will’s common sense approach to the politics of farming as he has fought on behalf of Lake District farmers at a high level. Then a great catch up with Brian and Jayne Knowles who farm the Southern reaches of the Shap Fells and are leading lights in the Rough Fell sheep breeding world.

Soon it was time to go outside. We walked on to Crow Park to await the special guests’ arrival. In bright spring sunshine I took a few deep breaths and savoured the view. Catbells seemed almost in our pockets. Beyond lay the Newlands fells and then the Grasmoor range. To my left the massive round of Skiddaw, once a huge volcanic plug three times the height it is now, and the namesake of my old school house. Friends all. Some of my forefathers knew these hills as I do today, walked them and mined them. This is part of my heritage.

Six months ago I stood in Crow Park with a group of volunteer farmers and their sheep as we met the general public, showed them the animals and explained what farming in Cumbria means and what it delivers. There were visitors from all over the world. Just talking to them for a few minutes, opened up a new horizon for them. Many were simply clueless about the landscape and its guardians. Several promised to look at farming in a whole new light. We went home tired yet quietly satisfied, wishing we could do more.

His Royal Highness Prince Charles
His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, opening the Lake District UNESCO World Heritage Site. March 2018. Photo’s courtesy of Ashnessfarm.co.uk

Back here once again, the sun continued to rise above the Helvellyn range, with a little warmth on the face against a cool spring day. What else could you expect in Cumbria in late March? Soon in a blaze of flashing lights, the royal cavalcade arrived. Hundreds of school children screamed and waved Union Jack flags as his Royal Highness took his seat. There were songs and dance performances from local children all of which was entirely fitting. Soon it was time for the unveiling of the New World Heritage Site. Prince Charles took to the microphone. His speech was frankly music to the ears of many rural Cumbrian people. He talked of his spirit being lifted every time he visited the Lake District. This he said would be the same for the many who come to our county to appreciate the landscape and the views. The landscape, he said, was created by communities, a living breathing landscape where sheep roamed the fells. To him this agro- pastoral system was important, vital and must be protected. It was a message of support for farmers, their businesses and their very real contribution to communities and this land – our land.

I found myself murmuring “here here” on more than one occasion, impressed by a man who clearly knows and understands the pressures rural communities in Cumbria face. These pressures are economic, social and environmental. The Princes words flew in the face of the ardent some would say misguided environmentalists who seek to rid the land of livestock, turn farmers in to park keepers and and in doing so, see the demise of local people living in established and real communities. His words drew rapturous applause from many local people.

All the while I stood next to or rather just in front of Anne Cornthwaite who farms at Ashness Farm just above the famous pack horse bridge a few miles south of Keswick on the road to Watendleth. Years previously, Joe Relph’s father Charlie farmed here. As a young auctioneer I actually sold implements in the field at Ashness at Charlie’s retirement sale. Later as manager of Cockermouth Auction, I always tried to help and support young farmers at the start of their careers. Anne’s son Henry used to bring sheep to the market. He was only a young lad, recently left school and now responsible for the marketing of their sheep. I wanted to give him confidence, so that he enjoyed his trip to the auction and would go home happy to his mum. “Ring me on a Tuesday” I used to say “and I’ll tell you what the trade will be like tomorrow”. This I continued to do until it was time for me to move to fresh pastures. As I said earlier, these are real people in real communities. We all have our part to play.

I asked Anne what she thought of Prince Charles speech. She said “rather uplifting for upland farmers like us”. She went on to say that she just hoped Mr Gove was listening and taking it all in. Many farmers were thinking the same thing. For he has a singularly important role to play in the future of rural landscapes going forward.

Soon we will be released from the common agricultural policy that has shaped our farming industry and regulated our land use over the last forty years or more. Now Mr Gove must decide what package should replace it. Farmers and environmentalists are vying for government support. The government has said it will support payments for public goods without explaining what public goods actually are. Those of an environmental bent will say this is about improving the natural environment, habitats, wildlife and clean water. This must come first. They rarely mention food production, or human communities. Farmers, particularly keen younger farmers are proud stockmen for whom the sheep and cattle often come first.

My personal belief is that the truly successful farmers of the future, particularly in the upland areas of Cumbria where farming and tourism go hand in hand, will be proud livestock producers that can also farm in an environmentally sound and productive way. As the world population continues to rise, the truly successful farmer will be one that produces great food and protects our rural landscapes better than ever before. It is a balanced land use policy for the future and it is my definition of public goods. I whole heartedly would want to see this encouraged and supported by both the government and the good people who visit our county, eat our lamb and beef and drink our milk. Support farmers, allow them to make a profit, reinvest in the farm and the community. Reward them for getting it right.

If Mr Gove and his successors get their bit right then Cumbria and the Lake District will remain our land, part of our lives and our heritage for generations to come. It’s not just about the Lake District though. The East Fellside and the western slopes of the Pennines where farming is so important must also be included in this. Here communities rely so much on farmers particularly in difficult times like the recent snow storms. Losing the farms would be a death knell. Many in The Yorkshire Dales will feel the same.

That is pretty much as His Royal Highness Prince Charles called it, on a bright spring morning on the shores of Derwentwater in 2018. The alternative is too bleak and too barren to contemplate.

Foot and Mouth Disease – 15 years On

15 years ago tomorrow, i laid down my gavel at Cockermouth Mart at the end of a difficult prime sheep sale. We had stopped mid- sale as news came in of Foot and Mouth disease near Hexham. Gradually the buyers started bidding again with prices much reduced. It was the last livestock sale ever to take place in the old mart.


Two years ago, to mark the 15th anniversary of the devastating outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease, i wrote a short piece on social media as a tribute to all the people involved on the front line, particularly in Cumbria where the effects and fall out of that dreadful time affected and probably still affects so many of us today. It has been “shared” over 1200 times in the last two years. In 2004 I published a book called “To bid them farewell” in which i recounted some of my experiences. I was only one person among very many. Many of the farmers who gave me permission to write about what happened on their farm, still cannot bring themselves to read it…….

