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Sussex shepherd Darren Greenfield plans specially stewarded walks

PUBLISHED: 15:54 17 April 2015 | UPDATED: 15:54 17 April 2015

Darren Greenfield - shepherd on the South Downs with Belle his Bearded Collie sheep dog.

Darren Greenfield - shepherd on the South Downs with Belle his Bearded Collie sheep dog.

Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036 01825 841157

Darren Greenfield and his bearded collie Belle are steeped in the history of Sussex shepherding. Now, with wife Debbie, Darren has plans to share the rich history of the Downs on specially stewarded walks

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When Arthur Beckett wrote in 1909 of Sussex shepherds, the down dappled with grey-white sheep and a faithful collie folding them from the far-off steep, he could scarcely have imagined the changes that were to take place before the century was out. And yet striding across South Hill today in his wide-brimmed hat with bearded collie Belle loping by his side, Darren Greenfield is every inch the Sussex Downsman that Beckett eulogized.

A throwback to a time when traditional “dog and stick” shepherding was the only stewardship these southern “mountains” knew, Darren is as steeped in their history as the Southdown flocks he still folds along their mighty backs.

Pass comment on the flintwork in a lambing barn, the crook he carries, a well-marked borstal or his ‘beardie’ pup Belle – the first of her breed to work sheep here in 80 years – and you’ll be treated to a swift history lesson, laced with delicious anecdotes that will soon have you drunk on Beckett’s “Spirit of the Downs”.

Take the night he swears the ghost of one-armed shepherd Stephen Blackmore helped him with a pregnant ewe high above East Dean; how French prisoners of war left their defiant mark all over the eastern county, embedding brandy bottles, centimes and even buttons into the English flint walls they were forced to build; or the rumours that farmers were literally ‘growing’ sheep in Sussex after ramblers spotted lambs’ heads bleating from steaming dung heaps (where in fact their near-lifeless bodies had been “planted” to revive them after a difficult birth).

These and countless others are the stories Darren used to woo wife Debbie out of her corporate tower in the city to join him in another downland shepherding of sorts – leading walkers through the coombs and steeps he first explored as a child and passing on to others the aural history of the peasants and petty smugglers who passed their largely undocumented lives among them.

His intoxication with the landscape and its inhabitants started, appropriately enough, in the Eight Bells pub at Jevington when an elderly downsman, who’d spotted in the teenage Darren something of a kindred spirit, presented him with a copy of Beckett’s Impressions and Reminiscences of the South Downs.

“From that moment on, I fell in love with downland life, shepherding and the old ways…I’m a bit of a romantic,” admits Darren, a master flintworker’s son, who shepherded the hills for 10 years before Sussex fell under the pall of BSE and he came down from the chalk escarpment to walk into the prison service at Lewes jail. The radical career change was not quite as counter-intuitive as it first appears.

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“Farming was on its back and I had a young family at the time,” says Darren. “I wanted to train search and rescue dogs; so the idea was to go into the prison service, work their dogs to get the additional experience I needed, leave and work my own. But I loved it and ended up staying for 12 years, eventually becoming 
a riot commander.

“I can remember, though, waiting to go into a riot to restore order and finding my mind was back up here, dreaming of the Downs.”

When Darren left the service due to ill health three years ago, he took up pretty much where he left off on the chalk-speckled hills, but with a renewed passion and purpose.

Debbie takes up the story: “The idea of the walks was there almost from the first moment we met three years ago.

“I moved to Polegate but it was getting more and more difficult for me to leave Sussex in the morning for work in the city, and I was coming home earlier and earlier or ‘working from home’. Eventually, I decided setting up a downland based business was what was needed!

“I love the beauty of the Downs; the fact that on a single day you can start your walk along the coast and be practically blown off the cliff and the next minute you’re in an old hill fort, imagining the Saxon raiders coming up towards you. The next you can be by the Cuckmere River, having tea and cake, and yet the landscape is so compact that you don’t have to drive hundreds of miles to see it all.”

So she put her background in sales and marketing for blue-chip financial clients to good use, turned her husband’s musings on modern shepherding into a blog, and threw herself into launching Basecamp Southdowns, a walking tours company that explores different aspects of the Downs, their history and use. From the earliest Neolithic herdsman, who fashioned the first flints, to smugglers who routinely defied the Wool Protection Laws, sending tens of thousands of sheep to France via the Birling Gap; the eccentrics and artists who found inspiration and solace there to the farmers and artisan food makers now working inside the national park, the walks draw on local expert knowledge to tell the extraordinary stories behind familiar features of the Downs.

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“There are so many aspects – scenic Sussex, scrumptious Sussex, historical Sussex, Sussex by the sea…the important thing is encouraging people to get out there and see it for themselves,” says Debbie.

Her first experience of the Downs was typical of many casual walkers.

“I used to go out with a group of girlfriends every weekend. It was therapy – whoever was having marriage problems or boyfriend problems or children problems, we’d talk about it. But we went from point A to point B in the fastest possible time and point B was always a pub.”

It wasn’t until she met Darren that she learned to slow down. A freelance shepherd in charge of several thousand, there are not many places he hasn’t folded, lambed, tupped or shorn in all weathers and at the least sociable ends of the day, which makes him well qualified to lead Basecamp Southdowns’ first Shepherd’s Trail this month from Jevington’s Eight Bells, where his love affair with the landscape started.

A 12-mile ramble through time and place with opportunity to taste the produce of the Downs at pitstops along the way, it will be Darren and Debbie’s flagship walk. Stragglers can expect to be rounded up by Belle, the bearded collie pup, who represents not only the Downland shepherds’ past but, Darren believes, one vision of their future.

“Beardies used to be drover’s dogs, travelling up to 14 miles a day between sheep fairs,” explains Darren, who first found mention of them in a description of the one-armed shepherd from Beachy Head. Although they’d long since disappeared from the Downs, replaced by the more fashionable border collie, what Darren knew of their rough-and-ready appearance, workmanlike attitude and endurance appealed to him.

“They’ve been called bob tails, Welsh greys and even old English sheep dogs, although they’re definitely not the Dulux dog!” says Darren. “They’re a bouncy, lolloping sort but they have all-day stamina. They’re a good, honest farmer’s dog and we can’t afford to lose them, so Belle is the genetic pool.”

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Having seen the difference in sward and livestock management that took place during his 12 years away from the Downs, Darren is more convinced than ever that the old downland shepherds, with their accumulated wisdom and their shaggy dogs, have much to teach new generations.

“Walking around with a stick and a dog, folding the sheep and moving them on, is the way to get what we want environmentally for the Downs through grazing,” he says.

And while Darren is on a mission to bring back shepherds with beardies, Debbie is keen to introduce another working breed to the landscape – office staff on team rambles.

“It’s very different from the usual corporate team building but it really does help people to work together,” she says.

“In a corporate environment, you don’t have to be friendly with everyone, but you do have to respect their skills and understand how they fit into the team. A walk is more like a group therapy session, really. We keep the whole group together for a period of time, which allows them to chat and find out more about each other on a personal level - how they work, what makes them tick. It allows you to get whatever you need to off your chest and you still have time to work through the issues, all in this inspirational landscape.”

If the concept takes off, Beckett’s distant down could yet be dappled with a thousand grey-white suits – and don’t be surprised to find a traditional bearded collie following on behind.

For more on Darren and Debbie’s walking tours, go to www.basecampsouthdowns.com or www.shepherdswithbeardies.com

Or you can tweet them, either on
@basecampsdw or @sdshepherd

***

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