Saturday, 24 December 2011

'There were shepherds abiding on the fells . . .'

The inscription on this monument on the slopes of Skiddaw reads
"In loving memory of two Skiddaw shepherds Edward Hawell of Lonscale, 
born October 21 1815, died June 1889, 
and son, Joseph Hawell, born December 24 1854, died February 20 1890. 
Noted breeders of prize herdwick sheep. 
Great shepherd of the heavenly flock, these men have left our hill, their feet were on the living rock, 
oh guide and bless them still."

There's nowhere quite like the outer reaches of The Lake District in England. Away from the endless romanticism of Wordsworth’s daffodils in Grasmere, boat trips from Bowness pier and the hoards roaming the sad town that Keswick has now become – in the remote West, to the Back o'Skiddaw and round to the Howgill fells, for those seeking solitude, cure of the soul can still be found.

But it is not a tame landscape. Many’s the day has found me high on pathless fells in horizontal rain with no visibility, huddled behind one of those engineering marvels, the dry stone wall – fighting to get some warmth into a temperamental stove. When the rain comes in, it oft comes to stay, settles and makes to squat til the next depression sweeps in off the Irish sea. My grandmother grew up on these remote edges where her family farmed on Black Combe – a lonely sentinel looking out across the shipyards of Barrow and Walney to the Isle of Man and beyond – if it weren’t raining. 
It is said of Black Combe,  ‘if you can’t see it, it’s raining and if you can, it’s just about to ’
More often than not, it had its ‘hat’ on.

And there were shepherds abiding high on those hills, quite literally as of old, living out there come shine or rain. 
You can allus tell a Cumbrian fellsman or shepherd, for the rain might be horizontal, but it’d be ‘nobbut a drop’. It’s hardly surprising that the Cumbrian breed, the Herdwick was not exactly world famous and they was under a degree of threat til it were found that its fleece made some of the hardest wearing carpets known to the world. As if surviving in these bleak conditions weren’t enough.

Shepherds abiding in the fields . . . watching o’er their flocks by night. I remember well being told that here was proof that Christ wasn’t born on December 25th – for which shepherd would be out in the middle of winter even in Palestine. 
This 'proof' of course came from a townie – one unaware that the shepherds did precisely that, living out in rough shielings with their flocks and as you walk on Starling Dodd, or Great Calva, or in the remote fastness under Kensgriff or Wild Boar Fell, you’ll find evidence here and there of the shepherds care for their sheep.

The shepherds of the Nativity scene are there in part, to prophetically remind us of the Kings and
Priests of Israel, and their absence from the birth of the King of Kings and the Great High Priest, the Good Shepherd. They were ‘just shepherds’, doing what shepherds do – being out in all weathers for their flock was more important to them than their own comfort.The 'shepherds of Israel' were in royal palaces, tucked up at home in bed

At Epiphany the Magi direct out gaze to Wisdom incarnate – at Christmas the shepherds direct our gaze as we follow them even unto Bethlehem – Here lies the Shepherd of his Sheep. 

And where will He dwell? Where will He pitch his tent?

Wherever His sheep are.

So wherever you are this Christmas – that is where the Shepherd is to be found

'And we have seen his Glory . . . full of Grace and Truth'



  1. I expect you particularly miss the harsh but beautiful Winter landscapes at this time of year. Wishing you a Happy Christmas!

  2. Thank you Sue, you are quite right.
    New Zealand has its own beauty but so do those remote fells - I guess their might be a blog in that, 'having our own beauty' :) - those fells certainly have their own and I for one find it highly attractive

    A very Happy Christmas to you!

  3. At least there are sheep in the fields nearby, at least from my home in Brockville but I feel moe as if I have returned for the census to the big city where I was born.
    Happy Christmas.