But once at least in the year Mardale has ‘a gay good getherin o fwoke fra far and near.’ On the third Sunday of November, the shepherds’ meeting of the year is held at Mardale. Determining to combine pleasure with business, a hunt is organised, and after the sheep are sorted out and claimed, the rest of the day is spent in merriment and cheer. (pp. 216-217)
It was Friday evening, November 17th, that a lover of the shepherd life and shepherd customs of the dales found himself at the Shap station and began his walk of nine miles towards the nick in the grey hills that told where Nan Bield lay. (p. 217)….
A shepherd passes by with twenty ‘herdwicks’ bound for the Dun Bull, and the Shepherds’ Meeting. “It’s gan to be a nippy neet I’se thinkin’, and ivvry way it’s mappen like a fine daay for t’do up at t’Dunny tomorrer,” he said. (p. 219)
So on the wanderer went through the tingling air. The Laythwaite crags and the breast of Bampton Moor, brown and grizzled grey, rose up to the great rampire of the Roman Road on the right hand, and Whelter crags, Basing crag, and Castle crag, stood dark and gaunt in front. The little Mardale Church and its ancient yew trees appeared, and the road turned sharply to the left round the churchyard and bore towards the Mardale beck, beyond which lay the goal of the journey—the ‘Dun Bull’ inn. (pp. 219-220)….
Riggindale opened out finely on the right hand, but the wanderer turned his back to Kidsty Pike and High Rause and Rough Crags and set his face for Selside, crossing the beck from Mardale Green. He was soon sitting a weary but not welcome guest by the cosy kitchen fire of the Dun Bull. (p. 222)
Why not welcome? Because every bed had been engaged by a party of Manchester men who were going to join the Mardale Hunt on the day following, but a bed was found at a farm near by and meals at the ‘Dunny’ were possible. (p. 222)….
“We sat down to tea,—'haver bread,’ cheese, tea cakes, jam and apple pasty galore, and then I strolled up to the farm where a kindly body had promised to give me shelter for the night. (p. 223)….
I went down with my host to ‘Dunny’ at seven o’clock with the wife’s voice of warning in my ears, that if we were late ‘heam’ we mud sleep ‘i’t byre, fur she wadn’t stay up for us, sea theere.’ Already one felt the breath of the shepherds’ meeting had possessed the Dun Bull. Farmers and shepherds who had come over the fells with sheep for the morrow’s meeting were sitting on the settles, with their dogs at their feet and with pots of hardly-tasted ale in front of them. Very silent and weary they seemed and well they might be. They had been ‘raking’ the high fells for a week past in quest of their neighbours’ sheep. Presently one whose thoughts were evidently with his dogs out on the moorland said as if he was speaking almost in his sleep, and was addressing nobody in particular, “Ah saw that yan o thine wid t’lamb this mornin’. Ah tried to git till far side on’t but my dog wasn’t ‘wiet’ eneuf, and t’yow bolted and got crag fast, sea ah hed to leave it, but Ah’ll hev anudder try furst thing i’t morning.” (p. 225)
I learned that the shepherds’ meeting at Mardale “wasn’t founded in’t memory of man.” That the shepherds gave up a week to ‘raking’ the fells and bringing down to the Dun Bull the sheep that were not their own. That though there is a Shepherds’ Guide with all the lug-marks and smit marks of the various flocks in it, it is very seldom referred to, for all the shepherds ken the marks as well as they ken their own bairns. From the time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, a hunt succeeded by a good dinner ushers in the shepherds’ ceremony of ‘swortn’ the sheep; and after the sorting a hound trail and pigeon shooting at clay pigeons affords diversion till daylight fades; then tea is served and the shepherds who determine ‘to remain on spree,’ as they call it, instead of driving their sheep home, make a night of it. I gathered from the old farmers that they thought ‘nowt’ to the hound-trail and pigeon shooting. ‘They wur new-fanglements and mud varra weel be dispensed wid.’ (pp. 225-226)
“Do you ever have any difficulty about handing the sheep back to their rightful owners?” I said. “Naay, naay, nobbut when smit-mark’s weshed oot or lug-mark hes got destroyed by wear and tear. Noo and agean we send yan back as neaboddy can claaim ye kna.” Poor little unclaimed herdwick! What a picture of forlornness! Surely the scape-goat in the wilderness was not much more forlorn than the friendless sheep that none could own, sent back to the winter mountains. (p. 226)
I learned that as many as two hundred sheep were thus annually brought together and returned to their rightful masters. “It’s very good of you to take so much trouble,” said I. “Naay, naay barn, why its nowt,” was the rejoinder. “Ye see its fair aw roond. They deu t’saame fer me.” (pp. 226-227)
A great barking filled the kitchen and all the dogs rushed out, for the noise of wheels was heard and soon Manchester poured itself into the hostelry. Sturdy young fellows in knickerbockers, in leggings, in shooting jackets and every form of unkempt, rough, untidy dress, their faces glowed from the frost, their appetites were keen, and we were all of us soon seated round a supper table where ‘taty pot’ was the principal dish. Then pipes were filled, songs were called for, and liquor flowed. The Manchester men meant well, but they did ill. The fellside shepherd is not one who thinks that the only way to be happy is to be full of liquor, but he is much too much of a gentleman to wish to hurt the feelings of the man who proffers it, and in his very fear of offence he deems it his duty to take the liquor provided. There was a deal of duty done that evening at the Dun Bull. (p. 227)….
