Sometimes it is hard to get the general public to understand the relationships that farmers have with their animals.
I was 8 years old. It was mid-summer and I was doing what I loved best, working with Grandad amongst his sheep. We went to gather his furthest field, next to a main road. Accompanying us was Grandad’s pride and joy, his sheep dog Laddie.
On command away went Laddie tearing down the field on a wide outrun. The sheep were ewes with strong lambs at foot, ready for weaning. As Laddie gathered them, a lamb broke away running full tilt into the hedge at the bottom of the field. In an instant Laddie was through the hedge and on to the road to turn the lamb back. A car was approaching at speed and the inevitable happened.
I didn’t see Laddie get hit by the car but remember vividly the screech of brakes and the bump. I also remember Grandad’s words, “oh no, me dog’s dead”. Then he was shouting at me to stop where I was, but I was over the field gate in a flash, running down the road to where Laddie lay. Grandad came scuttling along as fast as his old bowed legs would carry him.
“He’s alright Grandad, look his tails still wagging”! It was nothing but the last vestiges of nervous energy leaving his body. Grandad had to explain that he really was dead. Then he told me to run back home and tell grandmother what had happened. Away I went half running, half walking as I choked back tears. Later that day we drove down the road where poor Laddie had been killed. All I could see was a pile of sand.
Sometimes it is hard to get the general public to understand the relationships that farmers have with their animals. The perception is often that farm businesses are like factory units. Joe Public doesn’t get that despite the fact that farm animals are working animals, very often there are relationships and bonds. I came across some stark examples of this in the dark days of 2001 when foot and mouth disease tore farmers from their flocks and herds. From the pulsating throb of a vibrant dairy parlour to empty silence in a few hours. A field full of sheep one minute, to an empty field of nothing but grass. For many farmers this was so hard, as bad or even worse than a family bereavement.
Many times in my career as an auctioneer I have unloaded trailers as farmers bring cast cows to market. If I’d had a £1 for every time a farmer has said “this is a sad day”, I could probably do a better job of keeping the Mrs in the manner to which she is accustomed!
Programmes like “This Farming Life” do sometimes show the bond between the farmer and his stock as well as the skill and total commitment of so many in our farming community. Frankly we could do far more of this to educate the public. The government may not recognise food production as a public benefit, but through the media and meeting the public face to face, this is a message we absolutely must get across in future.
Grandad bought a new sheep dog, but it was never the same. Laddie was irreplaceable. Long in to his dotage, grandad would sit in his chair by the fire. There would be a little gulping cough and a sigh, followed by, “Best dog I ever had”……
During the summer of 1984, part of my pre- college year was spent working for Dick Clark at Mosser Mains farm, near Cockermouth. One sunny afternoon Dick and I went to his land in the village of Pardshaw Hall. On this very site in 1650, George Fox the founder of the Quaker movement preached the word to thousands of onlookers. Now Dick was going to preach the word to me on how to “brae” posts in!
The old post and wire fence had been removed and in its place, Dick and I were going to hammer in brand new fence posts. Dick told me that I was to learn the proper way. He carefully positioned the post and instructed me to hold it firmly. Then he spat on both hands and took the mell hammer in a wide arc above his head bringing it firmly down on the top of the post. He repeated the movement a number of times, each one expertly hitting the post flush on the top. His swing was as attuned and rhythmic as a professional golfer!
After several more blows Dick handed the mell to me. From a height of about six inches I began to tap away on the top of the post. It didn’t take long before Dick shouted up. “Were you not watching? Get that bloody hammer back over your head and hit it properly”. So I did just as told. My first blow hit the post perfectly and it sank 3 inches on to the ground. The second wobbled a bit on the top, and my third mighty smote ran Dick’s fingers right down the post.
He went purple and I expected him to blow. But all he said through gritted teeth was “You…….” Then with hardly a grimace he placed his hands back on the post. The message was clear. He wasn’t giving in and neither was I. Soon the post was solid in the ground and we moved on to the next. By the end of the afternoon I was exhausted but there were several posts in place, all straight and true and I had mastered the required technique. Another lesson was learned that day, you don’t give in. You just keep trying until you get it right.
The fencing analogy may be appropriate with regard to farm business. In the near future, many farmers will be wondering whether to mend the fence and make do, replace it or move it to a different place altogether. There will be choices but these presently remain unclear. We are effectively waiting to brae in our new posts with no idea if we are in the right place, or even the right field!
