One of my favourite Thomas Hardy characters is Gabriel Oak, first shepherd, then bailiff and, after many trials, husband of Bathsheba Everdene in Far From The Madding Crowd. The early chapters include a memorable description of his shepherd’s hut on Norcombe Hill, and I was reminded of it yesterday at the Weald & Downland Museum, which has just such a hut in its collection. Made from corrugated iron, with a curved roof, and mounted on iron wheels, it’s a cross between a small caravan and a railway wagon. It looks very cosy on a summer afternoon, but I imagine its charm would pall on freezing winter nights in the lambing season. Still, it was another reminder of my college days when I worked on a sheep farm. In those days, I still nurtured the hope that, like Gabriel, I might one day ‘by sustained efforts of industry and chronic good spirits lease a small sheep farm’ myself. It never happened, of course, but something of that dream evidently lingers still.
Take me back to when these oaks
Were no thicker than my arm
And the Southdown flocks
Covered the Hill like clouds.
Let this be my fold
Of hazel hurdles roofed with straw,
And this my flock
Safe from rain and gale within.
Let that be my dog,
Waiting for my whistle
And curt ‘Look back’ to set him running.
And let this be my hut:
Corrugated iron against the weather;
Inside, close-planked with beech
Snug as a ship’s cabin.
The floorboards are stained red with raddle;
My crooks and candles, shears and sheep-bells,
Adorn the walls. An exhibition of honest labour
With Time and custom for curators.
And let that be me,
Stamping in, red-cheeked, snow-cloaked
From the midnight watch,
Throwing off my hat and coat
Reaching for the stove’s warmth and flagon’s comfort
Like a drowning man for a floating spar,
Snatching a soldier’s sleep before standing-to
Among my ewes in a bitter Downland dawn.
Let those be my wethers
Bearing my mark on ear and flank
Grass-fat and fit for droving
To the sheep-fair at summer’s end.
And though Gabriel Oak be gone
And all the shepherds from the Hill
This can be my dream.
Let it be.