A Country Life: The art of sheep-shearing

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The Independent Online

If there was one concern I had about leaving north London for rural Herefordshire two summers ago (and actually there wasn't, there were 1,247), it was that our neighbourhood in N8 was a hive of human creativity, full of writers, artists, actors and directors, whereas the area we were moving to contained mainly sheep.

If there was one concern I had about leaving north London for rural Herefordshire two summers ago (and actually there wasn't, there were 1,247), it was that our neighbourhood in N8 was a hive of human creativity, full of writers, artists, actors and directors, whereas the area we were moving to contained mainly sheep.

When I walked to the postbox in Crouch End it was not unusual for me to exchange a smile with a former winner of the Booker Prize or an Olivier Award or even an Oscar, which was creatively stimulating, if only insofar as it stimulated me to post my letter with a daring theatrical flourish.

There would not be the same stimulus, I reckoned, in saying good morning to a ewe. And yet I have since found that there are probably more creative types per capita in north Herefordshire than there are in north London. There seems to be a writer or an artist up every lane. Jeremy Sandford lived only a few fields away until his death last year. He was the chap who wrote Cathy Come Home, one of the most influential pieces of television of all time. Every producer and commissioning editor should be made to watch it, before deciding whether to commit their money and energy to a new series of Gordon Ramsay Swears A Lot.

Anyway, I tell you this as a prelude to the tale of how my wife ended up in a car with another man who gazed deeply into her eyes and delicately tucked her hair behind her ears. As far as I am aware, nobody has done that since I last did it, in a lay-by near Hampstead Heath, in the heady autumn of 1991.

The other man was Mark Richards, a brilliant portrait sculptor, who last year moved from Brixton to the village of Richards Castle, aptly enough, on Herefordshire's border with Shropshire. A few weeks ago, Mark was commissioned to produce a bronze of Anna Lind, the murdered Swedish Foreign Minister, which a Lebanese businessman wanted to present to the Swedish government. There were two problems. One: it needed to be done in a hurry. Two: he normally requires several sittings with the subject, but this subject was dead.

So Mark was standing in his workshop one afternoon, smacking his palm against his forehead in frustrated artist fashion, when his young daughter Nemone wandered in. Nemone goes to school with our kids. She looked at the photographs of Anna Lind strewn across his desk, and said: "That's Eleanor's mummy."

It was a eureka! moment. Or perhaps an Ulrika moment, if you're Swedish. Whatever, a suddenly reinvigorated Mark kissed Nemone and asked his partner Jo to phone Jane with an unusual request: could she meet him in the school car park the following morning, so that he could measure the distance between her ears, and from the tip of her nose to her chin. So now you know the story behind the bronze head of my wife that you will see next time you venture into the Swedish Parliament building.

And now you also know Jane's explanation for how Mark came to be gazing into her eyes and fiddling with her hair in our Volvo, a spectacle which caused more than a few other mums to do a double-take, and one or two to look at me sympathetically when I arrived to pick the children up that afternoon. Nothing like that ever happened in Crouch End.

A fast clip

It's sheep-shearing time in the Welsh Marches, something else that didn't go on all that much in Crouch End. Last week I spoke to a chap called Derek who farms at Kimbolton, three or four miles from us, and he told me that he's had all his shearing done by three New Zealanders, marshalled by a Kiwi who lives in these parts.

Apparently, these guys are shearing's answer to the Three Tenors; there's nobody else who works together in such harmony, nor with quite the same expertise. "Each man shears a sheep in a minute," said Derek, admiringly. "They started at nine, and they were in here having lunch by 12.30."

For all I knew, until a week ago, sheep-shearing was done in the shower with a Phillips Ladyshave. But Derek brought me up to speed. Apparently, there was another New Zealander called Godfrey Bowen who in the mid-1950s pioneered a new style of shearing.

The old style went from stomach to back, but according to the Bowen technique, the sheep is sat on its bottom, and sheared in single swipes along the entire length of its body. As for the Herefordshire-based Kiwi who organises these bands of top-notch, Bowen-method shearers, I am thrilled to report that his name is Shaun.

Gratifying greens

This is my second season as a vegetable-grower. Our London garden scarcely had room for grass; here we have potatoes, onions, spring onions, shallots, garlic, lettuce, rocket, peas, courgettes, carrots, broccoli, beetroot, spinach, Swiss chard, runner beans, broad beans, sweetcorn and celeriac. It is all very exciting, and infinitely satisfying, especially as I am not quite as clueless as I was a year ago. And my knowledge is expanding nightly, as I have taken to going to bed with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Bob Flowerdew and Monty Don. Jane can do what she likes in school car-parks; by the time I've wielded those three books I'm fit for nothing.

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