Sunday 1 January 2012

The Amazing Gentleman

You may recall the posting regarding the Hexham Blackfaced Tup Sale, I told you the day was rounded off nicely with a visit to an amazing gentleman, I also promised a posting on the event. Well, here it is..........

I have to go back in time. 2007 I think it may have been, or was it 2008?

A year or two back anyhow and Shep was asked to take some photos. Record shots I guess you could call them, the sorts of pictures I don't usually take - photos of people. There was a stick dresser mentioned. An elderly gent who was going to be retiring from showing his dressed sticks at the Bellingham Show on that particular year (whichever year that was!) Could I possibly go to his home and photograph him making a stick, followed up by him showing his sticks etc,?

For someone who doesn't manage to take photographs under pressure, someone who doesn't feel very comfortable photographing people I found myself in a situation which wasn't really me - but hey! There's nowt like a challenge y'know!

I rang the gentleman up, explained what I required and had a lovely crack over the 'phone with a complete stranger which resulted in an appointment to go and visit him.

A journey of about 20 miles saw me at the door of an old peoples bungalow, warmly greeted and invited in. I spent a thoroughly enjoyable hour or two in this gentlemans company, it was a real treat.

A man who told me he was 94 years old, was widowed, lived on his own, coped for himself and was still driving! He had converted the coal house into a stick dressing workshop which had seen a wall knocked through into his small kitchen so he didn't have to go outside. A tiny space where taking photos proved a challenge, the variety of angles really weren't very variable but fortunately I did succeed in getting a half decent shot.

Business over and a cup of tea was offered and duly made for me, we then sat down around the fire and the crack flowed. I do believe he told me he was the oldest member of the stick dressers association (quite believable), had taken stick dressing up as an occupation very late in life, after his wife died, as something to fill in his time.

Age was getting the better of him, he struggled to stand for long durations and was pained with arthritis and so he intended to bow out of the stick dressing circles and concentrate on painting instead. We talked for a long time, I found his life history fascinating, his warmth and kindness shone through, he was just a treat to be in the company of. He was interested in my real job, once he realised that photography was not an occupation. Having worked on farms for a fair duration of his working life we found we had much in common.

The conversation came around to Cheviots (what a suprise!) and eventually I asked him if he'd ever dressed a Cheviot tups horn.
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The gent was unaware that Cheviots had horns, he had dressed Blackfaced tups horns and Swaledales and of course the darker buffalo horns but had never realised you could get a Cheviots horn and would quite like to try one before he hung up his tools for good. I said I would see what I could do on that front and finally we parted company. I had thoroughly enjoyed my visit to this complete stranger, it was way beyond my expectations.

On returning home I was full of admiration for the gentleman I had spent an hour or two in the company of, relaying all aspects of the meeting to the other half I found I was getting my leg pulled. I have always got on very well with older men and am often told I 'collect' them, the other half just couldn't help but leg pull about my latest acquisition!

Eventually I tracked down a horn, a stick dresser over the border very kindly gave me a good sized Cheviot tups horn to give to the gent.

The show that year was cancelled due to bad weather, the gent didn't get to exhibit his sticks for the last time at Bellingham Show, I didn't get the opportunity to photograph him setting up his exhibits, or winning prizes, I also didn't get the opportunity to give him the horn I had acquired.

The horn rattled around in my car for a year, forgotten about for most of that duration. I convinced myself that the gent had probably died and a year on handed the horn back to the kindly soul who had originally given it to me. I felt a bit rotten about the whole thing, kinda making a promise and not keeping it, I don't know why I'd decided the gent was no longer around but it was set in my head that indeed he had passed away and would never have the chance to make a stick from a Cheviot horn.

Then one day the person who had initially asked me to take the original photos mentioned the gent and informed me that he was indeed still alive and well. Oh my god!

I drove over the border, knocked on the door of the person who had originally given me the horn which I had returned a year later and enquired whether or not they still had it. Horn in hand I then drove back down over the border and kept going until I arrived on the gents doorstep. I knocked and waited.

There was some confusion, he could recall me but told me he no longer made sticks but was teaching someone the craft. Finally I told him to take the horn, he could either come out of retirement or enjoy watching his apprentice make it into a stick.