Resilience is the current buzzword. What are the opportunities and the threats to current farming practices? What support measures are out there? How can we tap in to funding? Are we supplying what the market wants? Are there new income streams to look at? The million pound question: “do we need to do something different”? So many questions to consider. One thing is clear. This is a time for heads up, not heads down.
There are also the thorny issues that for some families continue to lurk in the background, like succession planning, retirement and bringing younger people in to the business. There has never been a more important time to reappraise the business and be in a position to react to whatever changes may hit our industry.
Time then to lay the thorny hedge, get the fence posts in position, and keep a firm hold until they are properly “braed” in. Like my old mentor Dick Clark found out with me, the ground might be rocky, there will be a few scrapes and some pain along the way, but get it right and the new fence will stand strong for years to come.
What value do we place on farmers and their role in society when looking at the capital assets of beautiful areas like Cumbria?
Old grandfather Jackson farmed close to a small village on the Furness Peninsula in South Cumbria. It was always his dream job and a successful coal merchant business allowed him to invest in land and stock. He was a dog and stick farmer relying on his friends, Alan and Harry Wood, to “bale” him out (literally). Many happy hours I spent as a young child sitting on someone’s knee on a Fergie tractor as Grandfathers meadow was baled by a farming neighbour.
Grandad always insisted on turning a few swaths by hand. As a young boy in the early 1920’s he spent many hours working on local farms. These were truly austere days following the First World War. Everyone worked together, everyone helped. They had to! Turning his own hay with a huge hay fork reminded him of his own heritage and the culture of that time.
Today we are trying to embrace the concept of Natural Capital as part of the 25 year Environment Plan. In 2015, attempts to value the UK’s Natural Capital estimated this at £761 billion. Bearing in mind Cumbria’s exceptional environment and abounding natural assets, it is fair to say that our County contributes considerably to that estimate.
Within Cumbria’s 6,800 square kilometres we have 2 national parks, 3 AONB’s and 2 World Heritage Sites – the Lake District – and a Roman wall. We also have something equally important, a human population of around 500,000. For all the natural capital we are so fortunate to have, our geography, location and infrastructure ensures that we have the lowest population density in the country and one of the poorest performing economies when measured as Gross Value Added (GVA).
These are challenges to the future economic viability of Cumbria and there are other challenges. As we seek to embrace natural capital as an asset, there is another piece to the land management jigsaw that needs to be slotted into place. The common denominator in the countryside and natural environment of Cumbria are the people that farm the land, manage the environment and do so much to create the landscapes that attract over 47 million visitors every year to our county.
What value do we place on our people? How do we begin to value our Social and Cultural Capital and how do we slot this into the jigsaw to form the perfect picture alongside Natural Capital? Perhaps it comes down appreciating that farmers matter more than we realise. The bedrock of many rural communities? Is that too strong?
What of the heritage and culture that our forefathers have created? My old grandfather, even in his own small way, was a proud farmer. Happy as he was turning hay by hand on a sweltering summer’s day in July, his great joy was visiting Ulverston auction to sell his lambs, just one man in the farming community, supplying and supporting many more communities country wide. What value should we place on that?
The Lake District World Heritage Site inscription delivers the perfect summation: – “Both the long duration of our farming culture and the survival to the present day of its distinctive character is considered to be of outstanding universal value.”
Rugby was a different game in the 90’s. There were no video referrals or radio mics. If a problem on the pitch needed sorted, it got sorted. Here is an example of how the game was played by Aspatria RUFC.
It is 1993. Aspatria RUFC have a mid- winter national league fixture at Sudbury way down south in Suffolk. As usual we leave Penrith at 3pm on Friday afternoon heading over the A66 and down the A1. The Redcrest luxury double decker coach is full, the atmosphere convivial. The playing squad sits on the top deck around numerous tables. Committee men and supporters are downstairs.
Immediately a Forwards V Backs game of Trivial Pursuits gets under way. George Doggart is over from Sweden and wants to bet on the pie questions. The Backs are full of educated, learned men like Jimmy “Jinky” Miller, Tom Borthwick, Dave Murray and Colin Campbell. The forwards however, have a secret weapon, a genuine mastermind within their ranks. Neil Wedgwood from Maryport who only just made the bus straight from the early shift at British Steel, is an unbelievable font of knowledge. His consistency in answering even the difficult “art and literature” questions is breath-taking. Single handedly he wipes the floor with the backs. They sit open mouthed as the last piece of pie is slotted in by Wedgie with a shrug of his shoulders. He is a classy open- side wing forward, always in the right place at the right time, quietly going about his work. And he is brilliant at “Triv”.