15 years ago tomorrow, i laid down my gavel at Cockermouth Mart at the end of a difficult prime sheep sale. We had stopped mid- sale as news came in of Foot and Mouth disease near Hexham. Gradually the buyers started bidding again with prices much reduced. It was the last livestock sale ever to take place in the old mart. Farmers went through hell for the next six months. Not just the ones who were taken out by FMD but also those who didn’t get the disease and were left with livestock they couldn’t sell, no cash coming in and over-stocked summer pastures being destroyed without any chance to make fodder for winter. Valuers like me went out day after day, farm after farm. We valued, counselled and guided our friends and customers all the while seeing our own business’s being destroyed, in the early months by incompetence, lack of resources and poor management at government level. By the time help was in place, it was too late and we fought on the retreat, week after week. We cried our tears at night behind closed doors and went out the next day to do a professional job. We didn’t let anyone down!

Thankfully, at the end of it, using every last penny we had, Mitchell’s Auction Co Ltd built the new Lakeland Livestock Centre, on the outskirts of Cockermouth, opening in May 2002. I still feel great pride every time i drive to Cockermouth and see that second hand shed! I will also always be proud of the work my colleagues and all valuers did in those dreadful conditions. also the slaughtermen, hauliers, pyre builders and vets on the ground. we were a team working together only to try and halt the spread of disease.

I also applaud the continued work of all auctioneers who battled to re- establish under draconian new rules and modes of operation, when for years after, it was impossible to make a profit. Also Firms like Penrith & District Farmers Mart where farmers took charge to keep the mart going for the good of the farming community; and we are still doing it! Farmers, don’t ever forget what your auctioneers did for you then and continue to do now.

it is true, we won’t ever see the like again, but new pressures continue to hit farmers and related business’s like auctioneers, that keep taking the hits and keep coming back for more.

Tomorrow is not a celebration, but it is a bad memory superceded by the knowledge that we stood up,and came back for more, because that’s what farmers and auctioneers do. Whatever the challenge in the future, we will do the same again.

 

Adam Day – February 2016

WAS THAT YOUR BEST SHOT?

I might have mentioned earlier how important the game of Rugby Union has been in my life. It is suprising how many farmers play the game. Often through the physical demands of their day jobs they are naturally fit, strong and athletic. Many have played International rugby and still do to this day. I played in a Royal Agricultural College XV with some outstanding players and even got dropped from Number 8 for one gangly youth by the name of Ben Clarke. I took much exception to this at the time, only to watch him gain 40 England and 3 British Lion caps as his career progressed. Not a bad replacement after all!

On the various occasions that I played against farmers that knew me, I always seemed to be singled out for a bit of special treatment! I guess it comes with the territory being a soft auctioneer/ land agent!

I never really enjoyed playing loose-head prop. It is in some ways less physically demanding than tight head but it requires a greater technique. Tight-heads often find it difficult to acclimatise on the left-hand side of the scrum especially because only one shoulder is in contact with opposition prop instead of two. Also the loose-head props head is always exposed. I only ever played there a handful of times in my career.

One cold wet December day at Winters Park, Penrith, we were playing yet another local derby game against Wigton. Packing down at loose-head I was uncomfortable but not struggling. Another scrum was called and we thumped in. I was in a good position and began to exert a little pressure on my opposite prop. Their scrum began to shunt backwards a little. I kept on driving when all of a sudden I heard a loud smack. There followed a microsecond of delayed reaction then a burning pain hit me on my exposed left ear, which continued to ring loudly and appeared to be bleeding a little.

“Some beggars hit me” I thought. As the scrum broke up I considered letting fly against my prop but I knew he was not to blame.

“Who did that?” I asked my flank forward who was looking dumb struck,

“Their number six” he replied

“Why didn’t you hit him back”? I enquired

“Because he’s an animal” came the reply.

We ran over to the opposite touch line where a line out was forming. As I got to the line out I searched out the Wigton number six. He was smiling at me and I realised it was Derek Holliday, a farmer’s son from Sebergham. Derek had a certain reputation and wasn’t exactly backward at stepping forward on a rugby pitch! I smiled back.

“Was that your best shot then?” I said quietly walking past so as not to alert the referee.
“No way” came back the reply

“Pity because you’re going to get mine soon”!

The game continued and as I was taught from an early age, I bided my time. Some ten minutes later my time came. A Garryowen kick by our fly half was put high into the darkening December sky. On the hoof I glanced to see who was likely to catch the ball when it came down. It was the Derek Holliday. Time for a little retribution. How I ran after that ball.

“Mine” shouted Derek. It seemed to take an age for the ball to come down. Eventually it did and Derek caught it cleanly. Immediately two of our back row forwards collared him and he was held facing towards the Penrith team and still holding the ball with both hands as three players including me arrived together. At the very second I got to him I delivered a short-range right hand uppercut which landed sweetly underneath his chin. I heard a little groan of pain and a big maul formed. I drifted to the edge of it in case the referee had seen the punch but not the culprit. He had not seen it. Wigton cleared the ball to touch and we ran over to the line out. As we formed, Derek jogged up and yet again grinned at me. It was a huge, wide grin and not a tooth could be seen in his top gum.

“Bloody Hell” I thought, “I’ve knocked his teeth out”.

“Was that your best shot?” he asked.

“No way” I replied, nevertheless feeling a little guilty about his dental rearrangement.

Honours even, we played on without further incident. I think Wigton actually won the game. Duly showered and changed I made my way in to the clubhouse for a pint. Shortly after Derek walked in. As befits the most honourable of rugby traditions I offered to buy him a pint. He accepted. As we took the first long pulls from our glasses I asked him a question.

“Tell me, that little tickler, it didn’t knock any teeth out did it?”

“Christ no” he said “and you’ve just reminded me”. With that he fished into his green blazer pocket, pulled out a full top plate of false teeth, dipped them into his beer and placed them carefully on to his upper palate. He must have seen the relief on my face. “Lost these in a fight when I was a bit younger” he added.

Many years later I became an employee of the Country Landowners Association. The role occasionally took me to Belgrave Square, the Headquarters of the CLA. On my first visit I was introduced to the CLA’s Head of Environment, Derek Holliday. Later over a beer in the Star Tavern, I reminded him of the incident. He remembered it instantly and claimed that I had “mistakenly” got hold of his shirt and in so doing prevented him from disengaging from the scrum. So he felt it best to make me see the error of my ways. I didn’t even know I had done it, and knowing how Derek played his rugby, I probably didn’t grab his shirt anyway! He then went on to say, that he absolutely knew he had to catch the up and under kick. At the same time knew exactly what was going to happen when he did!

