30 October 2015
The Lake District

A view of the Lake District, where James Rebanks lives and writes

The shepherd's life

When I was young, I loved the book Tarka The Otter by Henry Williamson. I became fascinated by that troubled, brilliant man, and tried to read everything he wrote. Williamson did a lot of his writing in a hut he built on a field he bought in Devon. I’ve often threatened to go and visit his writing hut, but it’s a long way and I’ve not yet managed to find the time.

Perhaps because I knew about his hut, my daydreams about being a 'writer' always involved having a place where I could shut out the world, surrounded by the books and objects that inspire me.

A hut of one's own

A couple of years ago, we built a new agricultural building for our sheep on a hillside in the Lake District. At one end of it I built a farm office, which now doubles as my 'writing hut'. It is a big, light, modern box with large windows on two sides. I can sit with the valley of Matterdale stretching away beneath me and sometimes a few sheep, four sheepdogs and a pony resting in the other half of the building.

As I write this, a mile or two away across the valley, the cloud shadows are racing across the purpled fells. The view is always shifting; it shapes what I write, and how I describe the place where I live.

Peace and quiet

In my daydreams of being a writer, there was a lot more quiet time than there is in reality. You don’t imagine Hemingway or Camus sitting down to write and the phone ringing, or the kids bawling because they’ve had an argument, but I am sure they both had to fight for moments to free themselves from their own distractions. There is never a time when everything else is done.

I still imagine some mythical future in which I am greyer, wiser and less distracted, writing epic books in my writing hut. But there will always be distractions: children to play with, sheep to lamb, or something else calling me out to the fields. That is just how it is.

  • The Illustrated Herdwick Shepherd

  • I am the luckiest man alive, because I get to live and work in the most beautiful place on earth: Matterdale in the English Lake District.

    When I was a child we didn't really go anywhere, except a week in the Isle of Man when I was about ten years old, and I never left Britain until I was twenty.

    Even now, years later, the best bit of any travelling is coming home.

    Bringing us into the world of shepherd's baking competitions, sheep shows and moments out on the fell watching the sheep run away home, James Rebanks interweaves thoughts and reflections on the art of shepherding with his photographs of the valley, people and animals that make up the daily life of the fells. A life lived by the three hundred surviving fell farming families, this is a book of photos and words filled with reverence and love.

  • Buy the book
  • The Shepherd's Life

  • THE SUNDAY TIMES NUMBER ONE BESTSELLER

    'Affectionate, evocative, illuminating. A story of survival - of a flock, a landscape and a disappearing way of life. I love this book' Nigel Slater

    'Triumphant, a pastoral for the 21st century' Helen Davies, Sunday Times, Books of the Year

    'The nature publishing sensation of the year, unsentimental yet luminous' Melissa Harrison, The Times, Books of the Year

    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, he and his family have lived and worked in and around the Lake District for generations. Their way of life is ordered by the seasons and the work they demand, and has been for hundreds of years. A Viking would understand the work they do: sending the sheep to the fells in the summer and making the hay; the autumn fairs where the flocks are replenished; the gruelling 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 fells.

  • Buy the book

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