Herdwick cheese is symbol of life in Borrowdale Valley

Date: Friday 6th September 2013
Artist and cheesemaker Julia Wilmott with assistant cheese-maker Fergus Ledingham, from Crofton Cheese Farm.
Artist and cheesemaker Julia Wilmott with assistant cheese-maker Fergus Ledingham, from Crofton Cheese Farm.

AN artist who has spent a year living and working in Borrowdale has created an artistic “first” by making a block of cheese from the milk of Herdwick sheep, which are a familiar sight in the valley and on the surrounding fells.

Jack Weir, who helped to milk the Herdwick sheep at his father’s farm, with Sophie and Sienna Weir.
Jack Weir, who helped to milk the Herdwick sheep at his father’s farm, with Sophie and Sienna Weir.

Julia Wilmott, who studied for her BA fine art: painting and printmaking at Glasgow School of Art, and who has exhibited internationally, will be one of the exhibitors in the C-Art show at Rheged, near Penrith, which will run from 14th September.

The exhibition will feature art works ranging from traditional paintings to unusual pieces such as Julia’s block of Herdwick cheese something which she says had not been attempted previously and was made in response to living in Borrowdale for a year.

Her work examines the collective experience of the landscape shared by farmers, residents, migrant workers, tourists and animals and re-evaluates traditional concepts of the rural idyll.

Julia’s cheese was made from a pint of Herdwick milk from Jason Weir’s flock at High Lodore Farm, Borrowdale, where she works. His son, Jack, helped to milk the sheep with his father. She also collected the milk from Herdwicks owned by farmers Gavin Fearon and Joseph Weir.

Wigton rugby player Fergus Ledingham, from Crofton Cheese Farm, helped Julia to make the cheese. She said: “I felt that I wanted the local children to rub shoulders with a young male role model who has chosen a career in cheese-making something which wouldn’t normally be a career option chosen by a successful local rugby player.

This informed the whole concept of the piece in challenging the way the rural landscape is usually perceived and the ways people work within them.

Julia said: “For example, how the conversation with Slovakian workers in the area, inspired my idea of making Herdwick cheese in the first place. In my own experience, I’ve found that the cafe at High Lodore (Shepherds Cafe) is quite revolutionary in the way it offers a bridge between all the different types of groups of people in the valley: the farmer, migrant worker, local and tourist.

“Martin Weir, the farmer who set it up in the 70s and died last year, truly created a ‘village living room’ a very inspiring space for all that visit.”

A photograph taken by Julia shows the herding of the sheep up to Langstrath, a very old tradition which she and many others feel is an important event on the Borrowdale calendar.

“Local farmers walk their sheep up all the way past Black Moss Pot, and it still remains more economical to do so by foot. All traffic is stopped usually either very early in the morning or very late to avoid disruption.

“Growing up here it was a far more common site. I hope it remains like this and doesn’t die away too fast in the future. This is part of my work, in the sense of the old ways of shepherding altering, but how even in modern society it is still more environmentally friendly and economical to keep to the old ways,” added Julia.

“I believe there is a great understanding and respect for the environment born out of generations of living and working with it the agricultural backbone of the valley. This seems important to pass on to the younger generations and fuel them with inspiration to carry it on.

“Moreover, in a time when people are increasingly removed from food production and the processes as a whole due to large food retailers and factory production outdoing smaller businesses, it is more important than ever to understand what we are eating and where it comes from and support the local producers.”

Rheged is teaming up with C-Art Open Studios to present a specially selected exhibition bringing together a hand-picked group of artists and designers from this year’s C-Art Open Studios Trail. C-Art at Rheged forms the backbone of the “Artisan Autumn” events program and will run from next Saturday.