Clara & Margaret Black visit Hûrd

Meeting Clara and Margaret Black during my field-recording adventures in Cumbria was truly one of the highlights of the trip. I arrived nearly 2 hours late to their farm after a mix-up with directions and Googlemaps* to find them both in fine spirits in spite of the rain and waiting expectantly outside Margaret’s home. My car with KNITSONIK painted on the side seemed to tickle them pink.

I had a tasty looking tea-brack made by Hilary Wilson in my bag which she had passed to me me the evening before with clear instructions: “give this to Clara”. Hilary and Clara must have known each other for years, as they are both shepherds of the beautiful Rough Fell Sheep – a breed for which I developed a very deep admiration while in the Lake District, surrounded by people with a true passion for its history, wool, and character. One of my knitted speakers is covered in Rough Fell wool, which I handspun (badly!) from fleece produced by Hilary’s flock. Working with the wool, I fancied that I felt something of the strength of this breed and something of the ruggedness of the landscapes in which it thrives.

Hilary also gave me this:

…it’s a photocopy of an old photo of Clara shearing a sheep! As you can see, the rough’n’ready roadtrip circumstances of my trip have somewhat damaged the piece of paper, but hopefully you get the idea. I love this crumpled piece of paper and the image with its mix of strength, capability, sheepiness and raw wool qualities. Clara Black has been shepherding in the Lake District for a long time, and the tradition continues with her daughter Margaret, and Margaret’s daughter, Amy, whose prize-winning flock of show-sheep I had the beautiful pleasure of meeting.

Clara said some amazing and important things about wool during our interview, and hearing her say “Rough Fell” in a true Kentmere accent made the name of the breed come alive in a way that it never will with my Southeast-England-slightly-twinged-by-7-years-in-Ireland brogue. You can hear Clara talking in this excerpt from the sound, for Hûrd – A KNITSONIK™ PRODUKTION. Here is a tracklist detailing what you can hear at various points in the audio…

A mix of sounds – mostly relating to Rough Fell Sheep – recorded in Cumbria during the production of Hûrd – A KNITSONIK™ PRODUKTION

00:00 – 01:30 – Shepherds calling their sheep to them, including Hilary Wilson, Gerald Wm. Hayes, Brian Knowles, and Margaret Black. Includes baaing of Herdwicks, Greyfaced Dartmoors and Rough Fell Sheep
01:30 – 02:25 – Clara Black and Margaret Black discussing how one “learns” shepherding
02:25 – 03:00 – George Harryman (who keeps Herdwicks) talking about how one “learns” shepherding
03:00 – 03:35 – Clara Black talking about the Kendal Rough Fell Sheep, and asking “what could be more natural or more organic than a sheep and it’s wool that’s come off the fell?”
03:35 – end – Margaret Black introducing me to Amy’s sheep and showing me how high up the fell the Rough Fell breed will go – “to the skyline”

I was put in touch with Clara and Margaret by Rheged because Clara was photographed by Fay Godwin for her exhibition “a perfect republic of shepherds.” Wordsworth once described the Lake District as being a perfect republic of shepherds, and Godwin wanted to put a contemporary and realistic angle on that idea, so she photographed many of the shepherds in the Lake District in their working clothes and in the contexts of their modern farms. There is a very nice exhibition catalogue from the show, and one of the photos in it is this one of Clara Black, which is also currently on display at the Wonder of Wool Show in Rheged. I delighted in showing visitors the photos in the exhibition by Fay Godwin, and explaining that you could hear them all somewhere in the soundtrack I made for Hûrd.

When I visited the Blacks’ farm, Margaret took me up onto the fell on a quad bike. It was lightly raining and there was a dusky silver mist over everything. Amy’s flock of sheep swarmed up around us, excited at the prospect of food and loudly baa-ing. We hung out amidst the sheep for some time, listening to their munching noises, witnessing their disputes and friendships, and hearing their noises. For a non-shepherd like myself, opportunities to actually hang out with the source of my favourite fibre feel magical and rich, and I felt extremely lucky to witness the relationship that a farmer can develop with their animals. I loved seeing how the sheep regarded Margaret (source of food = buddy!) and their curiosity re: my recording equipment. If I had gone into the field alone, the flock would have run away from me, but on that afternoon in January – thanks to Margaret and Amy’s obliging flock of breeding ewes – I had some moments of pure joy, being in the company of my very favourite animals and drinking in raw sheepiness which is what I love best of all in pure wool.

Did you know there is an award amongst sheep breeders called the “Wool on the Hoof” prize?

I didn’t think anything in the realm of sheepy goodness could make me happier than that afternoon spent on a wet hilltop in Cumbria in January, recording sheep eating their feed pellets and baaing around me. But today I got an email from Rheged with this photo attached, taken by John Stokes.

It’s my very favourite photo ever.

In the middle you can see Clara Black, and on the right you can see Margaret. I am not sure who the other lady is, but John reports:

…you might like to know that Clara Black visited the exhibition today, along with her daughter Margaret and some friends. They loved it! Especially Hurd, and they let me take a picture of them listening to it.

I feel very moved by this, as I felt moved on the opening night of the show, when Jim – who is the shepherd of the Black Hebrideans I have blogged about before – turned up with an old copy of the flock book to show to me.

Without any doubt at all, when it comes to people’s opinions, the ones I value most when it comes to Hûrd – A KNITSONIK™ PRODUKTION belong to the people whose labour and livelihood the work is about. If Clara Black and Margaret Black think I did an OK job on Hûrd, then I am satisfied that I am doing something worthwhile here. And maybe one day, I will be brave enough to follow in their footsteps and in the legacy of amazing women like them who have reared sheep all over this earth, and keep a flock of my own.

Thank you to Margaret and Clara Black, to Amy Black and her beautiful ewes, and to John Stokes for capturing this moment. You all made my day.

*Googlemaps does not understand the beautiful topography of The Lake District, I fear…

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