The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape

The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape

by James Rebanks


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The New York Times bestseller and International Phenomenon

One of the Top Ten Books of 2015, Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times.

"It's bloody marvelous." - Helen Macdonald, New York Times bestselling author of H IS FOR HAWK

"Captivating... A book about continuity and roots and a sense of belonging in an age that's increasingly about mobility and self-invention. Hugely compelling." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

Some people's lives are entirely their own creations. James Rebanks' isn't. The first son of a shepherd, who was the first son of a shepherd himself, his family have lived and worked in the Lake District of Northern England for generations, further back than recorded history. It's a part of the world known mainly for its romantic descriptions by Wordsworth and the much loved illustrated children's books of Beatrix Potter. But James' world is quite different. His way of life is ordered by the seasons and the work they demand. It hasn't changed for hundreds of years: sending the sheep to the fells in the summer and making the hay; the autumn fairs where the flocks are replenished; the grueling toil of winter when the sheep must be kept alive, and the light-headedness that comes with spring, as the lambs are born and the sheep get ready to return to the hills and valleys.

The Shepherd's Life the story of a deep-rooted attachment to place, modern dispatches from an ancient landscape that describe a way of life that is little noticed and yet has profoundly shaped the landscape over time. In evocative and lucid prose, James Rebanks takes us through a shepherd's year, offering a unique account of rural life and a fundamental connection with the land that most of us have lost. It is a story of working lives, the people around him, his childhood, his parents and grandparents, a people who exist and endure even as the culture - of the Lake District, and of farming - changes around them.

Many memoirs are of people working desperately hard to leave a place. This is the story of someone trying desperately hard to stay.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250060266
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: 09/27/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 70,271
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

James Rebanks runs a family-owned farm in the Lake District in northern England. A graduate of Oxford University, James works as an expert advisor to UNESCO on sustainable tourism. He uses his popular Twitter feed - @herdyshepherd1 - to share updates on the shepherding year. The Shepherd's Life is his first book.

Read an Excerpt

The Shepherd's Life

Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape

By James Rebanks

Flatiron Books

Copyright © 2015 James Rebanks
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-06025-9




Noun: 1) (northern England) A piece of upland pasture to which a farm animal has become hefted.

2) An animal that has become hefted thus.

Verb: Trans. (northern England and Scotland) of a farm animal, especially a flock of sheep: To become accustomed and attached to an area of upland pasture.

Adj: Hefted: describing livestock that has become thus attached.

(etymology: from the Old Norse Hefd, meaning tradition)


I realized we were different, really different, on a rainy morning in 1987. I was in an assembly at the 1960s shoddy built concrete comprehensive school in our local town. I was thirteen or so years old. Sitting surrounded by a mass of other academic non-achievers listening to an old battle-weary teacher lecturing us how we should aim to be more than just farmworkers, joiners, brickies, electricians, and hairdressers. We were basically sorted aged twelve between those deemed intelligent (who were sent to a "grammar school") and those of us that weren't (who stayed at the "comprehensive"). Her words flowed past us without registering, a sermon she'd delivered many times before. It was a waste of time and she knew it. We were firmly set, like our fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers before us, on being what we were, and had always been. Plenty of us were bright enough, but we had no intention of displaying it in school. It would have been dangerous.


There was a chasm between that headmistress and us. The kids who gave a damn had departed the year before, leaving the losers to fester away the next three years in a place no one wanted to be. The result was something akin to a guerrilla war between largely disillusioned teachers and some of the most bored and aggressive kids imaginable. We played a game as a class where the object was to smash school equipment of the greatest value in one lesson and pass it off as an accident.

I was good at that kind of thing.

