It is the autumn of 1995. I am 30 years of age and the new manager of Mitchell’s Auction Co Ltd. Mitchell’s operates the livestock mart in the town centre of Cockermouth, the market town bedecked by Wordworth’s daffodils each spring, and full of Lake District sheep in the autumn, brought to the market for sale from every valley in the county. The market company is one of the oldest auctions in the country having been created in 1873. As a boy at Fairfield junior school I could hear the auctioneers in full flow and so wanted to run across the car park to the auction. Now I am here managing the place!
There is one important sale that does not take place at Cockermouth Auction although it is always conducted by Mitchell’s. It is the famous Keswick Herdwick Tup Fair. For decades this event has taken place in the park lands above the Twa Dogs pub heading out of Keswick towards Penrith. With great care and precision, Herdwick breeders set up temporary pens in which to hold the annual crop of Herdwick rams, or tups as they are known in Cumbria. Not long after first- light, a procession of vehicles and trailers arrive at the field and the tups are expedited to the grass pens in preparation for the prize judging and eventual sale.
The manager of Cockermouth auction always conducts this sale. It is a long- standing tradition. This year for the first time, the sale is in my hands. I have been nervous for days leading up to the fair. I am new to the job, I don’t really know Herdwick sheep and I only know a few of the local vendors and potential buyers. It is a big responsibility but none of the Herdwick breeders seem to bat an eyelid. They all seem happy to have me selling at their main annual event of the year. Either that or they are good at hiding it!
I arrive early to show willing. It is typical tup fair weather, wet and windy. The clouds are lying low on the southern slopes of Skiddaw, towering above Keswick. Even the top of Latrigg is hidden from view. In front of me I observe a sea of green waterproofs, plastic leggings and wellies. There is an autumnal nip in the air and the leaves are falling from the trees and swirling in the breeze. The Lake District Herdwick farmers are impervious to the rain and cold wind. Winter hasn’t started for them.
Generally speaking the weather is always the same for the Tup Fair. The green landscape is broken only by the magnificent sight of the Herdwick Tups in the pens. There in front of me are 250 of the finest Herdwick males penned together side by side. It is a beautiful view. The older tups now in full bone and full bloom are pumped up like African lions. Striking in their familiar rudded – up (red) fleeces, another long- standing Herdwick tradition. They are testosterone filled pocket battle- ships ready to fight each other or ready to serve ewes, whichever opportunity happens first. The smell of the sheep, the wet wool and the rudd is all- pervading. It is the smell of autumn sheep sales.
It is getting towards tupping time when in just a few weeks’ time, the Herdwick ewes will be brought down from the high Lakeland fells and introduced to their new male friends. This is the only sale of registered Herdwick rams in the year. Each tup has been inspected by a panel of Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association members and has been judged to be physically correct and fit for sale.
Before me stands the cream of the crop, the pride and joy of each and every Herdwick Farmer who is selling. Many of the sheep will have been shown at various Lakeland agricultural shows throughout the year culminating late in the season at Eskdale and Wasdale. The Tup twinters often attract most interest. These are three year old sheep that are about to live through their second winter (twinters). They have not had the chance to serve any sheep being too young the previous autumn. As such they are untried and unproven. Some have massive potential and have been observed by potential buyers at various shows. Some have only been brought out to show at the very end of the season once the opposition has been assessed.
It is good fun watching potential buyers trying to get a good look at the sheep without appearing too interested. It doesn’t do for some buyers to broadcast that they like a certain tup. This can attract other potential buyers who respect the opinions of others and might even out- bid them at sale time. Herdwick tup buying can be a furtive business. Many times in later years I take a bid from a surreptitious hand flapping over the top of the wall, the owner of the hand trying hard not to be seen other bidders. More often than not everyone knows whose hand it is anyway. It is even more fun to knock the tup down to the hand and give the correct name out without even seeing the person. The thumbs up over the top of the wall was the sign that I had got it right!
But this is Keswick and today there are no walls. There isn’t even a rostrum. I have to stand on the ramp of a sheep trailer looking out over the sheep pens, with many bidders standing even further away behind the pens, and many farmers standing either side of the trailer. There is no microphone and I am expected to shout for about 5 hours which is how long it takes to sell 250 Herdwick Tups, one by one.
The judging has taken place, the prizes awarded and it is sale time. The rain is incessant and I stand on the trailer ramp with a shepherd’s crook which I use as a gavel, banging it down on the ramp to signify that a sale has been made. My other hand is trying to hold on to an umbrella, but it is a forlorn hope. There is water dripping in to my eyes and I am having to shout above the wind and rain to a large group of several hundred farmers all around me.
