The People

The People


The pattern of farming in Cumbria is largely one of regional self-sufficiency based on the inter-dependence of hill and lowland farming – the hill farmer breeds the fat lambs and suckler cattle that the lowland farmer wants; the lowland farmer grows the winter fodder that the hill farmer needs; while in the middle, the farming co-operatives and the cattle markets marry the supply to the demand.

Over the last decade there has been a steady decrease in the number of farms in the region, a steady increase in the standard of living enjoyed by the farming community, and a rise in the incidence of bed and breakfast provision as a source of ready cash through the summer.

The decrease in farm numbers has been affected in two ways. The labour pattern on hill sheep farms is mainly of ‘father-and-son working with the son taking over the farm when the ‘father retires. Where a farmer has no son to succeed him the farm is likely to disappear as a separate economic unit because the special conditions of upland farming normally prevent lowlanders from successfully taking over a hill farm. The other factor is the increasing ten­dency for farms to be auctioned off in separate lots when­ever one comes on the market – the house and immediate grounds as one lot (generally ending up as a week-end retreat or a retirement home), the out-fields and grazing lots being bought up by the neighbouring farmers.

In earlier days hens and pigs provided the farms with a ready cash source, but the decreasing economic return on these coincided with the influx of mains services (especially electricity) into the. dales. Before the mains services, farm­houses and cottages that wanted electric light were depen­dent on their own generators; these normally provided a 110v. output. The transition to a 240v. mains service opened up the dale’s to refrigerators, electric food mixers, washing machines and television – in themselves the basis for bed and breakfast provision.

The motorway, the regional trunk road improvements, and the mains services have had considerable effect on the life styles in the dale ‘farm’s. The Royal Show at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire is regularly and well attended from all parts of Cumbria, while farmers from well outside the region use the M6 to attend markets in Cumbria. The influx is mainly on the east, but it is steadily spreading westwards across the region. At another level the inter-action between the visitors who come for bed and breakfast, or farmhouse teas, and the farming community has broadened the social horizons of the local people quite as much as it has heightened the country­side awareness of the visitors. Eating-out in expensive restaurants, attending formal dinner-dances, patronising the repertory theatres and going to the music festival in Kendal; all these activities have been absorbed into farming life with­in the last few years.

The sheep farmer sells his wool to the Wool Marketing Board and his marketable sheep either direct to a slaughterer or through one of the lowland markets. The slaughterer pays a guaranteed price, set about the middle of the current market variations and also pays for the transport of the sheep from the farm. The price a farmer can obtain in auction at the ‘local market is variable, and heavily dependent on ‘the number of animals on offer at the same time. Each large buyer at the auction has a given number of outlets, and thus the demand for animals at the market is fairly steady. An excess of animals over demand will naturally depress the prices offered by the buyers.

The local markets are run by public companies, and the credit available to buyers varies from market to market, normally between two and four weeks: The longer the term the more attractive the market is to the buyers (and thus to the farmers), but because even two weeks credit put approximately £10,000 of the market company’s money at risk, there are obviously limitations on the extension of credit facilities. The normal market fee is 2½% on all sales.

As at all regular commodity auctions the regular buyer’ eo-oerate with eatch other to stabilise prices and keep out unknown buyers. Prices are stabilised by ring buying – each buyer has his turn in buying up ‘whatever animals are required by the ring, and after the public auction beasts and prices are evened out within the ring privately. If an un­known buyer takes part in the public auction the ring mem­bers bid against the newcomer to ensure that he pays the top price for his animals. The system is defended on the grounds that by keeping a fairly steady price range the famer knows approximately what he is likely to get before­hand, and anyway he can always refuse to accept the final bid price.

Keen, even sharp practice, is a traditional element in cattle dealings, but my favourite story concerns the man who bought 15 cows at a West Cumberland auction. The tradi­tion in cattle deals is that on completion of the deal approxi­mately 5% of the agreed price is returned to the buyer as “luck money.” In this particular instance  the buyer paid by cheque, gave the address where lie wanted the beasts delivered and received over £100 luck money in bank notes. The cheque proved to be worthless, and the address was found to be that of a derelict cottage.

Farming co-operatives are commercial trading organisa­tions that will, as required, buy all (or some) of a farmer’s produce at fair market price and sell him anything he re­quires, be it a pre-Christmas cruise holiday (Spain, North Africa and the Canary Islands), some grain preservative, or the gear necessary to vaccinate his ewes. They run farm management lecture programmes combined with sophisticated social evenings, land they supervise experimental crop schemes. Any farmer can use any or all of their services completely or intermittently. Some farmers patronise more than one co-operative, some just one co-operative, some re­fuse to deal with co-operatives on principle.


One aspect of Cambrian life that affects every section of society is Foxhunting. Foxes pose a serious hazard to the sheep farmer’s economy – one farmer told me that he had lost twenty lambs within a few weeks, a loss of approximately £160- £180. Because of the Cumbrian terrain, systematic hunting with dogs, on foot, provides the most effective form of control yet devised. There are six packs of hounds within the National Park area, with three others within the Cumbrian region as a whole. Each pack hunts a clearly defined territory, and within its own territory is supported by voluntary village committees which raise funds for the maintenance of the pack, typically £2,000 per year.

The hunt organisation devolves upon the master, a paid huntsman, and a hunt committee (comprising representatives from each village committee). Each pack comprises some 40-50 hounds (strictly speaking 20-25 brace; hounds and foxes alike are reckoned in twos or brace), which during the close season are boarded out (walked) with hunt supporters. Each farmer is expected to board one or two hounds unless he also provides some other service in lieu. During the close season hounds sometimes break out from their boarding-out kennels and roam free for a day or so, upturning dustbins and making a thorough nuisance with their scavenging, until recaptured.