Breakfast was now the word. We all sat down together,—hunters, shepherds, Manchester men, landlord and wife. ‘Poddish,’ ham and sausage ‘for ivver,’ as my neighbour said, was the fare. Then, after breakfast, Joe Bowman went for his dogs. With but little hope of scent, he ‘lowsed,’ as it is called, at the Grove Brae farm, and the dogs went up across Branstreet towards the head of the dale. Three of the hounds were seen to disappear over the top. Gone off on a hunt on their own account, Joe knew well what hounds there were, and bidding us, if we wanted to see anything of the sport, get across the valley and climb up to the top of Rough Crags, he went on bravely with the rest of the pack, and was soon lost to view among the crags and the mist that rose, as the sun rose, along the steaming heights. (p. 229)
We crossed the river by a couple of larch tree poles that do duty for a bridge and clambered up to a vantage ground 2042 ft. above sea level; all the time we heard a kind of elfin music, the voices of a hunt in a dream. “Dogs is gaen” was all that was said. At last a keen-eyed sportsman said, “By gocks! dogs is coomin back,” and sure enough, with the fox in front of them, came tearing over the lower end of Branstreet, then doubling back right across the breast of the Fell above Dunny and so on to Harter Fell, they doubled back again on to Branstreet, dashed along for nearly the whole length of the fell breast, till the music and crying that was caught up, echoed back from all the crags of the vale, ceased, and we knew by the twinkle of bodies that clustered round a mass of fallen rocks a few hundred yards above the Dun Bull that the Tod had gone to earth, and the hunt was ended. (pp. 229-230)
There was a rush down and across the dale to be in at the death, but my sympathy was with the ‘varmint.’ I had never been able to understand the nobility or the sport in sending terriers into a ‘bield’ to worry a holed fox, and I was glad to meet Bowman walking away from the crowd with a look of disquiet and disgust on his fine bronzed face to think that when foxes had been so thinned they should not have let this poor ‘varmint’ live to run another day. (p. 230)
The hunt had begun at 9. It had ended at noon, and the fox deserved better treatment, for he had brought the hunters back to their dinner table almost to a moment. Such a dinner! Beef boiled and roast, plum-pudding and mince pies. I heard one old shepherd say when pudding time came, “Naay Ah’ll nut hev any pudding, thank tha. It’ll spoil t’taaste o’t round o’ beef.” (p. 230)
Before dinner the sheep had been driven into a garth at the back of ‘the Dunny,’ and dinner ended and the fifty shepherds satisfied that they had done all that could in justice be expected of them to do by the roast beef and the plum-pudding, we sallied forth to see the ‘sworting out’ of the herdwicks and the return of the lost sheep to their respective owners. What struck one was first the quickness of eye that in that sea of faces could detect in a moment the particular mark, the cropped or ‘stuffed’ ear, or the particular smit that the owner claimed by. And the dogs were as keen as their masters. “Why, why,” a shepherd said to me, “dogs ken as weel as ony of us. Ken by t’smell on em, I think, and wad pick em oot like a man if they were left to theersels.” (pp. 230-231)
Certainly as the sheep thus sorted out were released from the pen and headed for home, the dogs seemed as proud and pleased as their masters, and we heard their rejoiceful yapping and barking far away down the valley. But the next thing that struck one was the honesty and honour amongst these fellside shepherd fold. “Is that yan thine, Joe?” a shepherd would say. Nayther me nor Isaac can make owt on’t. It’s been badly lug-marked and t’smit marks is worn off. I saaid and he thowt it leuked like yan o’ thine. T’pop on’t showder’s t’saame.” (p. 231)
“Naay Thomas,” came the answer, “it’s nut mine. Ah only wish it war. What’s ta mak o’t lug mark o that hauf-bred yowe theer wid Scotch lamb?” (p. 231)
“Ah mak it oot to be varra nar a fork, but nut quite,” says a voice by my side, and I hear the answer, “Dusta ken what that un is thoo hes hod on. Ah think it mud be Jim Birkett’s. It hes his mark on, hooiver, an hesn’t pop. Ah’ll back owt he’s missed poppin it.” And up comes Birkett. “Nay he’ll not saay of hissel,” but if that is the opinion of the majority he’ll claim to be the owner of the half-marked sheep. (pp. 231-232)….
Little by little the ‘herdwick’ assembly melts away, and ere the last shepherd has left the garth, we hear the hounds baying in their leashes at the hostel door, for the man with the aniseed cloth has been scented, and they know that in a moment or two they will be flying on the trail, across the valley and up the fellside and so home to the inn. (p. 232)
Hardly had the hounds started when a knot of younger shepherds was seen gathering round a catapult which sent clay pigeons into the air. “Well, you see,” said one, “pigeon-shooting at live birds, it’s not sport, it’s just cruelty, and we’ll hev’ nin of it at Mardale.” Bang went the guns and the clay pigeon generally lived to fly again. It seemed a little incongruous to have any pigeon-shooting of clay-kind or live-kind at Mardale. (pp. 232-233)
As we bade adieu and went back towards Shap through the waning light of the frosty eventide, one could not help wishing that neither Manchester jovialities nor Hurlingham hospitalities had ever been introduced to Mardale. Something of the simplicity of that time-out-of-mind shepherds’ meeting in the wilderness had been lost never to return. But there was also something in the surroundings and in the naturalness of those fine gentlemen-shepherds of the fell which nothing could annul; and the honour of give and take at that shepherds’ garth at the Dun Bull was a memory that could not fade, a heritage that no modern invention or invasion could destroy. (p. 233)
(Months at the Lakes, pp. 214-233)