The floor was littered with broken microscopes, biological specimens, crippled stools, and torn books. A long-dead frog pickled in formaldehyde lay sprawled on the floor, doing the breaststroke. The gas taps were burning like an oil rig and a window was cracked. The teacher stared at us with tears streaming down her face, destroyed, as a lab technician tried to restore order. One maths lesson was improved for me by a fistfight between a pupil and the teacher before the lad ran for it down the stairs and across the muddy playing fields, only to be knocked down by the teacher. We cheered as if it were a great tackle in a game of rugby. From time to time someone would try (incompetently) to burn the school down. One day some kid climbed up the drainpipe at the edge of the playground, like Spider-Man minus the outfit, and then he sat on the roof of the gym, his legs dangling over the edge. He just sat there grinning inanely, thirty-five feet above the tarmac. The news went round the school like the wind, kids running to see the kid that had "gone crazy." We stood below, curiously, until some joker shouted "jump" and everyone laughed. I stood back a few steps just in case. The teachers went crazy, running to and fro, calling the fire service and police. No one was quite sure if he'd gone up there to jump off. Eventually they talked him off the roof. No one ever really knew why he did it, but we didn't see him in school much after that.

On another occasion, I argued with our dumbfounded headmaster that school was really a prison and "an infringement of my human rights." He looked at me strangely, and said, "But what would you do at home?" Like this was an impossible question to answer. "I'd work on the farm," I answered, equally amazed that he couldn't see how simple this was. He shrugged his shoulders hopelessly, told me to stop being ridiculous and go away. When people got into serious trouble, he sent them home. So I thought about putting a brick through his window, but didn't dare.

So in that assembly in 1987 I was daydreaming through the windows into the rain, wondering what the men on our farm were doing, and what I should have been doing, when I realized the assembly was about the valleys of the Lake District, where my grandfather and father farmed. I switched on. After a few minutes of listening, I realized this bloody teacher woman thought we were too stupid and unimaginative to "do anything with our lives." She was taunting us to rise above ourselves. We were too dumb to want to leave this area with its dirty dead-end jobs and its narrow-minded provincial ways. There was nothing here for us—we should open our eyes and see it. In her eyes to want to leave school early and go and work with sheep was to be more or less an idiot.

The idea that we, our fathers, and mothers might be proud, hardworking, and intelligent people doing something worthwhile or even admirable was beyond her. For a woman who saw success as being demonstrated through education, ambition, adventure, and conspicuous professional achievement we must have seemed a poor sample. No one ever mentioned "university" in this school. No one wanted to go anyway. People who went away ceased to belong; they changed and could never really come back. We knew that in our bones. Schooling was a way out, but we didn't want it, and we'd made our choice. Later I would understand that modern people the world over are obsessed with the importance of "going somewhere" and "doing something" with your life. The implication is an idea I have come to hate, that staying local and doing physical work doesn't count for much.

I listened, getting more and more aggravated, as she claimed to love our land. But she talked about it, and thought of it, in terms that were completely alien to my family and me. She loved a wild landscape, full of mountains, lakes, leisure, and adventure, lightly peopled with folk who I had never met. The Lake District in her monologue was the playground for an itinerant band of climbers, poets, walkers, and daydreamers ... people who, unlike our parents or us, had "really done something." She would utter the name Wordsworth in reverential tones and look in vain for us to respond with interest.

I'd never heard of him.

I don't think anyone in that hall, who wasn't a teacher, had.


Sitting in that assembly was the first time I'd encountered this romantic way of looking at our landscape. I realized then with some shock that the landscape I loved, we loved, where we had belonged for centuries, the place known as "the Lake District," had an ownership claim submitted by outsiders and based on principles I barely understood.

Later, I would read books and observe the other Lake District, and begin to understand it better. Until around 1750 no one from the outside world had paid this mountainous corner of northwest England much notice, or when they had, they found it to be poor, unproductive, primitive, harsh, ugly, and backwards. No one from outside thought it was beautiful or a place worth visiting. Then within a few decades all that had changed. Roads and railways were built, making it much easier to get here. The Romantic and Picturesque movements changed the way many people thought about mountains, lakes, and rugged landscapes. Our landscape suddenly became a major focus for writers and artists, particularly when the Napoleonic Wars stopped the early tourists from going to the Alps and forced them instead to discover the mountainous landscapes of Britain. From the start this obsession was (for visitors) a landscape of the imagination, an idealized landscape of the mind. It became a counterpoint to other things, such as the industrial revolution, which was born less than a hundred miles to the south, or a place that could be used to illustrate philosophies or ideologies. For many it was a place of escape, where the rugged landscape and nature would stimulate feelings and sentiments that other places could not. It exists for many other people to walk over, to look at, or climb or paint or write of, or simply dream about. It is a place many aspire to visit or live in. But above all I would learn that our landscape changed the rest of the world. It is where the idea of all of us having a direct sense of ownership (regardless of property rights) of some places or things because they are beautiful or stimulating or just special was first put into words. William Wordsworth proposed in 1810 that the Lake District should be "a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy." Arguments were formulated here that now shape conservation around the world. Every protected landscape on earth, every National Trust property, every national park, and every UNESCO World Heritage Site has a little bit of those words in its DNA.

