Adam Henson: The shepherd’s legacy
15:59 03 December 2015
When you go to Midnight Mass in one of the magnificent Cotswold ‘Wool’ churches, you have those ancient sheep and their herders to thank for your splendid surroundings
It’s a good time of year to talk about shepherds. An essential part of the Christmas story of course but for most of us the job of tending to flocks of sheep is a profession that is overlooked during the rest of the year. It’s a task that has been going on much longer than we’ve been performing nativity plays in fact. The first shepherds would have started working in the fields about 5,000 years ago in what is today known as Turkey. That is around the time that man first started to see the potential that sheep had for providing milk, meat and wool. They were quite simply sheep-herders and the practice slowly spread across Europe with men guarding, protecting, feeding and moving flocks.
In the Middle Ages, the shepherd became a familiar and important figure in the Cotswolds. Our region was traditional English sheep-rearing country and the story of the flocks which once roamed these hills in large numbers is now woven into our local heritage. The fleece of the Cotswold sheep was the finest that money could buy and the medieval wool merchants of Cirencester, Stow-on-the-Wold and Northleach made their fortunes off the back of the county breed. Literally. They used some of their profits to build grand churches as a way of showing off their wealth and status. So when you go to Midnight Mass in one of the magnificent Cotswold ‘Wool’ churches this Christmas Eve, you have those ancient sheep and their herders to thank for your splendid surroundings.
There is another reminder of local sheep workers of the past which is enjoying a revival at the moment. Cotswold shepherds’ huts are all the rage and they are being snapped up as garden features, home offices, guest rooms and children’s dens. It’s a far cry from the 19th and early 20th centuries when they were a cheap, cramped and uncomfortable mobile home from home. They were a very basic room on wheels with an arched roof, a stable door at one end and small windows either side. Imagine a cross between a gypsy caravan and a beach hut and you’re almost there! But for the keen flock-watcher they could be moved easily from field to field and were invaluable at lambing time when the shepherd needed to be on hand 24 hours a day. These days one of the leading restorers and builders of new shepherds’ huts is craftsman Steve Hobbs from France Lynch near Stroud; a man carrying on a wonderful rural tradition and giving it new life.
Then there are the little-known but widespread Cotswold sheepwashes. These man-made pools, often circular and dressed with Cotswold stone, were where flocks were cleaned before shearing. The age-old method was still being carried out as recently as the 1930s in Winchcombe. In all, about 70 of these stone washes (or their ruins) have been found across the Cotswolds, from Bathford in the south to Brailes in the north.
In the last year or two the subject of shepherding has been a surprise hit in the publishing world. First there was Counting Sheep by Philip Walling, celebrating the 60 different breeds that are farmed or roam free in the diverse British landscape. Then this year there was James Rebanks’ story of a year working his flock in the Lake District, The Shepherd’s Life. Along the way there have also been books by the Yorkshire Shepherdess Amanda Owen and the formidable Emma Gray who farms alone in the Northumberland moors and who I featured on Countryfile in 2011.
I suppose it just goes to show that tending sheep is a job that hasn’t changed that much since the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem heard the angel and made their famous journey to the manger, that very first Christmas.
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