James Rebanks: ‘I don’t want to be soppy, but my father ended up as my best friend’

Porridge is the best way to really start the day, usually after the shepherding is done. Sometimes I’ll have bacon and eggs, but I’m on a diet at the moment, after being too sedentary, writing a book. Often I have one of my wife Helen’s amazing soups at between 8 and 8.30am. I come back to the house for sit-down meals three times a day. When the children are not at school, we have dinner together at about midday. Then afternoon tea at 3pm and a proper meal in the evening. Helen loves food and insists we put phones away.

I remember my grandmother making bacon and eggs for my grandfather every morning and she never ever took the fat out the pan, so the egg was freckled brown. Everything out of that pan tasted incredibly sweet as a result.

If my grandmother went away to see her sister, someone would have to rescue my grandfather in the kitchen, as he’d be frying spam in a saucepan on really high heat and the whole cooker area would be plastered with speckles of horrible fat. I have memories of him being chased – semi-seriously – by my grandmother wielding a frying pan. I wondered if they even loved each other, to be honest, but after he died, she talked about nothing for years except how wonderful he was.

I can remember my mother, who worked on the farm more than my grandmother, being quite stressed about food, because there was a feeling that she couldn’t measure up to her mother, not least in the kitchen. She had to come back to the farmhouse and arrange a big meal in 15 minutes. In fact, neither Mam or Dad were able to do all they wanted. There was the fear of debt, things were falling apart, but there was an old-fashioned stubbornness in our family, a feeling that you should be rising earlier and slog more to out-work the changes. It took me some years to realise: “Actually, this isn’t all our fault – this is history’s fault.” There was a real fear of debt, but I never wanted for actual food, growing up on the farm.

What was great about my grandfather is that he looked like he belonged in his place in the world. Maybe not a very good dad to his son, but very kind to me. He knew the answer to anything I could conceivably ask about our land and this valley, more aware than other people – for example, he knew exactly where the foxes went under the wire fence, as he kept an eye out for fox hair. And he did something which I thought magical. While others ran around, unable to make things go as fast as they wanted, he’d be in a slow gear and yet get loads done. He seemed really smart and I admired smartness, despite having no interest in school. I tried to emulate him. I wanted to spend time stopping and really looking at things.

It’s not fancy, but sometimes I say to Mum: “Go on, please make me a particularly mean sausage, egg and chips,” then I’m a teenager again. The other food I like is my wife’s wonderful chicken pie, with chicken and ham.

After my grandfather died, when I was 17, my life revolved for 20 years around my father. It was quite tense and painful – we were different people and clashed quite a bit. But in the last 10 or more years of his life he either improved or I changed my perception. Without becoming overly soppy here – with that whole northern father and son thing – he ended up as my best friend. I was writing The Shepherd’s Life when I found out he was dying of cancer and the manuscript changed. In my mind it became a letter to him. I wanted to tell his story, my story and say why I loved him. To my surprise, he was very proud of my book.

Spending evenings in rural Britain as a teen in the 1990s, especially if you had a mate old enough to have a licence, meant you drove round and around town, did doughnuts in car parks, sat in vehicles next to each other, then went to the chippy or kebab shop before they closed. I got bored with that scene, so I stayed in and turned my brain – because dad controlled the TV – to the books on my mother’s shelves. Hemingway, Camus… Suddenly my mind was on fire.

I’d passed two O-levels – religious studies and woodwork – and my grandfather suggested the only thing I could do with them is become a vicar who helped knock nails into coffins. I went to night classes then got into Magdalen College, Oxford, unconditionally, after a great interview. I went home to work on the farm between term, but studied like a machine in the library in Oxford, terrified of failure. I went to the halls for meals but I thought them quite rubbish – usually overcooked meat with a too heavy sauce. I didn’t really go to Oxford to make friends, but one – Oz, from Pakistan – made curries which were quite different from those in northern curry houses. They blew my taste buds. When I go to London, I’m most keen on a Pakistani restaurant called Tayyabs.

I went back to Cumbria with a double first in history, but with an eldest son’s streak of heroism was determined that I could get a house in the village next to the farm and make money to keep it going. I persuaded a guy who ran a small consultancy business to give me a job and I did lottery funding applications for galleries and museums and then I did economic analysis on the effects of tourism and how it could be changed to help some of the poorest people in that area. Unesco and the World Bank started hiring me directly when they needed a troubleshooter to travel. I’ve met people working fields in China and been out in the middle of the night by torchlight with Malawian fishermen on the shores of Lake Victoria. I’ve been very lucky. Once I was sat in a room with park keepers on one side and Masai warriors on the other, and the Masai changed after they knew about my animal farming. They said: “We think we can trust you because you’re a pastoralist.” We still keep in touch, as friends.

Each year we have about 25 visits from rural or city-edge schools, studying local food systems and habitats on farms or the life cycle from field to fork. And then we cook lamb burgers together. When I went to a village primary school 40 years ago, half the kids came from a farming background, but there’s been a profound shift since. Only one or two out of 30 kids nowadays put their hands up when asked if they’ve been on a farm before. When we ask what was the best thing about their visit, some say, “running about free in a field” – something they’ve never done before. Picking up a fresh warm egg is mind-blowing to some.

There’s no food carried in my pockets. I only eat outdoors if we’re hay-farming or shearing in the pens. Helen brings down sandwiches and an afternoon tea spread, with an old tin jug full of cold tea. It’s cold by the time it gets there. But there’s nothing wrong with a good, cold tea.

I don’t do an enormous amount of cooking. It’s partly because of our embarrassingly old-fashioned division of labour and Helen doesn’t like me in the kitchen much. We have 12- and 14-year-old daughters who cook and bake as well so just at the time I should be, and want to be, cooking more, three people are now elbowing me out. Specials? There was my particularly lovely roast pheasant a few years ago. I do a good mushroom risotto