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.
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.