Monday, 9 April 2012


NOT Shaun the Sheep
We were in the Lake District last week, more specifically a valley just north of Ullswater, close to the village of Dockray. One day the sun blazed and we went canoeing on the lake - much quieter than the Thames, the only protests from a pair of geese guarding their island - the next a brisk north-easterly blew snow in our faces.

Actually it didn't feel much like the Lake District proper, there being so few other people around. Ambleside and Grasmere may be the preserve of robust families with rucksacks but the hills around Ullswater belong almost exclusively to the sheep. And what sheep! We were surrounded on all sides by Herdwicks, a breed with shaggy greyish wool and considerably more brain than your typical Shaun-the-Sheep type animal.

In their lack of concern for the weather Herdwicks are the sheep equivalent of Geordie girls on a night out. We were reliably informed that when it snows hard (ie measurable in feet) they cluster against a wall and let the snow pile up on top of them. Then they wait for it to melt, nibbling their own wool for sustenance, sometimes for weeks. With a clump of sheep thus buried it is not unknown for a second set to come along and seek shelter in the same place, so that the two groups are temporarily entombed in the snow one on top of the other.

It was lambing time when we were there, which can be rather grim in years when the ewes don't have enough milk. The sight of a ewe angrily butting a hungry lamb is not the most cheering, but we were fortunate to witness lambing in a very good year, with black, white and brown lambs leaping about all over the place.

The ubiquitous stone walls are apparently not very good at keeping Herdwicks in a field - they just climb over - but we saw how the sheep used them for shelter and warmth. The morning after the mini-blizzard, the pasture was covered in snow, except for a strip in the lee of a wall, where the morning sun had warmed the stone. While new lambs got to grips with the challenge of existence in this natural nursery, their mothers patrolled the vicinity for foxes and other predators. One ewe with twisted horns and a malevolent glint in her eye came charging towards me, stopping with said horns just short of my middle. Gored by a sheep? I suppose it's one way to get your name in the papers.

So the sheep are perfectly suited to their environment of rough grass, bad weather and stone which is attractive on a sunny day but otherwise an uncompromising dark grey. This stone was evidently the only building material for centuries, as every building is constructed from it. Thick walls and small windows reflect the climate, and there is nothing chocolate-boxish about the hard geometry of barn and cottage.

This combination of (mostly) treeless hills and austere buildings appealed to Ben Nicholson when, in the early 1920s, he was buzzing about with his wife Winifred, looking for inspiration in the landscape. I think it's quite telling that they charged all around Europe but ended up living on the very edge of what the Romans considered civilisation - up against Hadrian's Wall a few miles north-east of Ullswater.

I'd been looking at Ben Nicholson's paintings of Cumbria before we went, and when we arrived I recognised the simple barns and stripped-down landscape. Could there have been a better landscape for a budding abstract artist to explore? Like the Herdwicks, Nicholson fitted in.

What I didn't realise was that the Nicholsons knew the actual valley where we were staying, since collector and patron Helen Sutherland lived in a farmhouse just up the hill during World War Two and after. Winifred Nicholson painted at least one picture in the valley and, given Sutherland's largesse and fame, there were no doubt many other artists and poets who visited during the 1940s and 1950s.

It's funny how often one 'finds' a place, only to discover that generations of artists and poets have been there before, often leaving little trace. Paul Nash in Worth Matravers, Ravilious in Capel-y-ffin, Graham Sutherland on St David's Head... The same extraordinary, strangely authentic places appealed to neolithic mound-builders and Celtic monks, who no doubt found the same weather, and probably the same sheep.

We stayed at Crookwath Cottage, which is one of Alastair Sawday's Special Places.


  1. Shame you had such weird weather, we hope to visit Ulverston soon and hope for warmer days.

  2. Hello, James. If you'd like the little things I'm due to send you, can you email me your address? Thanks,