Monthly Archives: September 2018

Pontifications along a road less travelled. Bearing all!


During the course of a long, varied, and probably inglorious career; there are times when I feel I have pretty well ‘seen it all.’ But yet even I can find myself surprised.

This morning I caught a glimpse of pink on the other side of the hedge. Pink, in comparatively large quantities, doesn’t really figure in nature in Cumbria. So when I went into that field to check on the couple of dry cows there, I went to the far end of the field and investigated the ‘pink’. And there sprawled a teddy bear; lying there looking as if it was waiting for forensics to draw the chalk outline round it.

Now I realise that I’m just some simple farm boy who doesn’t get out much; but in rather a lot of years, this is the first abandoned teddy bear I’ve come across in one of our fields. What made it even more unusual was that it was two fields from the nearest habitation, and the field itself was not crossed by any footpaths, indeed it’s a dead end that nobody would want to walk into anyway.

Anyway I collected the teddy bear and when I was feeding sheep I called in at the nearest house and a small child identified the bear as her own. Apparently her mother has adopted a not unreasonable policy in that there are ‘indoor toys’ and ‘outside toys’ and this bear was very much in the outside category. My guess is that a fox took it, carried it through two hedges and was half way across the second field before it realised that its prey might smell of people and therefore food, but it wasn’t all that edible. (Foxes can out-think teddy bears but that isn’t saying a lot.)
As this point, it being Sunday, I’m reminded of the probably apocryphal tale of a small child who went to church with her grandparents. When she got home her mother had asked what they’d done.

The child replied, “We sang Gladly the teddy bear’s song.”

This came as something of a surprise to her mother who didn’t think it was that sort of happy-clappy church. She asked her father about it, who hadn’t a clue, and then asked her mother who thought a while and suggested that the child has latched onto the line, “gladly the cross I’d bear”


Keeping, very tenuously, to a vaguely bedtime theme, my Lady Wife, a lady entirely reliable in her observations, went to get a newspaper earlier this week. It would be about 10am and she parked in the street next to the post office. Roose is a quiet community, a suburb of the seething metropolis that is Barrow-in-Furness. As she came out of the post office she noted a lady clad in a dressing gown, standing barefoot in the middle of the street talking to a neighbour.

She was a little taken back at this; after all, it’s not as if she was in Tesco. Then yesterday, being a Saturday, she also went to collect the paper. Five girls between the ages of four and twelve were running down the street towards the post office, clutching money. One was wearing a onesie, the others were merely wearing their pyjamas. Save for the youngest who had decided to accessorise her pyjamas by wearing a pair of knickers on her head, and was peering out through one of the leg holes.

I suppose it’s nice that the weather at the end of September is still warm enough for such informality of dress.



Through some oversight on my part, I’ve never written a book about a teddy bear! Shocking I realise, but we all fail sometimes. Still looking on the bright side I have got one novel published where high fashion plays an important part.



As one reviewer put it, “In this new adventure in the `Swords’ series, we again follow Benor and watch and feel as though we take part in his hectic life. He both pursues and is pursued when he `liberates’ a prince’s concubine (and keeps her!) and the prince, naturally, doesn’t want to let the matter rest. As well as being an excellent fighter, one of his companions on the journey is a master of the haute couture trade and manages to combine these two rather successfully.

Jim Webster has created a credible fantasy world here, populated by its own races, both rivals and allies, and with an intriguing group of wild creatures which you can almost taste when they are described as food species! There is a good deal of action in this book but also some softer, `Ahhh!’ moments which I won’t describe for fear of spoiling the story. Needless to say, he has once again used his own writing style to give us some wonderfully memorable phrases. I like his style and his gentle humour.”

Under the mask


There are places where the modern world has been laid over the countryside but the countryside keeps breaking out. At times it’s as if, the more ostentatious the footprint, the less the real world has been changed.

Earlier this week I had to go up to Penrith for an evening meeting and so I decided to give the afternoon to the king. I drove north just after dinner and came off the motorway at Tebay and parked up in a layby just along the Orton road.