It is a great team building exercise and we are proud to represent our Club and County as we head South. We are dressed in our club shell suits and we are men on a mission. We feel like professional rugby players even though in this era there is no such thing in the union code.
Eventually we make it to The Stansted Hilton Hotel. Aspatria Rugby Club has a deal with the hotel chain and we always stay at a Hilton if there is one close to our opponent’s location. We have a team meal and then the squad retires to the bar. I am fairly new so I am rooming with a seasoned professional. It is Tony Clemetson one of our second row forwards. I am in awe of Clemmo. He has a certain reputation on and off the rugby field. He can mix it whenever he wants to. He also has a large number of caps for Cumbria. Not many Cumbrian teams like playing against Clemmo. He is heavy- handed and he can do real damage.
The squad is encouraged to stay loose, and have a drink if required, but not overdo it. Clemmo and me stick together and find ourselves having a couple of pints of Guinness. We are both selected on the bench for tomorrow’s game by rotation. Substitutes are only allowed to come on as an injury replacement. It is unlikely that we will get much of a game.
I don’t intend to keep drinking, but we find ourselves on a table with two very camp flight stewards and a couple of air hostess’s one of whom is perhaps coming towards the end of her career, with a few air miles on the clock. The air stewards seem to love having a drink with two 17 stone rugby players but the old hostess has had one too many and she is telling me her life story. She is slowly sinking in to “could have been’s” and “should have been’s”. Most of the players have retired to bed. Clemmo and me are left with Justin, Larry and a lady who is now in tears and looking for comfort. Then Robbo arrives. Forwards Coach.
“Adam what have you done to upset this lovely lady”? “Get yourself off to bed. You too Clemmo and that’s an order” We make our goodbyes and as I look back across the bar, Robbo has one arm around Justin and the other arm around the hostess. We have a chat with a couple of supporters who are on the beer. By this time Robbo has come back and joined us. “Saved you there boy” he says with a wink as we head for the lift.
Next morning we are down at breakfast with slightly thick heads. The Guinness has not gone down too well. We then go to a team meeting. It has poured down heavily all night. Tommy Borthwick, player- coach, announces that there is a change of plan. The pitch is expected to be heavy and it may well be a battle of attrition between the forwards. Clemmo is promoted from the bench to starting second row. I will have to stay warm because Steve Irving, our County Loose Head Prop is carrying a shoulder injury and may not last the trip. Clemmo and I both supress groans. I am more worried about the fact that I have never actually played in the Loose Head position in my life, never mind a national league 3 game. In fact i’ve only had a handful of games at tight- head. Not for the first time am i left wondering what the hell i’m even doing there!
We go out to the car park and do some warm up jogging and line out drills. Then we are on the coach to the game. Tommy Borthwick hands out banana’s. Everyone has to eat them. He’s read in Muscle and Fitness that NFL stars in America chew bananas constantly. My banana is more green than yellow. I force it down. It is sour and almost crunchy. I feel decidedly unwell.
The game kicks off in pouring rain but the pitch isn’t too bad. I’m taped up, greased up and sitting on the bench in my padded subs suit. It’s toasty warm and I am hoping that Aspatria will rule the game comfortably as they generally do in most forward battles. It is a style for which we are noted and even top class teams like Wasps and Moseley have struggled to take the Black Reds on up front. I rather hope that I get a nice 20 minute run at the end with no pressure.
The first couple of scrums are a real mess. I can see that the opposition tight head is collapsing in on Steve Irving. It is deliberate and designed to stop Steve doing what he is very good at. It happens again at the third scrum. This time Steve doesn’t get up. His bad shoulder has been damaged. He will have to leave the field. “Right Adam, you are on” says Robbo. “Oh Shit” I nearly blurt out.
So I am stripped for action, sleeves rolled up, and a wad of Vaseline covering my neck to allow my head to slide easily in to the alien world of the left hand side of the scrum. I haven’t even played in this position on the scrummage machine, never mind a national league match. I am straight in to the game at the reset scrum. I bind as tight as I can on my hooker Nigel Brown. He will guide me through this and I have Clemmo in the second row behind me. “Get your right leg back” says Clemmo “and get your head under his chin”
We thump in and I immediately see stars. It’s nothing to worry about. This always happens to me in the first scrum until the nerves in my neck warm up. I get a good bind with my free left arm and my back is straight. I actually feel quite comfortable. It is a Sudbury put- in to the scrum. The advantage is with us. Nigel may choose to contest the strike but he is experienced and he knows I am not. So he gets his legs back in to a pushing position. He is also exerting immense pressure with his head and shoulders on the back of his opposition hooker and my tight- head prop.