Taking another sup of beer he looked up at the ceiling, reliving the moment, and said “I remember thinking, I must catch this ball and I know it’s going to hurt”!

I never played against Derek again, which was probably just as well, but we still meet up from time to time at Penrith Rugby Club and like all past players recalling the old days, the tries get further and further out, the tackles more ferocious and the punches much harder! We wouldn’t have swopped it for anything else!

“I WILL MAKE A MAN OUT OF HIM” – Part 4

Farming is a hard way of life, without question. No matter how skilled and proficient the farmer, things do go wrong and accidents happen. Losing livestock, disease and illness is all part of the job. Animals can become ill and then die. The role of the large animal vet may be crucial in saving a life. Dick’s pedigree young bulls often sold very well at the breed society sales at Carlisle and Perth. In recent years Dick had bred a National Junior Champion and was a very respected producer within the breed. In the yard I fed and looked after three cracking young lads that were due to be sold the following autumn. Sometimes in winter they were let out of the sheds in to the open yard to feed and exercise.

One morning I arrived down to the yard pushing the usual barrow load of silage and I noticed one of the bulls clearly in distress and looking very bloated. Quickly I ran back up to the main yard to find Benson who did most of the show preparation work on the bulls. The bull had an intestinal blockage and a vet was summoned immediately. I continued with my chores.

Sometime later I arrived back at the yard to find that the vet had no option but to perform an operation in order to release the gases that had become trapped in the bull’s stomach. I watched in fascination as the young vet worked away to insert a valve called a cannula through the animals side in order to insert a tube in to the stomach. Eventually the vet managed to puncture the stomach and then dive for cover as the contents of the bulls stomach erupted from the tube like a geyser. It was the foulest stench I had ever smelt. The relief on the bulls face was immediate. Sadly the cannula had to stay as this problem recurred. I even had to open the valve myself some mornings, careful always to get out of the way. The cause of the problem was ingestion of dead oak leaves, the result eventually was that the bull had to be sold in to the meat chain rather than enjoy a long and happy life as a breeding bull. This event was one of many disappointments in the year that all farmers have to put up with.

Generally working with the pedigree Charolais cattle was good fun. One day in summer up at the Pardshaw land we were touring the Charolais cattle in the Land Rover. Dick had a huge Charolais stock bull called Chesholm Newtown. By all accounts he was very friendly, in fact too friendly. As we drove past him, he started to move towards the Land Rover head down. Dick advised me in no uncertain terms that I should drive the Land Rover out of his way.

I knew better than to argue. Benson told me later that Dick had been driving through the field on his own one day and the bull had decided to have some fun with the Land Rover. At over 1400 kgs, he had nearly turned the vehicle over even though he was just playing! I always kept my eye on Newtown, from that day forward.

By August my placement was coming to an end. I had learned very much about good stocksmanship and a fair bit about myself too. I was well over two stones lighter than when I started. Many times I had gone to bed deciding to pack in and not go back. Every morning I went back for more.

My last morning of employment was to be Saturday 4th of August. It was the day of Cockermouth Show, the local agricultural show. The Clark team were proudly showing a bit of everything. They had dairy cattle, Charolais cattle and mule lambs. Each entry was top class and produced to perfection. In order to buy everyone some time and to ensure my last morning went smoothly, I arrived down at the farm half an hour early. No one else was up and about.

In the cool, still morning air I walked down to the far cow pastures, admiring the new post and wire fences I had helped to put up right through Easter Weekend. Then I gathered up the milk cows that were happily chewing their cud or grazing. Slowly but surely I walked them back to the farm, along the mosses, through the wet morning dew alongside the dry stone wall that Dick had taught me how to gap up. I knew many by name and was able to walk alongside them giving them a pat or a stroke as we went. Old Twinkle with her huge udder waddled along at the back with me resting my hand on her as she went.

On the banks above the cow pasture i could see St Michaels Chapel at the northern boundary of Mosser Mains Farm. Adam De Mosser cleared these lands to farm in the 13th century. Now for just a few short months 700 years later another Adam had worked on the land, learning skills and experience to last a lifetime.

Back at the farm Twinkle had pushed her way through the collecting yard up to the parlour door. First in as always. By the time Alan turned out to start milking, the parlour was set up correctly, the bulk tank connected and all filters in the right place.

Milking was soon through but there was no time for breakfast as the beautifully cleaned and prepared show animals were loaded in to well- strawed trailers to head for the show field. With a wave goodbye, I was left standing in the yard alone. The job was over and done. Was I sad? No not at all. Was I satisfied? Yes quietly away and quite relieved. With a deep breath and a last look around the yard, I headed for home with a growing realisation that within the month I would be leaving my family and heading a long way south to Cirencester and on to the next chapter of my life.

I hope I have not created too harsh a picture of Dick Clark. He was hard on me and he pushed me like never before or since, but run or run faster can be a good way of working at the right time.

To bring this tale full circle, we have to jump forward five years. It is 1991. I am 26 years old. Three years out of college I have made it back to Cumbria and I have been steadily learning my new trade as an auctioneer at Penrith, Lazonby and Troutbeck. The time has arrived when I am now selling at bigger and better sales.

It is Lazonby auction in the autumn. The prestigious autumn sale of Registered Blue Faced Leicester Ram Lambs is upon us. I am told that I will be second auctioneer on the rostrum. This sale is the cream of the crop. The hierarchy of the Leicester Breeders will be here buying and selling. I did sell some shearling and older tups last year with mixed results (another story), but now this is the big time.

A line is drawn in the catalogue where I am to start selling. The second consignment I will sell is from Dick Clark, Mosser Mains. I go down to the pens to talk to him and other vendors, to see if they have any instructions for me. Dick is busy talking to potential buyers who are looking at his sheep. So I keep out of the way.

Back at the ring my nerves grow and grow. I question myself constantly. Am I good enough to do this? Why am I even here? It is too late now and before I know it the microphone is being handed to me. I take a deep breath, pick up the gavel, and the room is mine.

