View from the Bridge: 47

by John Morrison


47: Farming the Fells

Life can be hard above the tree-line, where the Smallholders have their palatial ranch. It's not particularly arduous for the Smallholders themselves, of course, whose idea of farming, according to their more truculent neighbours, is keeping "a couple of sheep and six fucking honey bees".

It's an ostentatious spread that, architecturally speaking, puts two fingers up to the workaday farmsteads that surround it. You can tell it's not a 'real' farm because there aren't any rotting animal carcasses, rusting farm machinery or savage dogs, chained-up and half-crazed from barking at the moon. The gates work; the farmyard is suspiciously tidy; a polished Range Rover is parked where a clapped-out tractor ought to be. Instead of the all-pervading, sinus-clearing stench of slurry, you may recognise - if the windows are open - the more agreeable aroma of pot-pourri, furniture polish and money.

The hill farmers of Yorkshire have a reputation for dour taciturnity and stubborn intransigence. It's a reputation that's both deserved and hard-earned, and they'll be buggered if they'll change their ways to accommodate a bunch of soft, southern bed-wetters like the Smallholders. The farmers get up at dawn. They go without holidays. They work all hours God sends, and a few more besides. Hard work is their currency; it's what they understand best. Without hard, menial, unrewarding work their lives would lose all meaning. The farming community has its own skewed internal logic, and a deeply conservative nature that abhors change. So what gets them angry, really angry, is people like the accursed Smallholders, who just play at being farmers.

Hill farming is a way of life that should, by rights, have died out years ago. One by one the more isolated farms were abandoned, as life at these altitudes became insupportable. Families locked up their farmhouses, cast tearful glances back to what their ancestors had worked so hard to built up, vowed to return one day... but never did. The towns had a need of millhands, and soon claimed them. Empty farms, full of ghosts, haunt the higher fells; for years you couldn't give them away. Then came the Smallholders - and others like them - squealing with delight at the thought of converting these gaunt gritstone ruins into bijou residences. Every time a farm is sold to overpaid townies, the farmers shudder with a mixture of envy and dread. Selling up is the last resort. It's crushing to be the one who finally brings a family's farming dynasty to an end. It's not a decision to be taken lightly.

People talk about the inevitability of change. You can't stand still, say the Smallholders. It's not that we're against change, but why do things always have to change for the worse?

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