The ball is presented by the Sudbury scrum half and I feel a surge of power from behind me. Clemmo is pushing as is Malcolm Brown on the flank. They love this. I can feel my opposition begin to creak with pressure. Then he does exactly what he did with Steve Irving. He releases his bind on my left arm and nose dives into the scrum. I don’t have the technique or strength to stop it. The referee is getting edgy and he doesn’t understand what is happening. He urges us to keep up. He is rambling on about heads above hips. I shrug my shoulders to say “not my fault” but i’m not one for pointing and gesticulating.
We reset. Immediately my prop sinks in again. He knows he’s going backwards and he is trying to win a penalty. As we stand up I look at Clemmo for guidance. “When he goes down again, get your head as far to the left as you can” he whispers. “And remember, to the left”…
We crash in again and I hold my prop up as long as I can before he dives for the deck. As we collapse I get my head out of the scrum as far to the left as I can. It hurts. Everyone gets up. Well everyone except my prop who is lying on the ground clutching his head which is bleeding profusely. He has to leave the field for treatment. It dawns on me what has just happened. As the scrum went down, Clemmo stood up and followed through with his right boot between me and Nigel, exactly where my head should have been, had I not moved to the left. Clemmo has imprinted a perfect set of stud marks on the props head. It is quite illegal of course but is the law of the jungle at scrum time. If a referee cannot sort out a problem, or does not know how to, the team’s enforcer, and every good team has one, will sort the problem for the team. Aspatria always had more than one! Clemmo shows absolutely no emotion.
A few minutes later my opposition prop is back on the field, bandaged up. We scrummage again and he doesn’t look me in the eye. As we engage he stays straight and true. I have no trouble for the rest of the game. It is an arm- chair ride and that suits me just fine (don’t tell Steve Irving). As a result I am able to run about and carry the ball regularly. Late in the game I peel from the front of the line right around the back with ball in hand. Charging past their fly half i almost get to the opposition posts before being hauled down. We score from the re- cycled ball.
I don’t remember the final result but and I am elated to have finished the game in on piece and head held high. Minutes later I am in the big team bath sitting next to Clemmo. He soaps himself and explains the instructions he gave me on the field.
“You see Adam Lad, the same thing happened in a game last year, so I told Steve Irving to get his head to the left. The problem is he doesn’t know his left from his right”. He had to come off and get six stitches when I caught him in the lug. I didn’t want that to happen to you!
This is an article i published in the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald Newspaper in January 2019. I had been auctioning cattle at Penrith Auction Mart and several farmers were conversing on the following topic. Sometimes old -fashioned “common sense” can beat “science” hands down….
The EAT Lancet Commission Report advocating a “planetary health diet” was a hot topic around the ringside at Penrith Auction Mart recently. Farmers were indignant that this is just the latest in a series of negative farmer- bashing stories. Many farmers questioned why there appears to be so little appreciation for their work in producing food either from government or members of the public. This at a time when confidence is generally running low in the industry with such an uncertain future and scant mention of food production in the Agriculture Bill.
Our conversations centred around two themes: firstly, an incredulity that anyone could suggest reducing red- meat consumption to the equivalent of one large steak per month, replacing protein requirements with imported nuts, legumes and exotic fruit and vegetables, most of which cannot be produced in the United Kingdom. Secondly that the science promoted within the report is not clear cut.
There appears to be strong merit in both these discussions. As one Eden Valley farmer said to me pointing at his cattle “we can grow grass very well on an extensive system. It is sustainable cattle and sheep production and we can keep on doing this as long as we get a fair market price to help us invest back in to the business”. He has a point as over 60% of UK farmland is grassland. It is also the case that grassland is an excellent store of carbon which in turn helps to mitigate the effects of climate change.
This brings us nicely to the science. As seems to be the case with all environmental arguments, you can find apparently plausible “science” at both ends of the climate- change spectrum, some arguing for a significant reduction in livestock farming others opining that at current production levels, no changes are needed. The issue of the carbon cycle is far from straight- forward. Furthermore the Lancet report fails to address the sustainability of countries like the UK having to substantially increase imports of products that cannot be produced on a commercial scale at home.
Another farmer shrugged his shoulders and asked “where is the common sense in this”? Thinking further about the debate I realised that there are areas of agreement. We all accept that the world population is set to rise to over 10b in the next thirty years. Forecasts also show that UK population will increase by 20m to over 85m people. We need to feed people properly and sustainably while better protecting our environment. These are areas of common consent.
