Sheep are quite important in these parts really. Without them the fells would be forested below six hundred metres, there would be none of the field barns for which the area is noted to convert to holiday cottages with gravel drives and satellite dishes and there would be no local pubs named for the patron saint of wool workers whose feast day is just around the corner on the third of February. What’s more, before the snowdrops come up, before the migratory birds return, before easter eggs appear on supermarket shelves, before satnav following caravanners start getting stuck down dead ends, lambing, whilst the snow is still on the ground and the day is still over before teatime, is the reminder that winter has properly turned the corner, things are heading in the right direction, and we won’t all have to go vegetarian for at least another year. As well as jumpers, cheese and a National Park logo then sheep give us the most tail wagging and gambolling of all the little reassurances of the dark months that the world is still turning and the sun is coming.
As the sight, sound and aroma of sheep is something we take so much for granted in the land of the Pennines many people are surprised to learn that although the woolly creatures played such an important part in our past; shaping our landscape through the enclosures (the common folk were turfed off the land south of the border too) and our towns through the grand merchants’ houses of the same Georgian era sheep had all but vanished from the Dales by the nineteen sixties as synthetic fabrics and the contraceptive pill caused the products and services they provided, for so long indispensible to country folk, to be needed no more. The thriving sheep population of today is in fact entirely descended from those which escaped during Martin Scorsese’s filming of All Creatures Great and Small in the late seventies, the method acting of the time causing many of the starring sheep, spending so many hours in a muddy field under the pouring rain with Christopher Timothy’s arm up their jacksie, to fail to find a satisfactory answer the question of what’s my motivation, Marty?
Although sheep might be seen as a wee bit of a hazard to humans on bikes by some a little knowledge of their ways goes a long way. If there are a ewe and a lamb on opposite sides of the road, for example, you know that one of them is going to cross the road at the sight of your approach, if it’s getting late in the day you know that sheep have a tendency to gravitate towards the tarmac from their preferred mileu of grass because of the heat radiated by the surface as the evening air cools, you know not to look too smug when you glide over the cattle grid because that really pisses them off and if you don’t know you soon find out that just because they have horns that look like drop handlebars that doesn’t mean they like it if you try and ride them. The best way of getting along with sheep however is to borrow from the old farmers’ trick of pairing up a ewe that’s lost her lamb to a lamb that’s lost his mother by wrapping the orphan in the fleece of it’s departed cousin and wear lots of merino when out on the bike. This way the sheep just think you’re a relative from down under, will briefly look up and baa the sheep equivalent of g’day by way of trying to make you feel at home and carry on as before, allowing you to pass unhindered, as long as you don’t mention the cricket. So happy Australia day today, and happy Saint Blaise’s day week after next and if you know someone who works in wool then don’t forget to send them a carder.
The gritty social realism of historical epic Downton Abbey which came to an end last weekend has challenged many of our preconceptions concerning what it was like in the old days. Many people, for example, would have imagined the Yorkshire of a century ago as a highly stratified society whereas writer Julian Fellowes shows us that in fact the lower and upper orders mingled quite amically all day long and gathered every evening to read The Guardian together over a nice hot mug of noblesse oblige. The most important way Downton has changed my historical perspective however is in showing me that there were no horses back then and everybody travelled everywhere either by walking freshly swept and well maintained lanes free of muck of any kind, blagging a lift in the car from an aristocrat with more titles than Waterstones or taking an unseen train service of a speed, frequency and affordability which surely surpasses anything the as yet unbuilt HS2 promises in even its wildest promotional claims. The fact that Yorkshire in the early twentieth century was as horseless as it was classless when in the same place today both of these things are very much in evidence was as much of a revalation to me as the discovery when I first watched Star Wars that people in the previously assumed to be weightless realm of outer space could walk around as if they were on a sound stage in Hertfordshire. And to think that they say TV isn’t educational. My present day experience of riding a bike around modern day Yorkshire suggests that we have both gravity and horses in quite large amounts and I’m always reassured by both of their continuing presences in my neighbourhood.
