Words coming and going
Posted on September 3, 2015
Showing sheep in the Lake District can be a competitive business – never so competitive that it overrules friendships, but the reputation of a farmer and his flock is boosted by success. If you go to the tup sales in the autumn you’ll hear the auctioneer rattle off the awards a sheep has won, as well as those won by the tup that sired him. Quality matters.
There are several classes for each breed, including shearling tup, tup lamb, gimmer lamb, aged ewe and best mouth, and within each breed there is a champion. Judging is slow and considered. Teeth, legs, poise, fleece, balls and more are checked, and the sheep are let loose so the judge can watch them move. Even though each judge has his or her preferences – some favour light colours, some dark; some will look for a long neck, some prefer a lean animal - there are key markers that set some sheep above the rest. Receiving a champion rosette at the end of the show is the highest prize. And, typically, it adds to the selling price of a sheep and its progeny.
Centuries past colour this blood,
carry poise, privilege, future lambs.
I had the idea of adding poetry to some rosettes several months ago, following on from my placement of a poem on the clouted ends of ewes over the winter months (read more here). As I had done with the clouts, I wanted to introduce poetry into a normal practice as seamlessly as I could, leaving the poem to find its own way – and new expression – within a traditional setting.
But first I needed the go ahead. I wasn’t sure that this would come - it would be a gamble for the farmers to say yes to as yet unknown words appearing on their rosettes. Two weeks before the event, though, I got the 'OK' from the committee organising the Matterdale & St John’s Sheep Show in Patterdale. I had expected to be given a set of rosettes from one of the classes, either herdwicks or swaledales, but they asked me to write a poem for the champions of both breeds. Suddenly I felt the pressure mount. Somehow I needed to put words to the rosettes for awards that carried real significance, and would quite possibly be given pride of place back on the farms. Some farmers hang their rosettes in cabinets, some pin them to the beams in the kitchen, where they stay for years.
This strong body: fell-scented stock,
far-sighted, held in skilful hands.
I spoke to several farmers about what they look for in sheep when they judge, and what they aim to cultivate in their own sheep with the hope of winning, and I went back through notes I had made at other shows and sales. I set about writing a poem with a couplet for each rosette: one for champion Herdwick, one for champion Swaledale, and one for overall champion.
This wasn’t going to be a poem about me, or a poem about farming life, the environment or politics – it needed to be a poem celebrating the tradition of showing and the attributes of a good herdwick or swaledale sheep. And it needed to be as relevant on the day of the show as it might have been twenty years ago, or might be twenty years in the future.
In this mouth: land, lineage, tales,
well-bred, weather-fed, triumph, time.
A week before the show, the secretary gave me the grandest rosettes I have ever seen, complete with gold stars on the tassels. She gave me four instead of three, which was a bit of a curve ball - champion and reserve champion for both Herdwicks and Swaledales. I adapted the poem and headed to see John, an accomplished craftsman in Kendal who does fine embroidery and printing. With two days to go until the show I gritted my teeth as he put the precious champion rosette into the heat press, hoping it wouldn’t melt. We collectively held our breath, and exhaled with relief when it came out looking perfect.
These firm legs: deep-rooted here,
fine fettle, well-hefted, pride in line.
The poem found its way subtly and gently into the day. Smiles and pride from the winners, along with curiosity about the poem. And now it has passed on. Its sections are separated by fells and valleys. The process, for me, is not yet complete, as I have yet to visit the farms where the winning sheep will be, and see the rosettes in their new location.
These may be the only rosettes in the Lake District with a poem on. They have provided a blend of literature and farming as part of a living culture. But the combination is about more than just words and rosettes – it has played out in the process of the work, with farmers adding their thoughts and influencing the way the poem finds its form during the composition as well as after its presentation. It has been a two-way process, and there has been a mutual appreciation between us for what has happened.
Before the champions were announced, inside the tea tent, a cake had all but been consumed, along with another poem. One of the farmer's wives played a key role in this poetry presentation as she offered to make the cake. I didn't know how much space I would have until the morning I arrived there and took out my writing icing.
Unlike the rosettes, which will hold their poem for years or maybe decades, the poem on the cake existed for only a couple of hours - a short life for a poem that is based on a few years worth of conversations with women about their lives on the farm, and specifically in their kitchens.
Although the poem is about home life, rather than farming practice, its disappearance harks back to the words a farmer once said to me about the challenges facing Herdwick farming in some areas of the Lake District: ‘Once it’s gone, it’s gone. There’s no going back.’
This cake was consumed in good spirits (most of it during a heavy downpour when everyone piled into the tent to stay dry) with no concern about it disappearing – after all, that is what it was for. But it made me think about the bigger picture: hungry consumption (with or without mindfulness) of the planet’s resources. I know this is taking it a long way from the wet grassy field of a traditional sheep show but, even if it only exists for a couple of hours, a poem can invite a pause and consideration for the value of what we hold dear.
For the autumn tup sales, you could do worse than head to Broughton or Cockermouth for Herdwicks, and to Kirkby Stephen or Hawes for Swaledales. They begin end September / early October.
The words were printed on to the rosettes by John from Castle Embroidery, who became part of the decision making process, steering me away from stitching, which had been my original idea, to the transfer technique, which worked brilliantly. Thanks John for being there and working in the evenings on this.
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