At the end of the close season the hounds are gathered at the pack kennels and then stay together under the hunts­man’s control for the hunting season mid-‘September to end April). The pack territory is systematically hunted, area by area, until the end of March. During this period the hunt meets three or four times each week at approximately 9.00 a.m. During April (‘the lambing time) the hunt is available for call by any of its supporters who may be suffering persistent depredation. On these occasions the hunt meets early, around 5.0 a.m., at the most likely time for vulpine activity.

The hunt is very much part of the Cumbrian social fabric – farmers, foresters, publicans, shopkeepers and professional men from the market towns – but with none of the social caste system that characterises the mounted hunts elsewhere in England. There are no rituals (such as blooding) to be undergone and the suggestion that orphaned cubs might be reared during the close season to maintain the fox population at a huntable level is strenuously denied by hunt officials and suporters alike.

Village Life

Buttermere village, standing between the twin lakes of Crummock Water and Buttermere, properly comprises a small church (St. James’s), two hotels (The Fish and The Bridge, a youth hostel, ‘four farms, and half-a-dozen houses. Ancillary to’ the village, strung out along the valley between Gatesgarth and Brackenthwaite, are several farms, guest­houses, and cottages. All in all, some 200 + souls comprise the parish of Buttermere.

Over the last 120 years Buttermere village has not changed much. The farmhouse by the bridge over Sail Beck became The Victoria Hotel, and was later renamed The Bridge. The highest sited building in the village, Top House, was con­verted into The Buttermere Hotel, and later metamorphosed into a Youth Hostel. The chapel that William Wordsworth eulogised was rebuilt, though the replacement looks remark­ably similar to Wordsworth’s “lowly pile.” One farm has disappeared, and of the eleven families that were mentioned by name in 1851 in a book by Henry Mayhew, one is still represented in the village, though by an indirect line. The road to Lorton used to go over Low Bank, and the Nelsons (who wed to farm Gatesgarth) would go over Dalehead if they wanted to go to Keswick.

The conversion of the Butlermere Hotel into the 70-bed King George VI Memorial Youth Hostel in 1956 caused a considerable perturbation in the village – in the words of the then owner of the Bridge Hotel, “it brought into the village the wrong type of visitor, young tearaways on motor hikes, and other undesirables” (this was essentially a mino­rity viewpoint). The introduction of a 70-bed youth hostel certainly widened the social spectrum of Buttermere’s visi­tors, stimulated trade at the village shop, and boosted local milk sales.

The local authority health department statistics for 1970 indicate that of the 44 houses (including hotels, hostel and farms) in the parish nine are connected to a mains water supply, and none to a public sewer (43 houses flush into their own private septic tank and one still uses an earth closet). The 35 houses that are not supplied with mains water rely either on surface drainage, artesian wells or springs.

The pastoral care of the parish has been combined with the living of Loweswater. Services are held in St. James’s each Sunday, and marriages are still, infrequently, solemnised. The village school was closed in the early 1950s. Primary education is provided at Lorton, six miles down the valley (where the local police constable and the local pub are also located); secondary education is provided at Cockermouth, 10 miles down the valley. The village child­ren, whatever their school, are collected each schoolday morning by the local taxi service at about 8.00 a.m. and brought back the same way each evening about 4.30 p.m.; a far cry from the days when a farm stood halfway up Gatesgarthdale (the ruins can still be seen beside the second of three bridges that cross the beck below the slate quarry) and the farm children did not attend the village school be­cause of the distance.

It is only within the last decade that the physical isola­tion of the village ceased to be the dominant influence on village life. For both leisure and commerce the people look down the valley to Lorton and Cockermouth, and for most of the women in the village the daily call of the post­man, or the weekly visits by the greengrocer, the butcher, and the fishman provided their main links with the outside world, except for the occasional shopping visit to Cocker-mouth. Even today, when most of the village families own at least one motor-car, the pattern of life is still such that the men work out, and the women are tied to the farm­house or the cottage. It is very noticeable in autumn that the men are weather-beaten and the women pallid. Tourism is now the main item in the village economy, with two hotels, a youth hostel, two private guest-houses, and a Ram­blers’ Association guest-house at Hassness. In earlier times Hassness was a rest and cure centre for rich alcoholics, and before that it was a private house. The owner used to invite the village children to Bonfire Night parties. Wood­house at the head of Crummock Water, used to be the de-facto squire’s house in late Victorian times. The farms in and around the village provide bed and breakfast during the holiday season and, in addition, afternoon teas can be had at Gatesgarth Farm. For many years Annie Nelson provided afternoon teas in her cottage at the foot of Honister Pass, but with her death in 1971, which severed the last direct residence link with the 1850s, Annie Nelson’s cottage was re-absorbed back into the Gatesgarth Farm holding.

As in 1851, when Henry Mayhew visited the valley, Gates­garth Farm is well known for its sheep. A primitive style painting from this period, which hangs in the farm dining-room, shows how little the farmhouse has changed visually, and at Gatesgarth the feeling of the dales people for the intrinsic values of the region was stated quite emphatically. “If the dales people had wanted to ruin the valley we’d have done so years ago, long before the Planning Board or the Friends of the Lake District ever heard of us. But all they want to do is to take everything for themselves and then charge everyone else, including us, the earth just for looking at it.” The Planning Board is not very popular among the farming community.