I sell the first vendors only ram easily and immediately Dick and Alan Clark are walking through the big oak double doors behind their very nice Leicester Shearling Ram. Despite the fact that Dick shouted at me many times at Mosser Mains, he is actually very quietly spoken. I listen very hard as he whispers in my ear. “This should make 1100 guineas”. It is not a reserve, it is just Dick valuing his own stock. I trust him and I know him. He’s never far wrong!

I get in to gear and move quickly through the bids. Soon I am bring the hammer down at exactly 1100 guineas. Unbelievable! I sell the rest of his consignment and before I know it Dick and Alan are  saying thank you and walking out of the ring. There is no time to think though. The sale goes on. After half an hour I realise I am enjoying it and in the swing. With a little prompting from the senior auctioneers who take it in turns to sit with me, I get through my stint. It is over in a flash and I am handing the microphone back. Quietly I move to the back of the rostrum and then it hits me. The first proper consignment of Blue Faced Leicester’s that I sell at Lazonby is from Dick Clark, Mosser Mains Farm. It seems entirely fitting to me.

The following year, following Peter Sarjeant’s retirement, I am now to be the weekly dairy auctioneer at Penrith. It is my first day on the job, a Tuesday morning. As always I am beyond nervous. Can I really do this? What do I know about dairy cows?

The first cows for sale arrive at the unloading docks. Low and behold it is Dick Clark, bringing a very tidy newly calved heifer for sale. He often does sell at Penrith and has a good following. He is first in to the ring and the thought is not lost on me that yet again the first time I sell in a particular sales ring, it is for Dick Clark.

I lean down low as he whispers to me “She’ll make over £1000”.

I’ve no need to do anything other than take bids. Dick’s dairy cattle are popular and always sell well. Even so I take my time. Learned men in the trade have told me never to rush selling a dairy cow. It is not like selling prime cattle to professional buyers. Farmers are often reluctant or shy bidders if they are not used to it, or don’t really like spending their own money. A good auctioneer can work the room, cajole another bid, work the buyers to go that extra few pounds. Much as my instinct is to get the hammer down, I keep trying, imploring another bid from a man shaking his head then laughing at me as I crack a feeble joke. It works though, as he nods his head at me, having one last shot at buying the heifer.

The hammer comes down. Dick is dead pan. He is never going to show publicly that he is pleased with the price, but at £1050 I have done my job well. He politely thanks me and walks out of the ring. A while later I see Dick in the auction foyer. “I’ll have another for next week” he tells me. That’s all the praise I need.

A few years later I’ve moved on and I am going through a wobbly patch in the old auction at Cockermouth. The pressure is on the company. We aren’t making much money, we’ve had some bad debt, and the stock numbers aren’t great. The directors are putting me under pressure. I’m finding it tough. They get frustrated with me and quite honestly it won’t be the last time in my career. I get it right quite a lot of the time but in the words of Dick Clark, I usually manage to bugger it up somewhere down the line. Nobody’s perfect but as I go through my career, I find it difficult to back away from what I believe is right. Colleagues will tell me in future, just swallow your pride and do it the way the directors want you to. I sometimes find that hard to do if I don’t agree. It is a failing of mine- perhaps.

One night I jump in the car and drive to Mosser Mains. I need some wise council. Dick will give it to me straight. I have a small whisky with him. He tells me what I need to do. “Stick to your guns, believe in yourself but at this point in time…. don’t run so fast! The jobs going alright really. The main thing is to keep your head down and get stock in to the market, nothing else matters”.

I feel better having talked it through and I am sure that Dick will make his views known to some of the directors. Within the year the market is full of sheep week after week. It keeps the company afloat as we struggle to get planning permission for a new market. I continue to sell stock from Mosser Mains year upon year.

Several years later, in the new market at Cockermouth, the sad news comes through that Dick Clark has passed away. It is a blessing as he has been steadily failing health for a while. Alyson his youngest daughter lives in Eaglesfield with James, our yard foreman. She works in the café at the mart. We are like family. Lyn, their other sister lives in Canada and we don’t see her so often.

I receive word from Alison that Dick’s widow Liz would like to see me at Mosser Mains. I travel up to the farm with a sense of foreboding. Will this be difficult? It isn’t. Some of the family are there and we have a brew and talk about Dick and the time I worked for them and also about other people that have worked for them over the years for I wasn’t the only one to be educated there. Liz tells me that they would like me to offer a eulogy within the funeral service. They tell me some stories they would like me to include together with some of my own.

I am honoured and very proud to be asked. The service is a celebration of Dick’s farming life. I recount the “you always manage to bugger it up” tale and also about selling the Leicester’s and the dairy cows. He was I tell them, a man of extra- ordinary self-belief and confidence. A brilliant stock man and judge of cattle and sheep, but for all of that, not an easy man to work with, or for! I am told later that the eulogy summed up Dick very well. It is my final job done for Dick, a farmer and a friend who has featured so much in my career.

After 16 years good years I am leaving Mitchell’s. There is an exciting opportunity to join North West Auctions and build a new mart near Kendal. They want me for my experience and they have also employed my father as the architect. This will be the second time we have worked together on a new mart premises. It will also be the last.

It is not a difficult decision to leave Cockermouth. The new executive Chairman is introducing major changes to the business and we don’t see eye to eye in some matters. The best option for me is to move on and at this moment in time, I am in a position to do so. I leave without an ounce of regret, job done. Others will take my place no problem. No one is irreplaceable in this world. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. As one door closes another door usually opens.

Soon a letter arrives in the post from Liz Clark. Much of the letter will remain private but in the final paragraph she says: –

“Mitchell’s new auction was your baby. You brought it to where it is today…. You have given your all to Mitchell’s.

When you worked for Dick I used to think every night- Adam won’t be back in the morning. But you never failed to turn up for work and I think that’s when you became a man”!

I keep the letter in a safe place………

“I WILL MAKE A MAN OUT OF HIM” – PART 3

As the months progressed I was slowly but surely learning to work with and handle livestock. The Clarks were exceptional stock men. They were confident and talented and it was hard for me to work to their standards and learn those skills. One of Dick’s favourite sayings to me was “You’ll never make a stock man”. One day we were putting the Charolais bulls through the cattle crush where they were to be wormed by dosing gun. My job was to entice the cattle in to the crush by opening the front yoke and showing the cattle some daylight to persuade them to step forward. At just the right moment I had to swing the handle to catch the animals head in the yoke so that it was held fast. All was going well until, one animal pulled back at the very second I was swinging the handle. I missed its head and it ran backwards. Dick was at the back of the crush and hadn’t got the back gate shut. The animal smashed against the back door, knocking Dick off balance.

