THE PENNINGTON MIGHTIER THAN THE BARDby Jon Colman
Today we planted the trees
Underneath the wheeling wings,
With the breeze in our faces,
And in our minds
The thought of the shading leaves
Over the generations to come.
DEEP in a Herefordshire forest stands a 20-ton hunk of limestone which bears an extraordinary tribute to Patrick Gordon-Duff-Pennington’s way with words.
When the local woodland committee wanted a suitable inscription for their millennium feature, they asked the people of Stoke Lacy for their ideas. Some suggested a verse from John Clare, others proposed a stanza of Shakespeare, while a few residents thought that only a Biblical extract would do.
In the end, however, they went for a slightly less celebrated scribe: the man they call Patrick of the Hills. Six lines from his composition on the trees of the Western Isles were duly carved into the stone, and they now act as a welcoming message to all who set foot in Netherwood.
Today I am spending a couple of hours in the company of the man whose name is so long it almost needs a sentence of its own. When I called him to arrange our meeting, he confessed to being “a little nervous”. Could it be true that the man who saw off the great romantic, the Bard, and even the Almighty, is afraid of the humble journalist?
“Not really,” he smiles, easing into a chair. “I’ve worked with journalists for 40 years and most of them are terribly nice. But they used to like me better in the old days, when they were getting paid by the word. I do have a very long name.”
Longevity is something that Patrick knows all about. He has poured so much activity into his 74 years that it would fill most ordinary lives two or three times over. A country man to his bones, he has served the Scottish NFU, the Scottish Landowners Federation, the Deer Commission for Scotland, the Cumbrian NFU and the Lake District Special Planning Board, not to mention his formative years as a young shepherd, a rebellious student at Eton and Oxford, a soldier in the Cameron Highlanders, and finally, a reluctant resident of Muncaster Castle, where we meet today.
His recently published memoirs tell a colourful tale. But first, an awkward subject to broach: on page 192 of his book, Patrick recalls a trip to Russia in 1988. He writes: “Moscow was horrid. In the hotel a wardress guarded each floor and as there was no loo paper I had to make do with a copy of The Whitehaven News.”
I ask the only question that comes to mind: was Copeland’s favourite weekly read suitably absorbent? “Well, it did what was needed,” he replies. “I was very grateful.”
Back to a more palatable subject: the memoirs. How long had it been in Patrick’s mind to commit the story of his life to print?
“It hadn’t. I had no intention of writing it, but I was gulled into doing it. The Memoir Club invited Phyllida, my wife, and I to stay. We got there, had tea, dinner, a lovely night’s sleep, then breakfast, then luncheon. I had always said No, but by the end of our stay I felt morally obliged to give them what they wanted.”
The book took him two years to write — all from memory, and all in longhand. It would have taken just one, but for “an unfortunate collision with a chest of drawers” which left him unable to sit at a desk for months.
He is happy with his version of “an unimportant but highly entertaining life”. It is an occasionally lyrical, often poetic memoir, which hums with the flavours of a countryside existence. It is honest — sometimes bluntly so — but Patrick is careful to pull the occasional punch, in the name of diplomacy.
His most telling blows are landed on the politicians with whom he has crossed swords in a life spent standing up for his countryside brethren. Here he is on Margaret Beckett, the current Minister for Agriculture: “She’s an absolute pig of a woman. She doesn’t like animals at all.” And on Jacques Chirac, once a farming minister himself: “Odious and unimproved... a chauvinist to the tips of his toes.”
These are all the words of a man who has frequently found himself at odds with authority and expectation. As a boy, growing up in the Highlands, Patrick’s stepfather had mapped out a future for him in a bathroom fittings firm in Surrey. No such luck: the countryside had already claimed him. He went to Eton, where he developed the love of poetry which he retains to this day, and then to Trinity College, Oxford, where he joined numerous anti-establishment societies and earned a second-class honours degree in history (“not worth the paper it’s written on”).
While his education encouraged his creative tendencies, his subsequent spell of national service taught him discipline, self-reliance and the power of communication. He was posted to Austria for a year, and enjoyed it — but hankered for a return to the countryside. As a young shepherd, farmer and later champion of rural issues, it would become his classroom, his office and his playing field.
It comes as little surprise to hear his withering views on the bureaucratic stranglehold he believes the European Union exerts on farmers today. “It is INTOLERABLE that people who ought to be working among their stock are stuck in offices making sure they’ve dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, just so they can get three-quarters of their income from Brussels,” he says. He does not envy politicians — “they have an awful job” — but could have been one himself, had he pursued a fleeting teenage ambition to be Foreign Secretary. Any regrets about that? “No. I would have killed someone! I think I am of much more use on the edges, among the people.”
He says the chairmanship of the Deer Commission was his most satisfying professional role. “When I used to turn the car north on a Sunday, my spirits soared. I was supposed to do two days a week but I did five. I was so happy.”
The other strand of Patrick’s story leads us to Muncaster Castle. His marriage to Phyllida Pennington in 1955 entailed a move to the castle which today is an acclaimed tourist attraction. Back then, Patrick saw it only as a “gilded cage”, and retreated to his beloved Scotland as frequently as possible.
Eventually, they took up permanent residence in the building, and in 1982 they were the first family since 1850 to live there all year round. Then, it was a crumbling financial burden. Now, thanks to the work of Iona, the third of his four daughters, and her husband Peter, it thrives. “They lead a most extraordinarily hectic, stupid life,” Patrick says.
“The great, supreme enjoyment of Muncaster today is the public. Last year we had 85,000 visitors, and only one in 10,000 is horrid. And I regret to say it’s usually male and it’s usually showing off to its girlfriend.”
Even today, at 74, when he ought to be enjoying the vast gardens at his sprawling home, he cannot resist weighing in with a few words of support for the folk of West Cumbria; an area he originally regarded as “a foreign land” but whose people he has grown to admire. On the thorny subject of parking restrictions in Seascale, he positively thunders. “At the last election, Mr Blair said decisions have to be taken much nearer the ground. But what has happened? These people from the county council came down and said, ‘We know what’s best for you, we’re going to paint yellow lines outside the chemist’.
“It’s awful for business. They didn’t ask the local people, the local people didn’t ask for it, and they even said they would raise the money themselves to take those beastly lines away. But the council said it was a principle, and they were going to leave them.”
He starts to shout. “I think it’s DISGUSTING...it’s AWFUL...” He pauses, and takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, I’m getting a bit worked up.”
Time is racing by. Before we wrap up, how about a quick explanation of the most alarming revelation in his book — the time Patrick became a centrefold in Japanese Playboy?
“Ah, that’s one I sometimes bring out to shock the blue-rinse ladies,” he says. “I wasn’t really expecting it. There was this journalist from Japan who came to investigate our ghosts at Muncaster.
A few weeks later I was sent this magazine with ladies wearing nothing at all, but a picture of yours truly in the centre pages wearing his stepfather’s overcoat, with the headline ‘England Freak’.
“Now I’m a totally committed Scot so that was terribly insulting.”
There is plenty of life left yet in this old raconteur, self-confessed “tinker” and enduring man of the soil. But when Father Time eventually does start tapping his watch, we can be fairly sure that Patrick Gordon-Duff-Pennington will go with a flourish.
Those Blue Remembered Hills, £16. 99 (p&p £4.50) from The Memoir Club, Stanhope Old Hall, Stanhope, Co Durham DL13 2PF.