Above all, I learned that we are not the only ones who love this place. It is for better and for worse a scenic playground for the rest of Britain, and for countless other people from around the world. I simply have to travel over the fell to Ullswater to see the cars streaming past on the roads, or the crowds milling around the shore of the lake, to see what this means. There are good outcomes and less good ones. Today sixteen million people a year come to the Lake District (an area with only forty-three thousand residents). They spend more than a billion pounds every year here. More than half the employment in the area is reliant upon tourism; many of the farms rely upon it for their income through running B and Bs or other businesses. But in some valleys 60 to 70 percent of the houses are second homes or holiday cottages; many local people cannot afford to live in their own communities. The locals speak begrudgingly of being outnumbered, and all of us know that we are in every way a minority in our own landscape. There are places where it doesn't feel like our landscape anymore, like the guests have taken over the guesthouse.

So that teacher's idea of the Lake District was created by an urbanized and increasingly industrialized society, over the past two hundred years. It was a dream of a place for a people disconnected from the land.

That dream was never for us, the people who work this land. We were already here doing what we do.

I wanted to tell that teacher that she had it all wrong ... tell her that she didn't really know this place or its people at all. These thoughts took years to become clear, but in a rough childish form I think they were there from the start. I also knew in a crude way that if books define places, then writing books was important, and that we needed books by us and about us. But in that assembly in 1987 I was dumb and thirteen, so I just made a farting noise on my hand. Everyone laughed. She finished and left the stage, fuming.


If Wordsworth and friends invented or discovered the Lake District, that concept didn't touch our family until 1987, when I went home and started asking questions about what the teacher had said. From the start this other story felt wrong. How come the story of our landscape wasn't about us? It seemed to me an imposition, a classic case of what I would later learn historians call cultural imperialism.

What I didn't know was that Wordsworth believed that the community of shepherds and small farmers of the Lake District formed a political and social ideal of much wider significance and value. People here governed themselves, free of the aristocratic elites that dominated people's lives elsewhere, and in Wordsworth's eyes this provided a model for a good society. Wordsworth thought we mattered as a counterpoint to the commercial, urban, and increasingly industrial England emerging elsewhere. It was an idealistic view even then, but the poet's Lake District was a place peopled with its own culture and history. He believed that with the growing wider appreciation of this landscape came a great responsibility for visitors to really understand the local culture, or else tourism would be a bludgeoning force erasing much that made this place special. He also recognized, in these discarded lines from a draft of "Michael, a Pastoral Poem" (written in 1800) that a shepherd's view of this place was different and of interest in its own right:

No doubt if you in terms direct had ask'd
Whether he lov'd the mountains, true it is
That with blunt repetition of your words
He might have stared at you, and said that they
Were frightful to behold, but had you then
Discours'd with him in some particular sort
Of his own business, and the goings on
Of earth and sky, then truly had you seen
That in his thoughts were obscurities,
Wonders and admirations, things that wrought
Not less than a religion in his heart.

But for a long time I knew none of this, and blamed Wordsworth for the failure to see us here and for making this a place of romantic wandering for other people.

We are all influenced, directly or indirectly, whether we are aware of it or not, by ideas and attitudes to the environment from cultural sources. My idea of this landscape is not from books but from another source: it is an older idea, inherited from the people who came before me here.

What follows is partly an explanation of our work through the course of the year; partly a memoir of my growing up in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and the people around me at that time like my father and grandfather; and partly a retelling from a new perspective the history of the Lake District—from the perspective of the people who live there, and have done for hundreds of years.