With all the challenges of climate change and rising populations that the next thirty years will bring, would a sensible common sense approach be to increase investment in sustainable food production? Also to make best use of local resources (and people), reducing food miles, increasing production from less inputs and giving the public what they really want: a sensible, healthy balanced diet including plenty of red meat for those who like it and a sustainable alternative for those who don’t.
I was given my first company mobile phone in 1996. I’d spent months trying to persuade the auction mart directors to let me have one. Their answer was; “there is a phone box in most villages if you need to phone the office”. Then we lost a buyer’s order because I was out and uncontactable. A phone was duly purchased. I used it late one Saturday evening to ring my fiancée from the rugby club bus to come and pick me up. My fellow players thought it rather amazing.
Farmers of today could not live without a mobile. They are in use everywhere from the milking parlour to the tractor cab. Our younger farmers are tech- savvy and rather brilliant at marketing. The back- end normally starts in late summer with social media posts showing “the top pen for next Wednesday’s sale” or “our run of heifers for next Friday”.
Some farmers post working shots throughout the year. Who can forget the photos of buried sheep being rescued from snowdrifts or stock huddled together in flooded fields as farmers battled on to rescue them.
My point is that farmers are brilliant at preaching to the converted. They are doing a great job of pre- marketing their wares to farmer- customers but now is the time to try and go a stage further. Yes, selling to best advantage is of premium importance but with the rise of social media, we should make a concerted effort to engage with the public, lift the profile of farming and persuade the world why farming, food and looking after the environment matters.
“Public payment for public goods”. If the Agriculture Bill receives royal assent by the end of March 2019, this will be our future funding regime. Now is the time to engage much more closely with the public. Food doesn’t grow in supermarkets. Our farmers need to use those newly learned marketing skills to reach their end- user, the last link in the food chain. I for one would be delighted to see a farming good- news story to counter every negative piece of anti- farming propaganda we read or watch.
So let’s get the message out there and go one step further than social media. More on- line video’s, more TV and radio interviews, more books. Whilst we are at it, what about a more concerted effort to engage our public on the farm with open days and meet and greet events. The Farmer Network and other organisations have been doing this for years on a small- scale. The photo above shows Herdwick Sheep Breeders Chairman working with volunteer farmers to talk to visitors at Grasmere Sports. Don’t leave it to someone else. Get involved
So when we promote the “top pen” or the “run of cattle” on social media, maybe explain why this is important not just to farmers, but to the public. We must lift our profile. Public payment for public goods…… like it or not, it will be the future.THE LAKE DISTRICT – OUR LAND, OUR LIVES, OUR HERITAGE.
Up in the attic searching for Christmas decorations, I came across a box full of old rugby programmes. I spied a programme Plymouth V Aspatria, Saturday 18th December 1993. My mind went back to the game, which was one of the most memorable I played in.
Up in the attic searching for Christmas decorations, I came across a box of old rugby programmes. I spied a programme Plymouth V Aspatria, Saturday 18th December 1993. My mind went back to the game, which was one of the most memorable I played in.
We travelled down to Plymouth on Friday afternoon, on the usual double decker coach. It was a hell of a long journey but the lads were in good spirits with the usual board games and banter. It is amazing to think that in those amateur days, a little team from North Cumbria could travel the length and breadth of England playing league rugby for zero financial reward. Sure there was some free kit and few expenses to be had, but the small squad of players were on that bus for two reasons: – to play the game of rugby union and to represent Cumbria, that far off county of lakes and mountains that some teams we played against had very little knowledge of. This was the last game to be played before Christmas and we were shopping for much needed points
Friday night saw a late meal waiting for us at the Hilton Hotel, always a Hilton Hotel for Aspatria. Then it was a couple of drinks in the bar before bed. I was rooming with Tony Clemetson our rumbustious second row. Clemmo on his day and the right mood was a force of nature. It was always good to talk to roommates before lights out. It helped to know what made people tick and what they were about. Clemmo always had an edge to him and I for one was always glad to know he had my back on the rugby pitch.