I got severely castigated and told yet again “you’ll never make a stock man”. By this time I was slowly growing immune and learning to carry on without taking it to heart. A while later our roles had reversed and I was now at the back of the crush. A young bull was being held and just at the point of release Dick walked right in front of the Crush. The bull was startled and ran backwards. I was reaching through the back gate to give the bull a smack to send it forward. The bull was too quick for me and it trapped my arm against the back door. I yelped in pain and gave him a daggers look.

Dick realised what had happened and looked a bit sheepish for a least a couple of seconds. As I rubbed my bruised arm I thought about retorting with a comment about his stocksmanship, but I just dare not do it!

One morning in early May we landed in for breakfast and Dick announced that in view of my continued improvement, he had taken a decision to raise my weekly wage to £30. To me it felt like a fortune but more importantly I was making progress and it had been recognised. Every Friday lunchtime I was allowed to drive in to Cockermouth to bank my cheque. One Friday I nipped down to the card shop on Main Street to buy a birthday card. I had been sorting through old silage bags all morning, which were very dirty and very smelly with the remnants of last year’s silage liquor. I didn’t realise how smelly boiler suit was until I was in the card shop and a lady exclaimed in a loud voice. “Oh my god you are revolting”. Several people nodded and agreed. So much so that I was refused service and asked to leave!

Back to the silage bags and I had worked through a huge pile of them discarding the badly ripped ones and keeping others that may be used for lining newer bags. Finally I was down to the last bag and as I lifted it up I uncovered a huge rat’s nest. There were hundreds of them running in all directions squealing. Some ran up my boiler suit. I admit it, I screamed and ran around stamping like a demented banshee. By the time I had calmed down and the rats had escaped there were quite a few lying dead on the floor.

On a warm Saturday morning Dick instructed me that I was to use the knapsack sprayer and work around the field closest to the farm, spraying any nettles, docks or thistles in the fields and along the boundaries. I was instructed how to mix the weed killer and then I was dispatched. I worked away until noon. I was up in the back field above the farm house. The field was about 10 acres in size and I had about 100 metres to go to complete a full sweep of the boundary. I realised it was lunch time and remembered a story that my old grandfather had told me. He had spent some time in farm service in the late 1920’s. The farm hands were told that they had to be back to the farm at lunchtime promptly. One day he was finishing off a job and thought he had better stick in to the end to show willing. When he got back to the farm half an hour late, the food was gone and all he could get was a salt and pepper sandwich.

With this in mind I dropped the knapsack sprayer and jogged back to the farm. Sitting down to lunch Dick asked me where I was up to. I told him I was about 100 metres from completing the ten acre field. “whaaaat? You’ve come home for dinner without completing the last bit. Get your bloody self back out there now. With that my plate was removed and I went back out. Half an hour later I was back at the table.

“How far have you done this morning?” well I started over there and went in to there up and round there” I pointed. “Is that all?” said Dick. “You’ve done nowt. Bloody dawdling I would say”.

I thought this was quite unfair as I knew I had gone full blast and my arm operating the sprayer had being going up and down faster than a fiddlers elbow. I also knew better than to argue so I just kept on eating. Three weeks later as the weeds died off, Dick finally realised just how much I had done and commented,

“You see that’s one of your problems Adam, You never explain yourself properly”!

Memory tells me that 1984 was a hot, dry summer. Dick tasked me to make a field of hay. I had started in the spring by rolling the field dragging a heavy land roller behind an old 1972 David Brown 990 Selamatic tractor. It had no cab and certainly no roll bar. Nor did it have power steering or a heater. In fact I rolled field after field with this rig, come rain, hail, sunshine and even snow. Up and down the fields I went bumping along on an improvised piece of foam which lined the metal tractor seat.

Then the hay field was fertilised and shut off from all livestock. Over summer the grass grew until the point where the timothy, a long seeded species of grass beloved by all livestock in winter, had headed up nicely and the field was ready to mow.

Dick had also taught me to mow grass with a 2 drum mower and I had now got fairly confident with this bit of kit pulled along behind a David Brown 1375 which did have a cab and a radio! I didn’t really enjoy decapitating the odd rabbit or two, but you don’t see them until it is too late. So now it was going to be my job to make hay.

The grass was duly mown lying in long straight lines on a gently sloping field. Over the next few days I was to begin turning the hay, to allow the green grass to slowly dry out, warm and ripen in the hot sunshine. Each day I attached the haybob to the 990 and set off down to the hayfield. Every morning the long lines of hay were scattered out, and each evening the hay was put back in to tight, neat rows. As the hay dried out, it became crisp and fluffy. The smell was gorgeous. There is no other smell like fresh hay in the meadow especially at dawn and dusk.

After 5 glorious days bumping up and down the field with my shirt off, I had developed a marvellous tan and the hay was ready to bale. In came the old McCormick baler operated by local contractor Harold Braithwaite. My next job was to stack the hay bales in a certain manner in groups of 18 bales, called a stook. These could then be picked up by a bale transporter, a flimsy looking but highly effective piece of equipment that picked up the whole stook which was then driven the short distance back to the farm.

The stook was dropped next to the hay barn, a traditional stone barn perhaps 200 years old with a wooden floored hay loft above. The bales were placed on to a petrol- engined elevator which lifted the bales one by one from the ground up to and through a large hay window and in to the hay loft. The person at the top then positioned and packed the bales tightly in to the barn where they would stay until needed during winter. This is called “mewing” in Cumbria.

In the barn it was very hot and very dusty, I was quite happy to let the other lads mew the hay especially as they were very particular about how they did it. So I lifted the bales on to the elevator at the bottom. Conditions in the hot sunshine were not unpleasant and I had plenty of time to shift all the bales before Dick got back with the next load on the tractor. By tea- time, the job was done. Hot and thirsty we were all in good humour as we went to tea. I was so proud when Dick declared that it was a very good crop of hay.