From there, equipped with Wellington boots and a decent map, I set off into the underworld. A path takes you under the motorway, and then swings across some land that’s virtually moorland. Again in the way that the modern and transient rubs shoulders with the old world, the path takes you not far from Tebay motorway service station. For those who don’t know it, it is one of the few that’s a shopping destination because of the farm shop.



Yet when I took the picture of the service station, I turned left and took a photo of this. Just a ruined cottage, move along, nothing to see. It was one of three that I came across, all within a mile of each other. As farming became more marginal during the twentieth century, houses and farms were abandoned and up here they weren’t snapped up by commuters.



My path took me to the railway, the West Coast Mainline, which I crossed where it’s bridged by a little used lane and from there I walked down another path which took me to the Birk Beck. This is a tributary of the River Lune and is a reasonable enough river in its own right for round here.




On this walk my route was constrained by the railway, the motorway and the river. But all of them had any number of little known underpasses or bridges. So I was able to wander happily whilst the world passed over my head at over 70mph.

It did strike me that we have a thriving genre of Urban Fantasy. Fantasy stories set in modern cities. There’s ‘Rivers of London’ by Ben Aaronovitch, ‘Neverwhere’ by Neil Gaiman and a number of others. Is there perhaps a rural fantasy genre out there waiting to be written. In the shadow on the motorway, can we find Midwinter and the Spoonbills? (Midwinter by John Buchan.) The old world going about its business, ignored by and ignoring the modern world that passes heedless through its very heart.

But still, I hit the river Lune at the point where the motorway crosses it. The presence of the Lune is the reason for both the railway and the motorway. It’s the Lune Gorge that provided a viable economic route for both of them.

And whilst the world scurries along above, somebody has decided that the motorway bridge is a perfect place to feed sheep in winter.



And then finally across a footbridge and along a quiet footpath which crept up through the village of Tebay and left me at the back of St James’s Church. Tebay was created by the railway and it’s only fitting that it was the railway company that provided the bricks and the skilled labour to build the church. Indeed even in my lifetime the church got its gas and electricity direct from the old engine shed.


OK so wandering about minding other people’s business for them is never going to be a  glamorous hobby, but it often keeps me out of trouble.



At this point I’d tie everything up together by pointing out I’d written a fabulous fantasy story peering at the world behind the mask, a work that would define rural fantasy for a generation.

Pity it only just occurred to me then. Still I did write a fantasy novel about a young man who does spend a fair bit of time within the rural world. It’s even available in paperback as well as an e-book!





Pontifications along a road less travelled. You might believe that, I cannot possibly comment.

fall of troy

I was intrigued to read an article in a leading newspaper about veganism sweeping the world. Certainly you get enough strident propaganda throughout English speaking social media. But what’s the real situation? I read an interesting paper, ‘An Estimate of the Number of Vegetarians in the World.’


It states “We estimate that there are one and half billion vegetarians. Only 75 million are vegetarians of choice, a number that will gradually grow with increasing affluence and education. The other 1,450 million are vegetarians of necessity. They will start to eat meat as soon as they can afford it.”

Meat production throughout the world continues to increase, and more and more people are eating it.


Veganism brings to mind the famous Douglas Adams quote, “The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?”

― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe


Within the wealthy and secular west, prosperous people are importing exotic vegetable foods from around the world so they can eat an interesting vegan diet. It’s fair enough, everybody needs a hobby.

But how relevant is it to the world in general? Does this minority within a minority (admittedly a wealthy one) actually matter any more? Does it have any influence?
I think the issue is that the world is changing and the wealthy and secular west is no longer necessarily leading opinion. Look at Christianity. In the UK only about 10% of the population are ‘church goers.’ Apparently 70% of young people in the UK identify with no religion. A study by the Benedict XVI Centre found that the people identifying as non-religious are typically young, white and male – and increasingly working class. (Given how that group, its interests and aspirations, seems to be despised by so many of our middle class intelligentsia, that discovery provides its own dark irony.)

