Sheep in the Graveyard

Mist clears over the pool

It’s odd living in a ‘beauty spot’. People visiting my little chapel are taken aback by it – the climb up the narrow lane which opens out onto a glittering pool with little trees rising from it, Lord Hereford’s Knob and the long sleek ridge of the Black mountains undulating along behind it, and, when they stop to open my gate, the gracious rise and fall of Pen y Fan in front of them. It’s a place of sudden stillness, furious winds, calling curlews, galloping ponies, silhouetted oaks, shrieking lapwings. Even locals notice its mysterious glamour: Adrian, after he’d dumped the load of fire-wood in my field, stood and stared and said: ‘it’s an amazing view all right up here’ before recapping his views of capital punishment.

The problem is the grass and the sheep. I live on a common and the sheep keep it green and trim with their constant cropping. But my graveyard has been hitherto barred to them. In my first year in the chapel, I was repeatedly invaded by one determined ewe and her lamb, who had suddenly evolved the ability to roll over the cattle grid, jump the drystone wall and wriggle through the fencing. I didn’t mind them eating the grass, but they also ate the newly planted trees and hedge and flowers. Sometimes the whole flock would get in, if I had left the gate open in the mistaken belief that they had forgotten how to get over the cattle grid. Then I would stand and sob over my butchered vegetables, after I had chased the buggers out, that is.

But keeping the grass cut in my little field and in the graveyard has become a trial to me: strimming exacerbates my computer-caused carpal tunnel syndrome, and it is expensive to get someone else to do it. People are allowed to visit the graveyard so I feel I must keep it nice, even though most of the gravestones are now moss covered and falling down. Which is why I decided to block off access to my flowerbed and field, and let the sheep in. After all they had been rubbing their bums against the gate for weeks and eyeing the lush pasture within.

I thought they would be eager, but they were wary at first. Then, when my back was turned, I heard them lumbering in, big rangy sheep with stern unwavering gazes, probably acquired for their meatiness. They began excitedly to chomp the long grass, moving every few seconds to grab a new hunk like kids let into a sweet shop. I watched for a while in satisfaction, then returned to my work. When I looked again they were ignoring the grass in favour of the lower leaves of the holly, yew and hawthorn trees and one agile character had clambered up onto a tomb to snap up the nasturtiums I had perched there for safety.

All day I found myself drawn away from the wpc to the window to watch them at their industrious consumption. The cats rose from their daytime slumber to view with puzzlement the fact that these white-wooled lumberers had been let onto their patch. I decided that close-up they were not lovable creatures, that in fact they loved to barge and bully and knock things down and go where they had been barred by wheelbarrow and bicycle. But in spite of their bad attitude and copious piles of shit around the place, the grass was looking flatter and trimmer by the day.

And what’s the moral of this story? Perhaps that, as a city-girl who’s lived in the country for nearly ten years now, I have finally understood that you can’t control and tidy up the countryside. True, I don’t have a strong bent to tidiness, but I had a vision of what my land would look like which has been scotched repeatedly by rain, slugs, wind, and the relentless creeping cooch (sp?) grass. The early darkness of winter, the sudden shifts of weather – snow, driving rain, and flood, which transform the landscape in an hour, can render you passive and introverted. Your bright summer vision dissolves into the messy chaos of winter’s reality. But then, the long dark evenings and nights can tip you into another kind of time and space – a spacious creative place with far horizons. The shadow sheep who have been nudging your gate for months may finally get access, and help you out, just when you least expect it. I hope so.