I spend a couple of weeks each year walking on the Lake District fells, so it is inevitable that I should have fallen upon James Rebanks’s remarkable The Shepherd’s Life (2015). I loved it, and I learned much more about upland sheep farming than I could possibly have divined from hours of watching Herdwicks on the fell. Reading The Shepherd’s Life inevitably set me thinking about another book I read long ago and which, tellingly, turned the young Rebanks into a reader: ‘One day, I pulled A Shepherd’s Life by W. H. Hudson from the bookcase . . . It was going to be lousy and patronizing, I just knew it. I was going to hate it like the books they’d pushed at us in school. But I was wrong, I didn’t hate it. I loved it.’
The use of the indefinite article in Hudson’s title points to an important difference between the two books, however. Hudson was less interested in conveying the practicalities of shepherding and sheep-breeding than in recording the lives of shepherds. His is a much gentler and more episodic book than Rebanks’s but, nevertheless, it’s one I’ve never forgotten.
Readers of Slightly Foxed will have noticed quite a strong bias towards writers of well-written pastoral non-fiction, such as Adrian Bell, Ronald Blythe, Richard Hillyer and Richard Mabey. This is scarcely surprising since in this country we seem to have a predilection for reading about our countryside and the people who live in it. This preoccupation goes back at least to the time of the Romantic poets and William Cobbett, when burgeoning towns and cities seemed to be eating up the countryside, but it was promoted by the quickening pace of life at the beginning of the twentieth century, when educated people began to see that the valued ‘old ways’ were threatened, especially by the motor-car. It was at this point that William Henry Hudson, an extremely accomplished field naturalist, began visiting Wiltshire and the surroun
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