Having been tasked with the job of making hay I spent some time researching the procedure in my college text books which gave me a technical angle on the job I had done. Imagine my delight at the end of my first year at college when one of the compulsory questions in the practical agriculture exam was to describe and discuss the procedure to make a field of meadow hay. I was able to describe in detail the job I did at Mosser Mains. I passed the exam with flying colours!

“I WILL MAKE A MAN OUT OF HIM” – Part 2

My education at Mosser Mains included working in the milking parlour. I rather enjoyed my weekends on duty as it often gave me the chance to put cluster units on the cows. One of Alan’s old favourites was a big old cow called Twinkle. She had a huge udder from which she could produce over 40 litres of milk day after day, year after year. She was always the first cow waiting to enter the parlour. Cows are matriarchal creatures and old Twink ruled the roost. Many years later I reminded Alan about the old cow. He heaved a huge sigh and told me, “Aye that was a sad day when she went down the road”.  

Cows are working animals but farmers form bonds and attachments to them. When a cow ends her working life either by not being able to have another calf, or if her udder fails, then she has to be sold inevitably in to the meat chain. Whilst it is just part of the cycle of farming it can be nevertheless sad for farmers to say goodbye. Many times in the auction I have had farmers leave an old cow on market day, not wanting to watch her being sold through the ring to a meat buyer.

Often at weekends I would try and set the parlour up for milking at either end of the day, so that Alan or Benson would be able to start milking straight away. Then after completing my own jobs I would rush back to the parlour to help. I absolutely loved the creamy, smell of the dairy and  the rhythmical beat of the pulsator which helped to draw the milk out of the cows teats, through the individual cups and in to the milk pipeline.

The milk would then be filtered three times before ending up in the milk tank which would chill the milk down before collection each morning by a milk tanker.

One Sunday afternoon I arrived early and set up the parlour for milking. This included fitting all three filters in the system which had been rigorously cleansed after the morning milking. Half way through my jobs I had one of those awful, spine chilling moments when I realised that I had missed one of the filters. I ran back to the dairy to see the filter lying in a sink. Quickly I installed it in its place without anyone seeing. All I could do was hope for the best.

The next morning the tanker arrived and I was dismayed to see the driver taking a test sample. Two days later Dick got a letter through the post to say that the Total Bacterial Count in the milk was far too high and if it happened again he would be in big trouble.

I had to come clean. Dick was so mad he couldn’t speak. Eventually I was subjected to half an hour of abuse about how bloody useless I was. Dick came out with the best “put down” I have ever had. “I pay you £25 a week and its £30 too much”. Almost in tears I went back to my jobs. A while later Alan came to me and said, “Don’t worry about it Lad”. Last Sunday Dad set off to milk and realised half way through he hadn’t put the plug in the milk tank. It was running down the yard”. That still didn’t make me feel any better.

That night I went home and told my mother I didn’t think I could stand it anymore. She told me not to go back if I felt that way. Next morning I couldn’t lie in bed and fail. So I got back out there and started again. This I did every morning until the end of my placement.

One Saturday afternoon in April I found myself working alone. So I decided that I would tidy up the yard and sweep down all of the concrete. I always had a radio on as did the Clark lads when they were working. It was Grand National Day. A horse called Hello Dandy won and I remember hearing that it was a Cumbrian Horse trained at Greystoke near Penrith. Sixteen years later I found myself living in Greystoke watching the racehorses running round the all-weather track a couple of fields in front of my house.

By early summer I had lost over two stones in weight and was lean and mean. The warm weather had arrived and the grass was growing. One morning Dick and I set off in the Land Rover to inspect a field full of young stirks. A couple of them had a touch of New Forest Disease which is basically an eye infection rather like conjunctivitis. The only treatment was to inject an antibiotic ointment in to the affected eyes through a plastic syringe. Dick told me to park the Land Rover against the fence in the corner of the field. We would then herd the cattle, about 30 of them in to the space between the vehicle and the fence behind. I was to grab the infected animal by the head so that Dick could then put the ointment in to the eye. These little stirks were about 6 months old, so not very big, but even at that age, they were very strong.

I was young and enthusiastic and believed I could tackle anything. So I waded in and managed to grab one. Pulling its head up I grabbed the animals muzzle and held on. The rest of the cattle scattered but Dick was across in a flash and expertly administered the ointment. Then we spent 20 minutes gathering the cattle back to the corner. By now they were wise to our tricks. Several times they broke past us. Finally after some time we cornered them again. I made a lunge for the untreated animal and just managed to get my hand around its neck. It took off like a bat out of hell down the field.

I was wearing a cheap pair of wellies with very little tread on the bottom. I’ve already told you that Dick liked me to run. So I found myself skiing on my wellies alongside the stirk, holding on to its neck as it galloped down the field. Eventually I managed to get a hand in to its muzzle and pulling up with all my might I managed to lift its head right up and pull it to a stop. Dick came huffing and puffing down the field. For the only time in my time at the farm I swore at Dick. “Bloody hurry up and get the bugger injected” I shouted. He did and after letting the stirk re-join its mates, we went back to the Land Rover. As we drove home in silence I could tell Dick wanted to say something. Eventually he spoke.

“You know something Adam? Sometimes I see you trying very hard and I think that I should give you some praise. But somehow, you always manage to go and bugger it up”! That was as close as I ever got in my whole time with Dick to getting some praise.

One bright, sunny afternoon Dick and I went to his land in the village of Pardshaw Hall, a mile away from Mosser. On this very land in 1650, from the famous Pardshaw Craggs, 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 to a new fence!

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 to bang them in. He carefully positioned the post and instructed me to hold it firmly. Then he spat on both hands and took the Mell Hammer in 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 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 in to the ground. The second wobbled a bit on the top, and the third 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 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.

“I WILL MAKE A MAN OUT OF HIM” – Part 1


It was a bitterly cold January morning in 1984. My 6 months’ work placement at Cockermouth Auction had come to an end. Now I was about to start to my second placement. The work was required by The Royal Agricultural College before I was due to start a Rural Estate Management Course later that year. My father offered to send me to Australia for a gap year which was all but unheard of in those days. Having hardly been out of Cumbria, this was not too appealing especially when there was a regular girlfriend on the scene too. Many times since have I castigated myself for not taking the opportunity to travel, especially having met a couple of lads at college who had done so and enjoyed it, to the full!