It is the story of a family and a farm, but it also tells a wider story about the people who get forgotten in the modern world. It is about how we need to open our eyes and see the forgotten people who live in our midst, whose lives are often deeply traditional and rooted in the distant past.



I've lived in the country for a lot of my life but I've never felt that I belonged.... It is so strange.... I have never experienced such an atmosphere ... as exists here.... I have to talk about it simply because it is so curious. It is the power which the children have to resist everybody and everything outside of the village.... The village children ... are convinced that they have something which none of the newcomers can ever have, some kind of mysterious life which is so perfect that it is a waste of time to search for anything else.



There is no beginning, and there is no end. The sun rises, and falls, each day, and the seasons come and go. The days, months, and years alternate through sunshine, rain, hail, wind, snow, and frost. The leaves fall each autumn and burst forth again each spring. The earth spins through the vastness of space. The grass comes and goes with the warmth of the sun. The farms and the flocks endure, bigger than the life of a single person. We are born, live our working lives, and die, passing like the oak leaves that blow across our land in the winter. We are each tiny parts of something enduring, something that feels solid, real, and true. Our farming way of life has roots deeper than five thousand years into the soil of this landscape.


I was born in late July 1974, into a world that centered on an old man and his two farms. He was a proud farmer, called William Hugh Rebanks, Hughie to his mates. "Granddad" to me. He had a rough, whiskery face when you kissed him good night. He smelled of sheep and cattle, and had only one yellow tooth, but he could clean the meat off a lamb chop with it like a jackal.

He had three children: two daughters, who had married good farmers, and my father. Dad was the youngest, the one who was to carry on his farm. I was his youngest grandson but the only one with his name. From my first memories until his dying day, I thought the sun shone out of his backside. Even as a small child I could see that he was the king of his own world, like a biblical patriarch. He doffed his cap to no man. No one told him what to do. He lived a modest life but was proud and free and independent, with a presence that said he belonged in this place in the world. My first memories are of him, and knowing I wanted to be just like him someday.

We live and work our small hill farm in the far northwest of England, in the Lake District. We farm in a valley called Matterdale, between the first two rounded fells that emerge on your left as you travel west on the main road from Penrith. From the summit of the fell behind our house you can see north across the silver glimmering of the distant Solway Estuary to Scotland. There is a stolen moment each early summer when I climb that fell and sit with my sheepdogs and have half an hour to take the world in. To the east you can see the backbone of England, the Pennines, with the good farming land of the Eden Valley opening up below. I smile at the thought that the entire history of our family has played out in the fields and villages stretching away beneath that fell, between Lake District and Pennines, for at least six centuries, and probably longer. We shaped this landscape, and we were shaped by it in turn. My people lived, worked, and died down there for countless generations. It is what it is because of them and people like them.

It is, above all, a peopled landscape. Every acre of it has been defined by the actions of men and women over the past ten thousand years. Even the mountains were mined and quarried, and the seemingly wild woodland behind us was once intensively harvested and coppiced. Almost everyone I am related to and care about lives within sight of that fell. When we call it our landscape, we mean it as a physical and intellectual reality. There is nothing chosen about it. This landscape is our home and we rarely stray long from it, or endure anywhere else for long before returning. This may seem like a lack of imagination or adventure, but I don't care. I love this place; for me it is the beginning and the end of everything, and everywhere else feels like nowhere.


Excerpted from The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks. Copyright © 2015 James Rebanks. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
I. Hefted,
II. Summer,
III. Autumn,
IV. Winter,
V. Spring,
Acknowledgements and Thanks,
About the Author,