Yet according to the Washington Post, Christianity is increasing in Africa. Asia is also experiencing growth as world Christianity’s centre moves away from the West, to the South and to the East. Asia’s Christian population of 350 million is projected to grow to 460 million by 2025.

Then of course there is China which has a further sixty to seventy million Christians. Given the Chinese government might be about to launch a crackdown, that could push the numbers higher.
Not only that but Christianity is changing, in Latin America, the large Christian population is becoming more Pentecostal or Charismatic.

Tracing its roots to the Azusa Street revival in 1910, and comprising 5 percent of Christians in 1970, today one of four Christians is Pentecostal or Charismatic. Or think of it this way: one out of 12 people alive today has a Pentecostal form of Christian faith.
So do the fads and fashions of the dying West really matter any more?

Is the West dying? How would we tell? Surely the West is still strong?
It might be. But these things change and can change within the lifetime. A young warrior who fought under Agamemnon at the siege of Troy could live to see Mycene fall and his world dissolve.

Or perhaps as a small child, born in 395AD, your Dad would sit you on his knee and tell you about the soldier Emperor Theodosius who died the day you were born and who ruled the whole empire. Then as an old man or woman of 81 your own grandchildren could bring you the news that the barbarian general, Odoacer had forced the last emperor Romulus Augustulus to abdicate.

So what date will future historians pick to mark the start of the fall of the west? The fall of Berlin? The fall of Saigon? The fall of the Berlin Wall?


Oh yes, and your opinion? Is it historically relevant? Will Marx, Corbyn, Juncker or Tusk matter in twenty years time?

Me, I’m trying to work out who will be worth listening to.


Waiting for the Barbarians



What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?


The barbarians are due here today.



Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?

Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?


Because the barbarians are coming today.

What’s the point of senators making laws now?

Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.



Why did our emperor get up so early,

and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,

in state, wearing the crown?


Because the barbarians are coming today

and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.

He’s even got a scroll to give him,

loaded with titles, with imposing names.



Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today

wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?

Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,

rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?

Why are they carrying elegant canes

beautifully worked in silver and gold?


Because the barbarians are coming today

and things like that dazzle the barbarians.



Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual

to make their speeches, say what they have to say?


Because the barbarians are coming today

and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.



Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?

(How serious people’s faces have become.)

Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,

everyone going home lost in thought?


Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.

And some of our men just in from the border say

there are no barbarians any longer.



Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

Those people were a kind of solution.



Alternatively there is poetry in motion

to quote the reviewer “Tallis Steelyard is a poet with champagne tastes on a beer budget. Chased out of town, and into the bay, by irate creditors, he’s rescued by a passing boat and given the opportunity to become a part of the crew. Thereafter follow a series of adventures, many funny, before Tallis can finally return home again.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story and recommend it highly!”

Symphony for buzzards


Back when I was in my teens I went on some holidays with a young naturalist group up in the Inner and Outer Hebrides. One thing I remember was buzzards hovering high above. As we were told at the time, they were very rare and you wouldn’t see them elsewhere. (as an aside, the picture isn’t mine. I’m borrowing it)

Now there are tens of thousands of them pretty well everywhere. Looking sheep the other day Sal disturbed a pair of them who were cawing affectionately to each other. If you’ve never heard a buzzard


This morning I took some feed down to a batch of lambs. Don’t think cute, think 35kg thugs. Anyway a week previously a bunch of bullocks had broken in to join them, and when they were chased out a dozen lambs and cull ewes had left with them. Anyway this morning I noticed that in the next field there were no bullocks in sight, but the errant sheep were present, watching anxiously as their erstwhile comrades were getting fed.

So as I had Sal with me, I opened a couple more gates and set about arranging for the wanderers to return. As I drove the quad into the other field, everything suddenly woke up. A buzzard that had been sitting in the grass near the gate took to its wings and flapped across to sit on the bridge over the beck. As it flew over, a brace of pigeons scattered and fled. A heron standing in the beck immediately took off to avoid the buzzard, wheeled round to avoid Sal, only to find that it was now passing low over the buzzard. So the heron banked sharply and sped of fast and low hoping to avoid being lunch.

