Being ‘hefted’ and the details of landscape

Living as I do in Herdwick sheep country, the idea of sheep being ‘hefted’ is something you take for granted. It means that the sheep are ‘hard-wired’ to remain within a certain terrain and not to roam beyond it, even though they are often on common land on the fells (hills) and unhindered by walls or fences. Lambs born into the flock will learn the details of that landscape and become experienced leaders of the flock later. As well as being useful for farmers, being hefted is a life-saver, when sheep need to find shelter and know which wall would offer the best protection from the wind and snow.

Since I started writing fiction set within this landscape, I’ve realised that people can be hefted too, born and raised in a place that becomes imprinted on the mind, and grows over time. My neighbours can tell me what flowers used to grow in the disused quarry across the road sixty years ago, or when a certain house was extended, or where the old road ran before it was straightened and ‘improved’. I remember my first harvest supper in the village hall, when the after supper entertainment was a quiz: in family teams we were shown slides of the minutiae of the village, a gatepost, a chimney stack, a wood pile, a fence, and asked to say exactly where it was. Some of the teams got all thirty of them correct while recent ‘off comers’ like me struggled to identify half a dozen. That was ten years ago, and I’d be more successful now.

But being intimately familiar with a local environment doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ‘hefted’. The additional criterion, as I understand it, is that you are unwilling to leave and always try to return. I wonder if I pass that test? I love to travel, and do so regularly, but increasingly once I’m off the plane I long to be back in my little patch of heaven in West Cumbria. The final stage of the journey west leads over Corney Fell on a winding single track road, at the summit of which you get the first view of the coast, from Black Combe to the south up to St Bees Head further north, with the Isle of Man on the horizon and the coast of Scotland from the far side of the Solway west towards Kintyre. The view is of course dependent on cloud cover and visibility, but even if I can’t see it, I know it’s there and my heart lifts. 

The place where I live is imprinted on my mind in ever-increasing detail, and now attached to it are the fictional characters that I have scattered around the area. I could show you where my heroine Jessie Whelan lived at almost every stage of her life, where her son John and his wife Maggie first met, walked, and fell in love. There’s the street in Kells where the McSherry family lived, and the route the two women took to work at the Haig Pit.   In the current book, ‘Cruel Tide’, I know the wood where a body was found, and I’ve found the house high on the Furness fells where the final scene takes place. The problem of writing in this way is that the locations are so clear in my own mind that I can forget to describe them fully enough for my readers. 

One of the reasons the books sell so well locally is that readers love to see their familiar territory described and peopled with stories that are authentic and plausible, in terms of their own lives and experience. The joy of shared recognition of a building, or a view gives the reading experience a special  dimension that appeals to the ‘heftedness’ of local readers. The challenge is to provide that same emotional response for others too.

Of course I’d really get a kick out of putting on a ‘Jessie Whelan’ tour for the trilogy, all around its setting ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’. For the new book (out in November) and the series that will hopefully follow, the tour would start with the extraordinary landscape of Morecambe Bay. Maybe it’s time to buy a bus.

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