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A Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Jason_A_Greer More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderfully refreshing memoir by a 40 year old Cumbrian Shepherd, that is grounded in reality and who has faced the realities and struggles of a globalized world head on, while keeping his integrity. Rebanks is a refreshing, direct writer. Words are used sparingly, but they keep a thoughtful punch to them. His recollections and really love for his land, his work, his young family, and especially for his recently departed father, shines through here. He does not present his way of life certainly as the best or the only way of life. He has no intention of being a 'guru', he simply wants to have his ancient way of life, and how it has struggled to maintain its integrity today, be heard, with the noise from a plastic, throwaway kind of globalized life. Because of his approach to writing, he leaves this reader refreshed that energized. This is really the best kind of counter culture here, a kind of counter culture that strives to be a very good nobody. He knows he is leaving his mark on the work, through his unique story and way to tell it, but he also knows that he is simply in a long line of people who have followed and who, hopefully, will continue to follow, most of whom are unknown to time. Written to describe his work over the seasons of the northern English year, Rebanks inserts his own story, and recollections of those he knows well. There is hardly any sentimentalism here, but real care and real, direct storytelling, that is hard sometimes to hear. Strikingly, his interaction with a Chinese trinket seller had one of the greatest punches of writing in this story, due to what it tells us about what the globalized world values and holds dear vs. traditional ways of life. This is well written, and very well worth your time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am so bummed that I' ve reached the end of this book. Two or more years ago, I began reading every book I could find on sheep and shepherds. I wanted to better understand why God calls us the sheep of His pasture. I have learned much, so that now when I want to relax, enjoy simplicity or feel loved by God, I read about sheep. This book has easily floated to the top of my favorites. Going through the day to day of shepherding and having the format of seasons really gives the truest picture I' ve seen. Hard work, pride and humility, a bondedness -- such treasures. I' ve no doubt I' ll be opening these virtual covers again and again.
Thebooktrail-com More than 1 year ago
This is a view of the lake district that you have never seen before and an experience that you will never had had before. Unless you’re a shepherd, that is. To travel to the Lake District is one thing but this book shows you how to live it, endure it, breathe it and experience it in all of its many forms. Don’t expect to wander across hillocks or stop at the top of hills to soak up the view. This is the every day real life reality of life in one of the most beautiful but remote and hardworking landscapes in England. Events such as the foot and mouth disease are recounted in all of its bleak reality. However harsh the landscape and the reality of being a shepherd however, the beauty of the setting and the passion James has for it, is clear to see. He is its biggest champion of living off the land, of loving the land and maintaining the heritage of his trade This book also looks at the literary side of the Lake district, the changing nature of farming and how the Lakes have taken shape, determined the future of farming and just how beautiful they really are, unwrapped, unveiled in all of their glory
DianaH-Maine More than 1 year ago
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE: MODERN DISPATCHES FROM AN ANCIENT LANDSCAPE by James Rebanks is a stunning book. I couldn’t put it down (and not only because I raise sheep myself). What I do - on a tiny hobby farm in Maine, USA - is not even remotely comparable to Mr. Rebanks’ occupation and lifestyle. (We both love sheep though!) While reading, I kept pausing and thinking of all the James Herriot books I read and reread years ago. The tone and style and passion of the writing is similar - the love and respect of the land, the landscape itself, the enthusiasm and joy for daily farming and shepherding tasks - these thoughts leap out of the pages at you, embrace you and don’t let you go. Several of my students and co-workers (I, too, needed a money-paying job) used to ask me: Why did I have sheep and chickens and a big garden? Why did I have muddy shoes sometimes at school? How come pieces of hay dropped out of my hair sometimes? Why learn to spin and weave wool? Don’t I know about Wal-Mart? Isn’t that where food comes from? I tried to explain that the animals, the plants, and the work kept me grounded and in touch with the earth, the seasons, life itself. But this thought process and lifestyle is hard to explain and justify to most people - children or adults. That is why I am so pleased to have discovered this book. It will always be on my shelf and referred to often. Some of my favorite passages revolve around the attempt to justify a choice of lifestyle and profession and the attempts to resolve living and working in a revered landscape. The words that come to mind when thinking about this book are - passion (#1), love of animals, love and respect of the land, tradition, history, connectivity to surroundings, a sense of community, cooperation and compromise, reflections, mind-numbing work. I do like the short chapters and blog-style writing. I do enjoy Mr. Rebanks’ Twitter account. @herdyshepherd1 He is a great photographer. I do enjoy the reflections and musings of Mr. Rebanks about land use, landscapes, love of tradition, love of family and love of sheep and farming. I do highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago