A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Before I go any further, I need to say that I know Ian and Jen Hall, Fisherground Farm, the Eskdale Valley, the Wakes and virtually the entire supporting cast of this book. Not only that, but I also lived through and shared some of the story told in it. I am therefore very far from being an unbiased reviewer – but I will try to be an honest one …
In the baking hot summer of 1976 four friends – Ian and Jennifer Hall and Geoff and Anne Marie Wake – embarked on a risky but exciting adventure in self-sufficiency and shared living. Pooling their joint resources they bought Fisherground – a fell farm in Eskdale in the beautiful western Lake District running a flock of the local Herdwick sheep.
Ian was the farmer’s son who went to Oxford to study mathematics but had dreams of following in his parents’ footsteps. Geoff was the practical man, who continued working at Sellafield during the day while fettling the farm vehicles and buildings in his spare time. Their respective wives, Jen and Anne Marie, were the cement of the four-way relationship. Friends from their school days, they first met when Anne Marie – an irrepressibly vivacious young French woman – had stayed with Jen’s family during a schools exchange visit. As the two girls grew into adulthood, the friendship between them blossomed and strengthened, and when Jen’s cousin Geoff met Anne Marie, his fate was sealed …
In the early days, the foursome turned their hand to everything from growing potatoes through fattening calves to The Great Pig Adventure, all with a notable lack of success. The only thing they tried that dependably turned in a profit was their small campsite. Under a Lake District byelaw, anyone owning land in the National Park was allowed to open it up for camping for 28 days in the year – so up went a hand-painted sign, in went a Portaloo, and Fisherground Campsite was born.
Over the years, self-catering accommodation was added to the site, first in the form of an illicit caravan hidden from the eyes of the planners but later as cedar lodges with all the mod cons and, even as the agricultural enterprises failed, the campsite burgeoned and flourished.
The Herdwick flock alone withstood the vicissitudes of the weather, veterinary fees, red tape and fate. Hardy, self-sufficient and bloody-minded, Herdwicks are sheep like no other. They roam the Lakeland fells in invisible ‘fields’, each animal learning from its mother the precise location and dimensions of its own ‘patch’, known as a heft – and they never wander from it. It was upon the Herdwicks that Ian hung his final hopes of making it as a farmer, and he was within sight of realizing his dream when three local dogs decimated the flock, killing 42 animals in one frenzied attack.
The loss of the sheep was the final straw. Although it would have been possible to rebuild the flock, it would also have been incredibly hard work and – in any case – Ian’s heart had gone from it. Common sense dictated that financial security lay in the campsite and, in addition, his life was about to head in other directions. It was time to move on.
The other directions including becoming a non-stipendiary priest and learning to paraglide (two not entirely incompatible occupations) and one of the highlights of the book is a wonderful description of an exhilarating hour long flight over his beloved western lakes.
Interwoven with the story of Fisherground is the story of the complex and sometimes strained relationship between the Wakes and the Halls – raising five children, living closely together in frequently trying circumstances, facing the grim possibility of terminal illness … Ian is at times painfully honest about the stresses they were under and, in particular, his own shortcomings as a husband and neighbour. Born in Borrowdale, less than ten miles away, he was nevertheless considered an ‘off-comer’, even after 30 years – a status which was almost literally rammed in his face when Foot and Mouth disease hit Cumbria in 2001. The book’s description of that terrible spring when Cumbrian fields lay empty and silent and the smell of disinfectant hung in the air is particularly vivid, capturing perfectly the anger, suspicion and paranoia that enveloped the area at the time.
Fisherground is a self-published book and at times shows the want of a professional editorial hand … but having said that it’s beautifully and economically written, eminently readable and hugely entertaining – streets ahead of most other self-published books I’ve read. Wryly funny and self-knowing, with an eye for the ridiculous, Ian never falls into the trap of taking himself too seriously – not even when describing his very first funeral service. (Moral: NEVER record the music for the funeral on the ‘B’ side of an old ‘Chameleon’ tape …).
There are parties, births, deaths and marriages – all of human life, in fact. If you love the Lake District and have sometimes thought of living there, or perhaps have always fancied trying your hand as a farmer … get your hands on a copy of Fisherground, for a dose of cold reality gently leavened with humour. It should be required reading for anyone who thinks that farmers have it easy.
Orchard House Books. 2013. ISBN: 978-0-9928156-1-5. 314pp. Also available as an ebook.