CANDLEMAS LAMBING FIASCO, 1959
by Richard Holdsworth
Reader Richard Holdsworth shares his memories of Candlemas 1959
I was 14 when I spent my first night with a lambing flock. To see the early lambs of the year, I visited Robin Merrick, a typically born and bred Yorkshire shepherd. He was living in his wooden shed, which was mounted on iron wheels and dragged annually to a moorland field. Robin set up his traditional temporary home in the usual spot by the previous autumn’s straw rick. With a helpful hole, Robin used the rick bales to build his latrine.
Robin was not much older than I, but he was a man. Before leaving the village for the hut, he had told me that his girlfriend, Marion, did not want him to spend his nights with the flock, checking the sheep hourly. He wasn’t free during the day because he slept only for short periods, even when his boss took over the vigil. Marion had tried staying with him, but farmer Farley had stopped that. Farley was a strict Baptist and banned alcohol and anything fun from the workplace. “He thinks that if it’s fun, it must be sin,” Robin claimed.
“FARLEY WAS A STRICT BAPTIST AND BANNED ALCOHOL AND ANYTHING FUN FROM THE WORKPLACE.”
For the owner, Candlemas lambing was worth all the trouble. Lambs born in February are the right age to take full advantage of the spring grass. They are fattened for the lucrative summer market. But Robin claimed his girlfriend did not feel the Candlemas lambing was worth their separation.
As I trudged to visit Robin, the mud clogged on my boots. The nearer I approached his hut, the more I had to lean into the wind. His hut with the straw rick and the sheep enclosure stood in the meeting point of two dry-stone walls. The sheep enclosure within the walls was made of a double row of wattle hurdles packed with straw. One quarter was for the ewes before lambing, one for newborn lambs with their mothers, one for ewes with twins and triplets, and one for week-old lambs and their mothers. I always liked the section for the youngest lambs with its ‘coops’ of hurdles and straw.
I made my way off the track and through a turnip field. As I approached, bleating ewes stared at me, and Robin’s dog, Elsie, took the cue to yap while running about me in glee. After pandering to Elsie’s exuberance, I climbed the wooden steps and rattled the door.
“Come in!” shouted Robin. Inside was a stove, a table, a chair, an iron bed strewn with clothing, and shelves that were piled with food, medicine, and tools. I guessed that somewhere, there would be a hidden bottle of whisky. Robin was putting a limp lamb into a hay box in front of the stove.
Mr. Farley was up ‘ere early. ‘E wain’t be back today,” he said, turning to gaze at me. Mr. Farley was the farmer. “He won’t let Marion visit me.” I wondered what Robin’s gaze meant. I had brought Brown Ale and a milk caddy filled with dumplings and stew. I stood the caddy on the stove, and we opened bottles of ale. “I ain’t seen ‘er for a week or more.” He swigged the ale and slurped a spoon of stew. “How long you staying?”
“As long as you like,” I said. The stew wasn’t steaming, but he ate it fast.
“I might nip and see her, just for an hour,” he said.
“Mr. Farley won’t like that,” I said, sitting on a duffle coat on the bed.
“Marion don’t like this!”
“What’ll I do while you’re gone?” Each time I moved, the bed creaked.
“Nothin’. It’ll be OK for an hour.”
“What if it snows?”
“It’ll not snow.” He tugged at the coat on which I was sitting. I moved so he could free it, and he put it on. “I’ll be back,” he said, giving Elsie what was left of the stew. “Come! Elsie!” He whistled and strode out before she finished eating.
From the door, I watched him stride away. Then, I checked out the ewes and newborn lambs in their coops. I hoped that Robin would get there and back without Mr. Farley finding out. The wind splattered me with sleet. I hoped Mr. Farley wouldn’t see Robin. I wondered if I could get the grazing ewes into the pen. I walked toward them. The ewes scattered, bleating. Heavy snow began falling from low clouds. The ewes crowded at the far end of the field. The closer I approached them, the more they fled and scattered. Robin had probably not even reached Marion’s house by the time I lost my way. The snow blinded me. I walked into a wall, so I followed the snow on the wall until the straw rick sheltered me. Then I dashed to the hut. The lamb in the box was warm and still. I put wood on the stove. My boots were wet. I set them by the stove and took off my mackintosh, shaking it by the door. Robin’s blanket was cold as I wrapped myself in it and lay on his bed, listening to the wind and the bleating sheep.
After a while, I looked for Robin’s whisky. A bottle of Bells was in an old Wellington boot. My parents would assume that I was safe with Robin. The whisky tasted bitter. I hoped that Robin would come back soon. I picked snow off the hut’s steps and used it to dilute the whisky. From the window, I could see only billowing downy snow. The lamb in the hay box was still. I ate some bread and Marmite. Then I lay down under all the blankets I could find. But I got up again and packed the measly stove with the last of the wood—not that it burned well with an overcast sky. The lamb had not moved. I lay down with the whisky that made me hiccup and almost vomit. I drank more whisky to clear the taste in my throat. Then I slept all night.
“I MIGHT NIP AND SEE HER, JUST FOR AN HOUR,” HE SAID.
“MR. FARLEY WON’T LIKE THAT,” I SAID.”
In the morning, the lamb by the cold stove was rigid. I looked out of the window to see a dead ewe on a snowdrift by the hut. Crows were already gouging out its eyes. I shivered and put on my stiff boots and damp coat. When I looked out again, buzzards were attacking the innards. By the time the buzzards lumbered off, a cloud of crows swarmed to ravage the carcass in a black frenzy. I went outside; snow drifts hid most of the enclosure. Suddenly, the crows scattered. I turned around, hoping to see Elsie, the dog, but it was a wide-winged hawk that had startled them. Amazed, I watched as the red and white kite let the crows forage, but as they took off with their meat, it frightened them so that they dropped it. The deft kite swooped and caught the food before it landed. I was hungry.
Back in the hut, I ate some more bread. I looked for the paper to light the fire. When I went out to find wood, I heard a tractor. As the tractor approached, clouds of crows scattered and then settled behind it. I waved, expecting to see Robin. But Mr. Farley shook his fist. I dived through the nearest snow drift, clambering and falling as his tractor and yells roared toward me. I sprawled over a wall and dropped out of sight.
As I ran toward home through Arthington Woods, I met my father, who was coming to look for me. Robin had caught Marion with his brother. I never saw Robin again. A few years ago, I heard that Robin’s mother had gone out to New Zealand to live with Robin and his six kids at a sheep station.
NorthernLife Jan/Feb 24