Instead father talked to a local farmer from just down the road. Dick Clark was known and respected the country over as an exceptional livestock farmer. Mosser Mains farm carried a dairy herd, a pedigree Charolais beef herd and a fine flock of Swaledale ewes together with a noted Blue Faced Leicester flock.  lying six miles south west of Cockermouth, the land rises up the northerly slopes of Fellbarrow.  The placement couldn’t have been better and right on the doorstep. What I didn’t know on that first morning was just how hard my time at Mosser Mains was going to be.

Dick told my father that I wouldn’t find it easy. “If he can last” said Dick, “I will make a man out of him”. Armed with a brand new boiler suit, a pair of work gloves and a shiny new pocket knife, I set off in the pitch dark, down the hill to the farm.

So began the hardest six months of my life. Working up to 82 hours a week for a total of £25. It didn’t take long to realise that Dick had two expected speeds at which I would operate, “run” and “run faster”. Youngest son Alan, about 10 years older than me was milking the dairy cows and I was despatched with older son Benson to feed all of the housed cattle including the young stock and a pedigree Charolais herd.

By 9am the early morning work was completed and I was invited in to take breakfast with the family. Liz Clark cooked up a fantastic feast including porridge followed by a full English and toast to follow. As we sat down Dick declared that I was too fat and we were going to have to do something about it. So I was given the choice between the bacon and eggs or the toast. Clearly I was always going to choose the bacon! Then he asked me if there was anything I didn’t like to eat. “I’m not keen on liver & onions” I replied, munching in to my bacon.

The moment I had finished my breakfast I was told not to sit all day and to get back out there. When Dick finally finished reading the paper and came back out to the yard, I was wandering around not really knowing what to do. “What have you done since you came out”? He enquired. “Err nothing, I didn’t really know wh…….” I was rudely interrupted by Dick who gave me my first bollocking of very many over the next few months. “Didn’t know what to do? Open your bloody eyes man. There’s plenty of jobs to be getting on with. Don’t wander round my yard doing nothing”. Lesson number one was swiftly learned. Never again would he catch me doing nothing!

A little while later we were off up to the high ground where the pregnant Swaledale ewes needed some feed. The high ground was actually the most northern slopes of the Lake District running up to the rounded dome of Fellbarrow. From here you could see far across the Solway Firth in to Scotland. Not that I was looking across on this particular morning.

Dick had a fine flock of Swaledale sheep and was a renowned breeder of Blue Faced Leicester sheep too. The ewes were in lamb to the Leicester to produce the famous North of England Mule lamb. Neither Dick nor I had any inkling that one day in a few years’ time I would be selling these lambs for him at Lazonby auction, probably  the foremost mule auction centre in the land at the time. At least that’s what it said in the catalogues!

Dick drove the Land Rover and I sat with my legs out of the back door. Then I was instructed to dribble out the feed which were little hard ewe rolls or cobs as they are sometimes called. The sheep loved this extra feed and swiftly gathered to follow the land rover as a long line of cobs was tipped out slowly.

“Start pouring instructed Dick! Here was the first problem. I couldn’t get the feedbags open” Desperately I searched for my pen knife which was deep in the pocket of my boiler suit. I couldn’t find it. “Are you pouring yet”? Shouted Dick. “No just hang on a minute”. I replied. Big mistake!

“No I won’t bloody hang on. Get that bloody feed out. We’re half way up the field. What the bloody hell are you doing? Are you useless!? What the hell have I taken on here?”

Eventually the bags were opened and the feed scattered. Another lesson was learned. The next morning as I loaded the land rover with feed, the bags were opened in preparation. The feed was delivered to the sheep without fuss. Not a word was spoken by Dick.

Lunchtime arrived on my first day and I was already exhausted. It was a lovely feeling to wash my hands in warm water, smell the fragrant hand soap and feel the heat invade my freezing fingers. My boiler suit was left hanging outside in the passage. It was already covered in cow muck. No matter how I tried, my boiler suits always seemed to get mucked up, whereas the Clark lads hardly seemed to get a splash. I never worked that one out.

So I sat down starving hungry. A plate was presented to me and I could smell it before it hit the table. Liver and Onions. Nothing was said but I could just see the beginnings of a wry smile curling around Dick’s lips. Holding my breath with each mouthful, I ate the lot.

Having cleaned my plate, Dick asked me if I wanted some more. “Yes please” I replied and another huge hunk of liver was delivered to my plate. I ate that too, this time feeling quite sick. Never again if I was asked, would I say that I didn’t like something. Never again did we have liver and onions during my time at the farm!

By evening, milking was completed and we knocked off at 6pm, I made my way back up the hill to High Mosser. I was completely tired out. “Only another seven months” I thought. This must surely get better!

All through the spring I grafted away learning new skills from a talented livestock man. The stock always came first. Lambing arrived and for 6 weeks I did not have a day off. Being a young man who liked a night out, I still went out on a Saturday night, dragging myself out of bed on a Sunday morning to get down to the farm. If I was lucky I might be sent home on at coffee time on Sunday. Too tired to even bother showering I usually went straight to bed only to get up for Sunday evening milking.

The Blue Faced Leicester’s were the first to lamb. Brilliant sheep though they are in fathering the mule lamb, they are quite soft sheep, and not too hardy. They rather need mollycoddling, especially at lambing time. A breeder once told me that the only problem with a Leicester is that all it really wants to do is die. I think he had a bad lambing that year. Dick’s Leicester’s were now lambing in the sheds and one morning I was shouted for. This particular ewe was one of Dick’s prize animals. He had tried all ways to get the lamb out of the sheep but it was just too big. The ewe was twisted and turned and all manner of lubricant used to try and extricate said lamb. At one stage I had the ewe pulled up off the floor by the back legs as we sought purchase to pull the lamb. Even in the cool spring air I was sweating buckets. Eventually, the lamb was born by natural means but four of us were completely exhausted. I realised then that Blue Faced Leicester’s were great sheep but definitely high- maintenance! 