A week later I received a 'phone call, 'twas my elderly gent, he thanked me profusely and told me that he had decided to dress the horn himself. A fair old crack ensued over the 'phone and I wished him well and hoped he'd enjoy the challenge.

Prior to the tup sale this year I received another 'phone call, again from the elderly gent, asking if I would call and see him, an appointment was made for the afternoon of the tup sale.

I was warmly greeted and again a cup of tea was offered, upon enquiring as to the age of the gent he informed me he would be 97 in a week or two - 97! Good grief! A man who had commenced his working life ploughing with horses, a man who was thrilled to realise that I too had worked with heavy horses although had never ploughed with them. He had moved on to tractors and even travelled by ship with a demonstrator tractor to Canada to do some ploughing - wow! A gent who had harvested the old fashioned way with a thresher and sheaves and humped 16 stone(100kgs) bags of corn up the granary steps, a job which he blamed for his aching body. A gent who had presented one of his sticks to HRH Prince Charles, a highlight of his career which came with photographic proof. A quite, unassuming and very humble individual, a pleasure to be in the company of.

He brought out the stick to show me, explained that due to the snow and frost over the past winter it had taken much longer than he had thought to make as it was too cold for him to work in his adapted coal shed. He went on to explain how grateful he was to have been given the opportunity to work with a Cheviots horn, it had given him so much pleasure.... and then........ he asked that I accept the stick as thanks for my kindness. My kindness? It had taken me years to get the horn to him, I'd even convinced myself the fella was dead!

My eyes were stinging as he insisted that I ought to have the last stick he would ever make. He even apologised for the heaviness of the head, strong for a hand as small as mine but a fault line was beginning to come through as he filed the horn down and had he gone any further he explained he would have gone into the soft and the stick would have been ruined. A fault that is not obvious until you begin working with the horn I was told.
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I love the pink in the horn, fault or not I feel it gives the stick character.

And so it was then, after the tup sale I found myself sharing an enjoyable few hours with a gentleman who was closer to 100 than he was to 90. I found myself gobsmacked at his kindness and generosity, a man who had presented a stick to HRH Prince Charles had also presented one to me. A stick I shall cherish. I own many, they all have stories but this stick and it's story are extra special. Upon leaving a hand was offered to shake, I asked if he would mind receiving a hug instead, he did not decline the offer.


Rev Dr Susan Ramsaran said...

Wow: what a story. Northumberland Rector can't outdo that!

Janis said...

Thanks for the great story. This reminds me of stories by my grandfather who also lived long years and got to meet people from factory workers to kings of countries. This is also a story that works so well by itself - even taken out from the world of shepherding. I suggest You send this to some bigger newspaper - and who knows - Tarset Shepherd might become even more famous.

Thanks and keep up the good work.

Janis from Latvia
Proud owner of 76 sheep :-)

Tarset Shepherd said...

Hi Janis, I am reeling with shock that someone in Latvia has read this blog!

A proud owner of 76 sheep?
I am curious as to what breeds of sheep are found in Latvia, are they similar to some of our breeds?

Thank you for your kind words and advise but I'm not too sure that Shep would take kindly to becoming famous!

Janis said...


When me and my brother started our sheep farm - I tried to find every available information on sheep. Us being city boys with education in architecure and engeneering - it was essential to learn. And somehow this blog came up. And I have been reading it ever since. Just lately sorta "forgot" it somehow, so now I have to catch up some 2 months :-D

And we have our local Latvian Black Head sheep breed. It was created between the wars by "improving" our local sheep with Strpshere and Oxfordshere breeds. Since our independence - some other breeds like Oxfordown and German blackheads as well as Romanow and some others have been used to improve some aspects of the breed. You can see some pics of our sheep here.

And Yeah. Being famous is not for everyone. But a great story nevertheless.

Tarset Shepherd said...

Thanks Janis, very interesting, and at least I now have an idea of what Latvian sheep look like, I have actually clipped sheep very similar to those in this country, unfortunately I can't remember the name of the breed.
Many thanks anyhow and good luck with your flock