I have one asset by my side. Stan Edmondson from Seathwaite Farm is going to help me. He is a director of the auction company. He is also both a Herdwick legend and a Lake District legend. Anyone who has walked through the farm yard at Seathwaite heading for Scafell or Great Gable will have been greeted by Stan. His cheery wave and standard shout of “Aye- aye” will have been heard by thousands of Lake District visitors over the decades. He has a life- long experience of breeding and working with Herdwick sheep. He takes and interest in the people who visit his valley. “Where’ve you been and what have you seen?” is a phrase oft heard from Stan as people walk past.
Prior to the sale Stan tells me that he is going to stand with me and “keep me right”. This means he will point out sheep that he thinks may make a good price and to tell me the names of all the buyers who I don’t recognise. Stan knows every person on the field and probably their fathers and grandfathers before them. The problem is that Stan isn’t that good with names. Throughout the sale I am offered a number of suggestions as the hammer comes down. “Oh that’s what his nyam, thoo knaas, Johnny’s Grandson, thoo knaas him” and so on!
Stan is nearly 80 years old. His days as a world champion fell runner are long behind him, but he knows Herdwicks through and through. Despite being crippled with arthritis, he stands for 5 hours bent over his trusty shepherd crook, his eyes alive to the sheep in the ring, and the people bidding for them.
One by one The Herdwick tups are brought in to a little ring area in front of the auctioneer’s trailer. They charge about between me and the sheep pens. The vendors wave their arms frantically to try and make the tup show to attention. Occasionally they grab hold of the sheep to ensure it stands in the correct way, or to stop it jumping out of the ring. It’s a constant whirlwind of motion that I have to ignore as I urgently scan the crowd for bids.
I start the sale and manage to get quite a few sold but it is without doubt the hardest I have ever had to work. Herdwick Sheep Breeders are slow bidders. You cannot rush them. You cannot jump them up with big bids. You have to let each lot take its course. The grim reality is that no one actually knows how much a Herdwick tup is worth. Certain bloodlines are prized and there is only a limited gene pool within the breed. Tried and tested aged tups can reach a decent price. Young twinter tups of good potential can make a few thousand pounds. It depends on the breeding and of course the conformation.
Auctioneers pride themselves on stocksmanship and knowing the true value of the stock they sell. A Herdwick auctioneer must accept that neither he nor many of the Herdwick shepherds have much of clue as to what the sheep are worth. Nobody minds how low you start, so you just keep taking the bids until they cease. At that point the stick is banged down on the ramp, the hammer has fallen and the sale is made.
In time as I gain experience, I learn to do the exact opposite of many top quality pedigree auctioneers that I have watched and admired. For in other breed circles the auctioneer judges the animal and the people bidding for them. If circumstances allow, they go big from the start, taking large bids in the knowledge that certain buyers will go with them and maybe even new records will be created. When I sell Herdwick tups, I take smaller bids as the lot progresses. This way I can often eek out an extra 500 guineas beyond where I might be were I taking much bigger bids. It takes longer but in time record prices will be broken using just this method.
I’ve been selling or rather shouting for over 4 hours without a break. In that time I have only sold 200 tups, but that is normal. Old Stan has been doing his best with the names. It is also a tradition in Lakeland to sometimes give the name of the farm rather than the farmer. So I am knocking sheep down to Nook Farm, Brotherilkeld, Troutbeck Park, Fell Foot and many more famous Lakeland farms. Often I have no idea who actually farms there. In time, I will grow to know each and every one of them. Even better, the course of my work as a Lakeland auctioneer will take me to so many of these farms on a regular basis. Time and again I am made welcome, and made to feel like I am part of the Herdwick world. So often I travel over the famous mountain passes of Lakeland on my way home from visiting Lake District farms. Always I feel I am blessed to do this for a job, and get paid for it.
Stan is also good at pointing out the sheep he likes. “This might mek a bit”. He is generally right, but not always! Eventually we are down to a handful tups left to sell. A little Herdwick tup lamb comes in to the ring. Tup lambs are rarely sold, being given the chance to grow in to their second winter and sold as a twinter. This little lamb is only a few months old and is striking in that is jet black all over. Herdwick lambs are born very dark or even black. Their fleeces lighten with age. This little ball of fluff really is jet black.
It has been bred by another legendary breeder, Joe Folder now residing near Cockermouth. Stan lights up. “Ah now I like this” he says. “Set it off at 400 guineas”.
“What?” I am incredulous. It is a tiny little ball of fluff. “Set it off at 400 guineas” he repeats. Rather non- plussed I set the bidding off at 400 guineas. After one minute of scanning the crowd and constantly repeating “400 guineas, I’ve 400 bid, any more this time”. I turn to Stan and quietly apologise. “Sorry old lad, no one is bidding”
“Nay” he says “ah thowt it would mek all of that”. So I drop down to 50 guineas and immediately there is interest. 5 minutes later the bids have been coming in thick and fast. Finally with a last shout “all done? Last chance, hammers up, goes this time”…. The Herdwick tup lamb is sold for 400 guineas. Stan is triumphant. He thumps his shepherds crook on the trailer door “there thoo is” he beams “I telt tha”.
