The Meadow Pipit

The boy listened carefully to the sound of the little brown meadow pipit as it drifted down, trilling out its spring song. When it had finished and swooped back down to the turf, he picked up his wooden flute and tried to copy the joyful sounds the bird had made. Every spring since his father had given him the home made flute, he’d sat out with the family’s flock of sheep on the soft moorland grass and tried to copy the bird’s song. One day he would get it right, but it wasn’t quite there just yet.


He stopped and turned his attention back to his sheep. There were ten ewes now, all in lamb and ready to give birth any day now, God willing. One of them was his own special animal. He helped her mother give birth two seasons ago. Because he had slim arms and hands, he’d been able to gently pull the stuck lamb’s front leg forward inside the mother. He’d cupped the tiny hoof in his hand so that it wouldn’t damage the ewe and managed to gently ease the leg out.


His father had been well pleased. The family couldn’t afford to lose even one lamb, let alone an adult sheep, so he gifted the lamb to the boy. The boy smiled as he watched her, all grown up now, rapidly nibbling the sweet spring grass. She would be the start of the great flock that he would have one day up here on the Moor. His father was shepherd to the Abbey that lay many days away to the east. He helped look after the hundreds of sheep owned by the monks. The sheep farm here on the Moor was run from a Grange down in the valley. Robert, the lay brother in charge was a fussy, busy man but he knew a good shepherd when he saw one and had rewarded the boy’s father with spare sheep as the years went by. In this way the family had managed to build up its own small flock. This was the flock that the boy was in charge of.


The boy suddenly caught the sound of dogs barking a way off and he jumped to his feet, calling the big sheepdog he had with him to heel. The wolves that still roamed the hills were probably far away now, raising their young in the crags where people wouldn’t find them, but you could never be too sure. An old injured wolf might still venture out onto the sheep pastures for an easy meal. His dog sniffed the air and then gave a quiet growl. The boy picked up the long ash staff that was his only weapon and sent his dog out to bring the sheep nearer to him. Then he waited. The sheep were looking uneasy, milling around him, bleating and stamping their feet with fear. The boy strained to hear any noises. He was almost relieved to hear horses hooves coming up on him fast along the monks’ road that led down to the Grange.


He stood ready to defend his flock against whoever might be coming, but within a few minutes he saw that it was the Lay brother on one of the Abbot’s best horses. He was clearly in a hurry and the sheep scattered in all directions as he galloped up. He beckoned the boy over impatiently. “Boy, gather up those sheep and make sure your family marks are good and clear. I need you to bring them down to the sheep gathering pens by the Grange as quickly as possible. We’re gathering all the sheep on the Moor for the King’s men to count them.” The boy was surprised but didn’t dare say anything, he simply bowed his head in response and then got on with gathering up the flock again.


The lay brother galloped on, past the great stone cross that marked the boundary of the Abbey’s land. The boy’s mind was racing, had it finally happened? There had been an agony of waiting hereabouts since the King had declared his break with the Church and the Pope. Here in the Dales, people were not much bothered, but then the King had turned his greedy eyes on the great monastic houses that owned land as far as the eye could see on the Moor. The boy knew that his father was worried about what was going to happen to the family’s house since it belonged to the Abbey and of course whether he could continue to work with the Abbey. It had never occurred to anyone that they might lose their own sheep as well.


On the way across the Moor he stopped at St Anne’s Well, a holy spring with a good reputation for granting wishes. He wondered if a Catholic Saint would still look kindly on a country where the Pope was no longer welcome. He wasn’t sure, but knelt down, crossed himself and said a quick prayer anyway.


Down at the Grange, the noise of sheep bleating, dogs barking and men shouting was frightening. Luckily the boy’s father saw him coming and ran over to help him get the sheep into pens. He saw the boy’s worried face and tried to look encouraging. “Don’t worry lad. There’s clerks from the King here, all the way from London. You should see their fine clothes and the faces they pulled when they saw the rooms they’d be staying in at the Grange” He laughed, “not like their fancy houses down South I’d wager.” The boy asked why they were here. His father looked sad. “The King’s taken the Abbey, son and all its land is to be sold. The clerks are here to make a record of what belongs to King. Look, they’re calling me now, come on.” The boy suddenly found himself inside the high stone walls of the Grange. It was so different to his own wooden house with its cosy, heather thatched roof and smoky fire in the main room.


The boy and his father were led into the main hall of the Grange and stood in front of the London clerks. The boy had never seen anyone write before and he couldn’t take his eyes off one of the clerks, who was sharpening a quill with his penknife. His father whispered out of the corner of his mouth, “Watch out lad – they’ll talk in Latin if we’re not careful”. Luckily, the clerks seemed to be in a good mood. Although the boy strained to understand their accent and some of the fancy words they used, his father seemed to do alright. He managed to answer their questions, about the size of the Abbey flock and the number of sheep he owned himself. The clerk with the quill pen busily wrote it all down as they talked. At the end he read it all back, word for word to the boy’s amazement.


Several months passed by and the boy went on looking after the sheep and trying to imitate the song of the Meadow Pipit on the high pastures. Then one day he came back down the hill to collect supplies and found the lay brother and his family had packed up and left the Grange for good. It turned out that the estate had been sold by the King, to a Lord someone or other and a new manager for the farm was moving in. The boy saw him standing outside talking to his father. He hung about until they noticed him and he was called over and introduced. The new manager had an odd look to him, he was tall, with a reddy-gold beard and blonde hair, quite unlike anyone he’d seen before. He also couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying for the first few minutes because he had a very odd accent.


Later, his father explained that he’d come from the great mountains and lakes far away to the north west and that there was nothing he didn’t know about hill sheep. It seemed that the man from the mountains was happy to employ his father. They could remain in their house and keep all their sheep, with the prospect of owning more if they worked as hard for the new owner as they had for the Abbey. The boy went back up to his little hut on the moor that evening, well pleased. It looked like St Anne had looked kindly on them after all and that he would have a chance to get that song right next spring. May be he’d play it to the blonde-haired manager’s daughter who he’d caught a glimpse of as he passed by the Grange on his way back to the Moor.