After a good night’s sleep we breakfasted before running up and down the car park doing some walk- throughs and drills, mostly for lineouts and back row moves. Then with time to spare I took off for a walk with our club captain Mark (Tank) Richardson. I enjoyed this as it took my mind of the game and stopped the nerves building too early. I did this on a few occasions with Tank. A huge presence on the pitch, he was unstoppable from close quarters, he quietly got on with the job, leading by example. When the unsubtle stuff was needed, Tank never failed to step up to the plate! Off the pitch he was a quite family man. Often on our walks he would stop at a shop and by a couple of presents for his young children. At the time I didn’t appreciate the pressure on family men, leaving their families for most of the weekend to travel the country in pursuit of a decent standard of rugby. Several of our players had children and it must have been hard for those men leaving their wives and partners with young family.
Some years later I was delighted to see Tank’s dedication to Cumbrian rugby rewarded when he was selected to play for the Barbarian’s.
Soon we were on the coach for the trip to the ground. We could see that the pitch wasn’t far from the sea. By now a real storm was brewing. As we alighted from the coach we could see rain squalls whipping across the pitch. It was frankly horrible weather, freezing cold and a muddy waterlogged pitch. We were used to this of course!
As we walked in to the changing room we saw a few of their players run out on to the pitch, dance about in the mud as their feet got wet and then quickly run back in to the warmth of their changing room. This was noted by Malcolm Brown. Malcolm was our pack leader on the field, assisting club captain Tank. As we changed in to warm- up kit, Malcolm urged us to get a move on. Finally with tracksuits, extra sweat- shirts and pom- pom hats on, were ready to go out.
Now here was the genius of Malcolm. “Right lads” he said. “Did you see those ponces out there?” He looked all of us in the eye and he was starting to froth at the side of his mouth. This was always a good sign as it meant he was already up for the game.
“T shirts and shorts only” he instructed. “We’re going out there to show these soft southern b….s what we’re made of. We are men of Cumbria, don’t forget that when we are on the pitch”. His tone was rising all the while, so we stripped off our tracksuits and sweatshirts. When we were ready we ran out as a squad dressed in a single T shirt and a pair of shorts.
“Down on the ground now” barked Malcolm and there in front of the grandstand we lay down on our fronts in the freezing mud. “20 slow press- ups, count them Clemmo”.
As Clemmo counted, Malcolm kept on talking. In the Plymouth changing room we could see a crowd of faces peering out the window at us. “Look at them” he said. They are already frightened of us. They don’t want it. They don’t want to be here. WE DO!”
For the next 30 minutes we ran and ran, hitting tackle pads, doing drills. It was so wet and cold we were actually glad to do it just to keep warm. Finally, satisfied that we were ready, Malcolm marched us back in to the changing rooms, dripping in mixure of sweat and cold rain. Plymouth hadn’t appeared.
Taped up and greased up we went back out in to the melee. Our tactical coach Tommy Borthwick wanted us to play our normal wet weather game. Kick for the corners and let the pack do the rest. Up the jumper, traditional Aspatria power play. For a second I pitied our backs who were going to have 80 minutes with very little to do!
That afternoon I was propping against a man who the previous season had been a Bath 1st XV squad player and had dropped back to league three. We had a good battle and it was honours even as I used the Syd Graham shoulder on knee technique to good effect on our ball. I was also fortunate to have men like Nigel Brown at hooker, who was the most awkward, niggly hooker a team could have. He was always breaking his bind and getting his head under his oppositions chin for annoyance. Great to play with but a nightmare to play against.
They couldn’t live with us that day and in those dour conditions and with a team absolutely driven to win, we were never going to lose. We would have run over a cliff for Malcolm that day. For 80 minutes he urged us forward as “Men of Cumbria” and we blew them away.
Sitting in the team bath later, slowly feeling the warmth creep back in to our bodies was a great feeling. We had travelled 300 miles and were taking home maximum points for Christmas. We celebrated long in to the night around Plymouth. Eventually we found ourselves back at the hotel at about midnight. I spied a grand piano in the hotel lounge. I sidled over to it and to my amazement it was unlocked. I slid on to the piano stool and begin playing and singing Christmas songs. Soon some of the lads came over and eventually some hotel guests even joined us. It turned in to a proper rugby club sing- song. I well remember our club chairman David Miller and his wife Margaret, swaying with the crowd. What a way to finish a great day’s rugby.
Sunday morning was a quiet affair. We breakfasted and then jumped on the bus for the long journey back. Some players slept off their hangovers, others watched the on- board film, The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford. Eventually after several hours and as dusk was falling, I was dropped off at Penrith, job done.
I look back now and realise how proud I was to play in those games. A former Aspatria player and good friend Alistair Grant, said to me many years later, that the biggest driver at Aspatria was the constant desire not to let the club down on the pitch. I knew what he meant!
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………..
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!
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.