As spring progressed and the grass grew, so the fields were full of ewes and lambs, thriving and growing in preparation for the autumn sales, “the harvest of the fells”. What a brilliant time of year, celebrating yet again the circle of farming life.  meanwhile a young lad raw  but ready, served his apprenticeship, learning just how hard that farming life can be.

JUDGING HERDWICK EWES AND A FUTURE FOR THOSE WHO FARM THEM.

In early October there is a prize show and sale of Herdwick draft ewes at Cockermouth Auction, a market town on the northern edge of the Lake District. The sale has taken place here for over a century. Draft ewes are older sheep that are perhaps no longer fit enough to survive a further winter on the fell. So they are sold to lowland shepherds where conditions may be less harsh.  The ewes may go on producing lambs for several more years away from the fell.

Many years ago in the old Cockermouth town centre market, not long after I had become the market manager and therefore the Herdwick Sheep Breeders official auctioneer,  Joe Folder from Cockermouth produced a fantastic pen of  ten ewes, some of the biggest and best in the market. He presented them in the prize show. They were to compete against some equally magnificent fell sheep from top Lakeland breeders from every corner of Cumbria.

Joe had spent a lifetime in the Herdwick breed, working hard fell farms across Cumbria. For many years he was a National Trust tenant at Baskell farm in the hills above the Duddon Valley. In his later years he had retired to Cockermouth but his passion for Herdwicks remained undiminished. He continued to breed superb sheep none of which would live on high fells. This meant that his sheep were always bigger than many traditional fell- going ewes. This was not in any way a fault, but simply a product of their environment, living and breeding in fields around Cockermouth and the Vale of Lorton. His sheep were always sought after and sold well.

The show judge picked out two pens to contest the draft ewe championship. Side by side stood Joe’s sheep and a lovely pen of draft fell ewes from Gordon Tyson, Troutbeck Park. Standing on the lower slopes of Kirkstone Pass, the farm was purchased by Mrs Heelis (Beatrix Potter) in 1923 to prevent it being developed thereby preserving it as a working sheep farm which was her avowed intent. She did this by personally taking the farm in- hand and establishing a celebrated flock of Herdwick sheep. The sheep grazed to the top of High Street at around 2,700 feet and still do to this day.

After her death in 1943, Mrs Heelis gifted a total of 14 farms covering 4,000 acres including Troutbeck Park, to the National Trust. She did this to ensure that her will would be met and the farms remain viable working holdings for future generations. Gordon Tyson, farmed the sheep for many years and continued to improve a fine flock of sheep until he passed away in 2015. The sheep he brought to Cockermouth market had spent every winter living on the high fells above the farm. Now it was time for them to leave the fell and live the rest of their lives on lower pastures.

Both pens of sheep looked beautiful in the market, fleeces rudded- up along their backs with gleaming white faces in contrast to the grey- blue of the coat below the “rudd”. The Judge asked me how I wanted him to assess the sheep. Joe’s sheep had a size and condition that the fell sheep as strong and as good as they were, simply could not achieve. Stupidly, I said that he should just pick the best pen of draft sheep. I thought I was being diplomatic. The judge awarded the championship to the Troutbeck Park fell sheep and then apologised to Joe because he thought he had the strongest sheep. The judge quoted what I said and explained to Joe why his sheep were placed second. Joe just smiled and shook his hand.

Later in the bar, long after the sale was over, Joe lay his wizened old hand firmly on my forearm. He was approaching 80 years of age but his grip was still like iron. “Young man” he whispered in my ear, using his other hand to remove the pipe from his mouth “You should have just said nowt”. He smiled and released his grip. His point was made and he was quite right. I learned a valuable lesson.

Joe became a friend after that and would rarely miss a Herdwick Sale and the subsequent gathering of shepherds in the bar, right up to the end of his life. In the happy glow of the auction bar following the Herdwick sales, we would enjoy a drink and some good craic above the singing and the raucous laughter of Cumbrian fell farmers, letting their hair down and enjoying the end of the sale season before hunkering down for a long winter often in semi- isolation deep within the Lakeland’s frozen valleys.

I would go on each year for many years to sell those super Troutbeck Park draft ewes, which had it not been for Mrs Heelis, probably would not have been there. Now once again we look to an uncertain future. If we do not find some balance to allow farmers to work the land, farm the fells sensibly and make a living then there may be no future at all.

How important then that we bring the young people through, to learn the fell craft, preserve the sheep flocks and manage our Lake District landscapes. We must persuade them and give them confidence that they have a future in shepherding. Their role is vital not just to Lakeland but every upland area in the country. Farmers are the lifeblood of many rural communities. Their work shapes the landscape for all to enjoy. They are the true conserver’s of the countryside. The days of over- grazing the fells are gone. Now farmers look to balance careful flock management with preserving habitats and protecting fresh water supplies to a greater extent than ever before. It is called stewardship. Tourists are welcomed for they too are an essential and important part of the fabric of the Lake District.

Balance is the key word in all of this. When the correct balance is finally achieved, we will have found a way to allow Lake District Farmers to farm sustainably and with some profit to re- invest, manage the countryside and cater for the visitors, almost 20 million of them annually, most of whom are thrilled to see proper sheep wintering on the hills that they were bred to graze. This includes the Troutbeck Park flock and so many more Lakeland Farms. Famous flocks that some would seek to destroy with unctuous talk of re- wilding and introducing lynx in their place. Madness and utter folly in an already green and pleasant land.

National Trust farms have been breeding grounds not only of fine Cumbrian fell flocks, but also successive generations of young farmers, starting their own careers, getting a first step on the ladder, learning unique skills and local knowledge often from previous tenants in order to survive and farm in Lakeland. Many farmers like Joe and Gordon chose to stay on and enjoy long and successful tenancies, happy in their work.

Today’s farm children, long after our generation has gone, will still be selling at Herdwick sales, gathering at shepherds meets and shows,  singing songs and enjoying a drink or two in the bar with the proud auctioneer, whoever he or she may be. We must never let this die. How important then that landlords like the National Trust and others never lose sight of the fact, that their farms are a vital weave in the fabric of Lake District farming life, it’s heritage, history and as importantly, it’s future.

I’m sure Beatrix Potter and possibly many of today’s Lakeland tenant farmers would agree. Perhaps now is the time to say something, rather than follow old Joe’s advice to “just say nowt”!