Riding up towards the moors I often pass through a village where on an early morning many horses join the cyclists headed up the hill out of town. Most of the horses you meet around the lanes are amateurs of course but these are the pros and they are looking forward to next July when some bikeriders of a slightly higher class than the ones they encounter most of the year ride though this way. The horses can look a bit disdainful but the jockies are more friendly and the wet and cold often makes me feel for the lads and lasses headed up to the gallops. If I get chilly I have some pedals to turn to warm me up, at least I assume that’s what they are there for, but in their case the horse, to be honest, does most of the physical effort. I am sure there is a golden Dragons Den opportunity waiting for the inventor of stirrups with pedals for horse riders shivering on those frosty days or trying to shift those last few pounds for the weigh in. Other than this slight difference though horse riders and bike riders have so much in common I always love to see them out on the roads, hardened professionals or enthusiastic amateurs, as I like to see other bike riders out. I’m not alone in this because MTBers also like them as horses are the only other thing on the road that weighs nearly as much as their bikes.
In accordance with good horse-passing practice, and in accordance with good not being an antisocial knob who refuses to say hello to anyone not wearing the same brand of sunglasses practice I always call out a friendly good morning so the horse knows I am a human and not a wolf (wolves being famously disinclined to make small talk) and I generally get a friendly greeting in return. If the horse knows you are a human he won’t use his strength and speed, which are probably greater than your own, against you. Humans give the horse carrots and sugar lumps, the well known staple diet of thoroughbreds, so are a species he is generally cool with. I am the same with anyone who gives me jelly babies. I can’t help thinking though that humans are also the ones who get a horse up early on a sunday morning, kick him out of a warm stable and make him run around in circles on a freezing moor in the pissing rain with someone sitting on his back carrying a whip so at at least some point in the day being a human has got to be the very worst thing you can identify yourself as to such a very large and powerful animal with a good kick on him. The trouble is the only wolf noise I can do is their whistle and that might get me into even more trouble.
The world of Downton Abbey might be one of enlightened liberal values, well manicured lawns and even more manicured hairdos, and riding bicycles sidesaddle whilst wondering why nobody in the village is under twenty-five but that world is gone, never to return, until the christmas special, so you and I will have to make do with the modern world. We might have slower trains than they do, and probably slower broadband as well where I live, the sun doesn’t always shine and I dream of how many bikes I could have kept in one of those grand houses of yesteryear’s big empty stable blocks but as long as I can ride my bike I’ll make do with this world as I feel more at home here and today anyway, amongst the muck and the rain and the horses.
The unmistakable croaky cry of the red grouse is as much a natural accompaniment to my bike rides as the sound of whirring tyres on a wet road, the clanking of fluffed gear changes, and the reassurances of ewes to their lambs that it’s alright pet, it’s only a cyclist, it’s them ramblers you mustn’t turn your back to. Grouse seem unperturbed by bike riders and perhaps that is because we have so much in common. Like bike riders, grouse can be found on the high moors in all weathers when sensible folks are huddled by their fireside, like bike riders the grouse’s legs get hairier in winter, and like bike riders, wealthy executives, for the price of a few grand in
lawyers’ shooting fees can kill them at weekends with no stain on their conscience, criminal record or overall loveliness as a human being. I’ve never really understood why some people have it in for the grouse. They just hang out on the fells chilling, chewing the heather and living off the image rights royalties from those whisky labels, which is another thing which links us as I confess to an occasional dram after a winter ride to try and restore feeling to my fingers and toes. In this I share something with the shooting fraternity as they also like a sneaky slug of the hard stuff but in their case it is to try and surpress their feelings of being human rather than restore them. I don’t know how grouse became the term for an exclamation of complaint or discomfort, as in those simply hilarious duck or grouse signs found on low beams in olde worlde pubs but I sometimes wish the grouse would stand up for themselves a bit more; perhaps tie a hand grenade to those big hairy hobbit feet of theirs’ or inter-breed with golden eagles or something. The grouse is definitely a bird that needs to kick ass more and quit being such a heather-smoking hippy. I wouldn’t love them any less and their relationship with the people who think blowing a turkey-sized semi-flightless ginger vegetarian bird out of the sky at short range with a powerful shotgun resting on a prepared position to which the birds are driven by people waving big sticks and blowing whistles makes them feel better about themselves and about the people they’ve just spent the working week screwing surely couldn’t get any worse.