When David Birkett was just 10-years-old, occasionally a sheep would go missing from the family herd. His grandfather Vic would turn up with a length of rope in his hands and point wearily up to the Lake District fells towering thousands of feet over the valley floor.
Together the pair would scale whatever crag the hapless sheep had managed to find itself stranded upon. Then Vic would ram a crowbar into the earth, tie the rope to its base and wrap the other half around David’s waist to lower him down.
“I would try and hook them off with a walking stick,” the now 48-year-old recalls. “That was always the highlight of my childhood.”
These bursts of excitement, though, were the exception to the rule. On most days, when the family Herdwicks were proving better behaved, David and his sheepdog Ned – “the best in the valley” - would accompany his grandfather on peaceful yomps through Langdale tending to their flock.
“I remember as a child sitting in the mist on fell waiting for him and sometimes wondering if he would come back at all,” he says. “But after a time I just got used to being left. I would just try to keep warm and watch everything going on around me.”
Such is the gentle pace of Lake District life. The slow steady march of the days that turn into seasons. These Cumbrian fells are a part of the country that seemingly runs on a different clock.
David Birkett, who still lives in Langdale and still occasionally rescues sheep, is the star of a new BBC documentary on life in the Lakes. The programme follows hot on the trail of the new craze for so-called “slow television”, whereby viewers frazzled by modern life lie back on the sofa nourished by nothing much really happening at all.
There has been a two-hour BBC4 special on the 830 Northern Dalesman bus driving through the Yorkshire Dales – which attracted nearly a million viewers - and a narrowboat journey along the Kennet and Avon Canal that was watched by close to 600,000 people.
By contrast the Lake District: A Wild Year cuts along at a roaring pace, spanning life in Langdale over four seasons in an hour.
All the same, there is little in the way of drama, aside from a peculiar satisfaction in watching leaves unfurl and daffodils poke through the snow. And then there is David Birkett, building the dry stone walls through which he makes his livelihood; each stone falling into place with a satisfying clunk.
Birkett, lean and possessing the cheery countenance of a man who has lived his life outdoors, is the ideal guide to take one on a journey through the Lake District. His name – descended from the Viking for birch – is one of the most traditional family titles in the areas, along with Bland and Dixon.
His great grandfather, Joe Gregg (a tall figure whose face was scarred by shrapnel from his involvement in the Battle of the Somme) was appointed by Beatrix Potter as her advising shepherd when she bought Mill Beck Farm in Langdale. Birkett recalls Sunday lunchtimes going for dinner at the low-beamed farmhouse and his great grandfather always leaving his dentures on the table.
“I never met Beatrix Potter but my grandfather did as a lad. At all the sheep fairs she used to give him money to buy sweets while she was talking to Joe.”
Mill Beck Farm was one of 15 farms that Potter bought during her lifetime. She adored the rural landscape of the Lake District and following the sudden death of her beloved fiancé Norman in 1905, turned to it for solace.
She said she was happiest when roaming her farms in her clogs, shawl and old tweed skirt. In 1943 she was elected the first female president of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association – a post Joe Gregg also held for a number of years. When she died she left 4,000 acres in the Lake District to the National Trust, stipulating that the land be used to graze Herdwick flocks - the sheep, whose name derives from Old Norse, has been present on the Lakes since the 12th century.
Despite being raised by his grandfather to take over the family farm (his father left when he was very young) David Birkett chose another path. He started climbing, becoming one of the most talented in the sport across the world, and decided to take up drystone walling and stone masonry, using the volcanic rocks and slate that are the bedrock of Langdale.
Four years ago his skills attracted the attention of the garden designer Cleve West. The pair have appeared at the Chelsea Flower Show numerous times together. Last year they won the construction prize for a drystone wall Birkett built out of Cotswold limestone.
Birkett, who is married with a 19-month-old daughter, takes me up to the top of a fell to explain the art of dry-stone walling. Larger rocks are piled up on either side with the smaller ones filling the middle. They call these the heartings.
As he builds he points out the kaleidoscopic lichen splodges on the side of the rocks that thrive in the clean air. The tops are fringed with a red-topped lichen nicknamed devil’s matchsticks. A raven kronks as it swoops circuits around us. Often, Birkett says, it is just him and the birds up here. And, of course, the sheep.
He continues to use his climbing skills to rescue wayward Herdwicks. Birkett estimates over the course of his life he has managed to bring down about 700 stranded sheep from the fells.
These days the animals are not those that belong to his own farm – the family gave up their tenancy of Mill Beck House 30 years ago. Rather, he does it simply out of kindness to his neighbours.
“It reminds me of childhood but also it reminds me of those days where you still did stuff for people for nothing. Every day I go out I lose a day’s wages. Even if I haven’t got anything back for it I know if I need a tractor I can borrow one, or if I need a hand with something someone will help me.”
While the programme skirts over the challenges facing those living and working in the Lakes, Birkett admits he is worried about the future. The money, he says, has bottomed out of sheep farming.
“The wool cheque every year used to pay for the rent and the lambs to go away over winter now the farmers burn the fleeces because they’re not worth anything. Farmers are stuck in this time warp where they want to produce something that people want but actually nobody really wants it anymore.”
His fear is that the long-standing families of the Lakes will be forced to move out in search of work. The farmers will instead become mere “stewards” of the land, keeping the pastures of Potter’s imagination going only for the tourists, even if they are no longer financially viable.
“These places will start becoming like picture postcard imaginations rather than anything actually real,” he says. “But it’s good to have an edge. The odd gnarly farmer who wants to shoot somebody’s dog is really not a bad thing.”
Despite the struggle to live and work there, Birkett still describes the Lakes as possessing the most stunning scenery on earth. “It gets more beautiful the more you get to know the landscape and the people that live here,” he says. “You understand it a bit more.”
Whether viewers will agree that its sweeping vistas can rival the journey of the 830 bus, however, remains to be seen.
The Lake District: A Wild Year on BBC Two, 17th Feb at 9pm.