Joe Folder, smiles and winks at me. It is a sign of approval and we become friends from that day forward. The buyer of the lamb is non- other than Jean Wilson, a lady feted within the Herdwick world and far beyond. Jean Wilson is synonymous with Herdwick Sheep. Her rock by her side is her husband Derek. Years later Derek tells me that “Jean was bred to breed Herdwicks”. It is in her blood. She will travel the world to promote Herdwicks and her wise council is sought by many a young breeder starting their Herdwick career.
Like so many of the old school breeders, her knowledge of the Herdwick sheep and her skills are all encompassing. Meet Jean at any show or sale, and she will know the history and breeding of not only all of her own sheep but probably most of the other farmers sheep too.
Years later I was required to inspect and value many of Jeans best sheep and also the sheep of many other Herdwick Breeders in the foot and mouth epidemic of 20011. This was without doubt the hardest, most upsetting, soul- destroying job I was ever asked to undertake. For in 2001 these sheep were wintered away from home on the fertile soils of the Solway plain on the northern shores of Cumbria. Jean and so many other farmers could never visit those sheep or see them again for foot and mouth disease was raging in north Cumbria and the government deemed that the sheep, healthy or not, could never return home and worse still, had to die.
The sorrow in having to speak to Jean after the deed was done will stay with me forever. Even then through the tears and upset, she was able to tell me which sheep I had inspected, their breeding, their bloodlines and their value to her which far outweighed the monetary valuation I had placed upon them. Later that night I cried my own tears behind closed doors. Tears for Jean and all the other breeders and for the sheep themselves most of which were not diseased, but slaughtered in perfect health. What joy to see Jean and so many other Herdwick breeders rise again although it has taken a long time and the pain of those times will never be forgotten.
Recently while speaking at a farmer’s dinner I told the tale of the little jet black tup lamb. I had forgotten that Jean had bought it and was telling the story simply to mention Stan’s instruction to “set it off at 400” and how I eventually got to the price.
As I started to tell the tale. Derek Wilson who was in the audience with Jean, stood up and stopped me. “Do you remember who bought that lamb” asked Derek?
“Err no” I replied.
“It was Jean and when she got home with that laal black thing I bollocked her for bringing it back”
Jean immediately stood up. Leaning backwards with her eyes almost closed as Jean does, she came right back at Derek “ah but you’ll hev til admit” she said to her husband, “eventually he did make a fair decent tup”. Derek had to agree and of course Jeans idea of a decent tup is normally a pretty good recommendation! 22 years had gone by since Jean purchased the little jet black lamb but she remembered the sale as much as I did. “There was just summat aboot him I rather liked” she would tell me later.
So my first ever Herdwick Tup Fair in Keswick is over. I have survived. It even stopped raining and I was able to remove my waterproof jacket. The business is concluded, tups loaded into trailers or just left in the pens, and everyone retires to the Twa Dogs Inn. I sit with Geoff Edmondson from Langdale and we have a pint of Jennings Beer. Geoff sits back in a relaxed position with his rudded waterproof leggings shoved down over his wellies to protect the pub décor. He takes a sup then folds his hands across his chest. “Well Adam Lad, do you think you were getting the hang of it”. “I didn’t think I did too badly for a first go Geoff”. He laughs. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve been among Herdwicks all my life and I’m still learning the bloody job… like”
Soon the traditional singing has brought the bar to life. Glen Wilkinson from Tilberthwaite whose flocks run across the Coniston fells, has his thumbs shoved firmly down in the pocket of his jeans. His head is cocked to one side, cheeks ruddy from the warm glow of the fire. Eyes closed in concentration he breaks into a bass baritone version of “Black Velvet Band”. We all sing the chorus in raucous fashion. Then David Bland from West Head stands up. His sheep run high up along the Helvellyn range. He takes a deep breath and then word perfectly sings “Old Shep”, in a version as good as the King himself. Some of the younger farmers cajole Syd Hardisty from How Hall on the shores of Ennerdale. “Come on Syd, give us Jobby Teasdale’s Warlick!” Syd stands up and his own unique rambling style, half sings and half recites his famous party piece.
I am relaxing in the warm glow as day turns to dark and thinking to myself, “This is great but if I’m doing this sale again next year, I’d like to have it in Cockermouth auction”!
The following year after some hard work on my part I have persuaded the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association to allow Keswick Tup Fair to be held in Cockermouth Auction for the first time ever. The older breeders who have been to Keswick come rain or shine for decades are unhappy. Tradition is tradition. Some of the younger breeders and one or two influential Herdwick Council members have backed me and are prepared to give it a go. That is another story!