As it was the buzzard seemed too interested in keeping a sharp eye on Sal and the quad.

Sal bounded across to the sheep and there was this squawk as a pheasant rocketed up from just in front of her. Now Sal does have this habit of chasing pheasants. Entirely fruitlessly it has to be said, but she seems to enjoy it. But in this case she had sheep to deal with so the pheasant was ignored and disappeared, skimming the top of the hedge and dropping to the ground on the other side.

The sheep weren’t entirely co-operative. They could see their friends and the feed through a low part of the hedge. So to them it was irrational for them to go away from this place, round a corner and through two gates when they could just try crashing through the netting. Fortunately the presence of Sal with quadbike support was enough to convince them that in this case the longer way round was probably the best.

One thing that did occur to me as I followed the sheep out of the field and shut the gate was, “What are all these buzzards eating?”

Given the population has increased from none to quite a number; they all have to be eating something. I once saw a buzzard strip the carcass of a 40kg lamb that had died. It took it two days. They have hearty appetites. Admittedly on the second day when I went to see what was happening the buzzard took a waddling run up before it tried to jump into the air and fly, and to be fair it did just about make it. But if you know what I mean, it was wallowing in the air rather than soaring.

If you increase the number of one successful predator, then the number of prey will decrease and something else will go hungry. That’s just how nature is.





At least Herdwicks have the sense to get in out of the rain



Well they say travel broadens the mind. But don’t worry; I didn’t go far, just across into Scotland. We had a brisk look round Edinburgh and then down to Newton Stewart because we’ve always liked Galloway.

But we finished off in the Lake District and there I met these, huddling under a tree out of the rain.
I was talking to people the other day. Apparently they felt that we should give up keeping hill sheep, because it wasn’t economically viable. Hill sheep farming only exists because of the support through various environmental schemes.

Yet I’d seen some figures some days before. Defra produced a nice chart; it shows the various sectors and their ability to survive without subsidy.



Specialist pig and poultry farms can survive, they have to, they don’t get subsidies. Admittedly they’re also the most intensive, efficient and productive sectors of agriculture. But do people want the rest of livestock agriculture to follow down that route? Actually it’s up to you, you’ll get what you pay for. No more, no less.
Horticulture is also able to survive without subsidy, but whilst we might think of market gardens, a lot of horticultural businesses are large, intensive, efficient, and produce really large amounts of food. Which is lucky, because we need large amounts of food, we’ve got a steadily increasing population to feed.

Dairy farmers also can survive without subsidy. Not easily, but it can be done.

But the real surprise for me was that cereal production isn’t economic in this country. Bread, the staff of life, cannot be produced in the UK without subsidies.

Why? Simple, our farms are too small, too cluttered with hedgerows, woods, roads, houses, and what-have-you. This picture shows how arable agriculture really works on proper farms. In the UK we’re just crofters.



The cynic might ask why the UK population is so keen on titivating the countryside around where it lives, but eats by raping the land in distant continents.

But anyway I’m back, so I took Sal this morning and went to look sheep. Now Sal and I have to walk through the ewes on our way to take a handful of feed to some dairy heifers. Sal bounced into the field and of course the ewes moved away. Sal was happy with this; sheep were doing what sheep should. They then stopped at a respectable distance and watched.

Now I’m carrying a bucket with the feed in. I’m making a point of carrying the bucket in my right hand with the ewes being on my left land side. The ewes are watching Sal, but they started watching me. Suddenly one of them let out a bleat and ran towards me. I can only assume she said ‘cake’ because the rest poured after her like a flood. Sal tried to move them away but they just ignored her and I made my way across the field rather more than knee deep in sheep. Not only that but the heifers spotted this and cantered across the gate to provide me with moral support. After all it was their feed I was carrying.

Farming makes far more sense than agricultural politics.

Sheep make more sense than politicians.

But between ourselves, if we just left it all to Border Collies at least we’d have a system that worked.



Perhaps I should leave this sort of stuff to Sal?