Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Andrea Meanwell lived and farmed in the Rusland and Crake valleys, near Coniston, for eight years between 2009 and 2017. She was an off-comer, fulfilling a dream. She was impressed by the selflessness and dedication of the people working in the valleys and felt inspired by “their contentment with their lives, never wishing for another easier life and never focusing on material possessions.” It is the valleys and the people who have been the inspiration for her poems and her stories.
That inspiration comes partly from a sense of the uncertain future of the farming life. In one poem, “Certainty”, her husband can say:
“There are few things in life
More certain than a hefted flock.”
But she knows how uncertain the farming life is when they seem to be fighting a daily battle against the loss of subsidies, when grazing is being lost and tradition is in danger of disappearing and when the farming community seems to be under “friendly fire” from conservationists and environmentalists.
Andrea is writing to defend the way of life, the tradition of the valleys.
One of the children of the valley is seven year old Henry. He is expected to give his ten minute talk to the class in primary school. He stands up, unprepared, but he is so full of his subject, owls, that he holds the class transfixed: “Here was a child born to hold the attention of others, to speak to an audience and think on his feet.” Henry’s parents reported that he had always loved owls, had even convinced them that he would spend his evenings up in his bedroom talking to them. Years later, when his parents were renovating his room, they found a dead owl in the fireplace.
Other stories tell of Joe’s Cows and his trip to auction and of buying a farm in the Crake Valley, only to find “a resident claiming squatter’s rights, a very wild Swaledale ewe”, who had belonged to the previous owner.
The centrepiece of the book is a long story called Bethecar Moor. Sawrey packs “a rucksack and two panniers for the pony with the provisions I thought I would need for the first week” and leaves the cosy farm kitchen and heads for an isolated, deserted farmhouse on the lonely fells. “There was no road to the farm, no electricity, no running water and no mobile phone signal. I intended to occupy and repopulate the farm, to breath life back into the moorland there by managing the landscape. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the fields were filling up with rushes and brambles. I was going to bring the farm back to life . . . It was to be the beginning of a new chapter for Parkamoor, and for one girl, her dog and her pony.”
But Sawrey finds that: “Somehow, by trying to break free like a fraying strand from a piece of woven fabric, I had become even more interwoven into the tweed fabric of our valley life.”
The story is one that seems to grow out of the landscape. Andrea says she first visited Bethecar Moor in 1993 when she was exploring the countryside as her husband was fell running. Wandering around the abandoned and unlocked farmhouse, she started to people the building with her imagination. The result, twenty-five years later, is this evocative story of farming life in a Lakeland valley.
These are quiet, affectionate stories and poems of life that seems hefted to the valleys of the Lake District.