Read Patrick Barkham’s introduction to a new edition of Thomas Firbank’s ‘I Bought A Mountain’ — the tale of the author’s 1931 impulse purchase of a 2,400-acre Snowdonian hill farm.
In the midst of a major crisis, as doubts proliferate about city life, capitalism and the technological revolution, an idealistic person seeks to escape turmoil and make a living from the land. We see this story played out today in Britain as the coronavirus pandemic causes flight from city to countryside. An urban passion for farming is writ large in contemporary culture, from Amazon’s smash-hit TV show about Jeremy Clarkson’s foray into farming to Cumbrian farmer James Rebanks’ critically-acclaimed bestsellers The Shepherd’s Life and English Pastoral. Yesterday, by chance, I stumbled across the most-read article on a Welsh news website: a derelict farm with 16 acres on sale for £250,000, a tantalising price for Londoners confined to a one-bedroom flat worth twice that.
But turning a fantasy about living more ‘naturally’ away from the strains of urban existence into reality is not a new story. It is a recurring theme since the industrial revolution. Where Romantics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth led, many have followed, seeking individual fulfilment in a supposedly simpler existence in a wilder place. Thomas Firbank was not a Romantic but in this book he told one of the most compelling and successful twentieth century versions of the urge to escape to the country.
I Bought A Mountain begins at a roaring pace, in the middle of a howling gale, and never lets up for its 250 pages. It is a book written by a young man in a hurry and we are swept along by the power of his dreams and his determination to realise them.
We first catch sight of Dyffryn when Firbank visits this hill farm in the heart of Snowdonia in a November gale. An abandoned lorry is blown on its side. The bonnet of his car is wrenched off by the wind. The rain is horizontal. Perhaps most unpromisingly of all, it is 1931, and the Great Depression is starting to bite. Nevertheless, a mysterious force seems to press this rough, mountainous Welsh hill farm on to the 21-year-old Firbank, who has just fled two years labour in a factory in Canada. ‘I jumped out of the car, and the wind frogmarched me at a run to the back door. The door opened unasked, and I stumbled inside,’ he writes.
There, he met a Welshman who wished to retire from farming Dyffryn, 2,400 acres of grazing land on the southerly slopes of the Glyders. The terrain was inhospitable, the rainfall was seven times that of London but the price for the farmhouse, two cottages, barns and land was an alluring £4,625 (£325,000 in today’s money). So Firbank ‘bought the mountain’ although his daughter, Johanna, later said that the book’s title was always ironic. No person, believed Firbank, could actually buy let alone ‘own’ a wild Welsh hillside.
The farm’s purchase is an irresistible set-up for a story of liberation that appeals to every reader who has ever been stuck in a meagre house or stultifying office job: the story of a man braver than us (and probably possessing more money) who jumps into a drastic change-of-life with no planning, skills or experience. The learning curve is as steep as that hillside. Firbank is not simply moving to the mountains in 1932 but taking a job enmeshed in a Welsh-speaking country, culture and society. ‘I was a foreigner in a land as alien to me as Tibet,’ he writes. ‘The language was new to me, and, more important, so was the mentality of the people.’ Firbank is not quite the ingénue he portrays. Although he was born in Quebec, his father was English, his mother was Welsh and, as he later acknowledges, he spent many holidays with his mother’s friends on farms in North Wales. But he is an outsider and swiftly learns not to pretend otherwise. ‘A scientist, a doctor, an artist, a soldier, a lawyer, can all be impersonated for a short while with some hope of success,’ he writes. ‘A farmer never. More is needed than a glossary of jargon and a studied physical expression. No one can impersonate an earthquake or an acorn, and a farmer is just as much a natural manifestation.’
A farmer is authentic because they have to be, it is not a role that can be faked. This is deeply appealing to all of us, whether reading of, dreaming about, or actually trying to farm. The atavistic allure of farming also includes the freedom that can come from being a generalist in a world where everyone’s job seems to be shrinking into an ever-narrower specialism. A farmer, Firbank writes, ‘is a judge of many kinds of stock, he is a veterinary surgeon, a botanist, a chemist, an engineer, an architect, a surveyor, a foreman, a meteorologist, a buyer, a vendor, and an advertising manager. And the only job in which he really fails is the last.’
Firbank does not fail in advertising farming to us. A contemporary version of this tale would probably contain more personal feelings but Firbank deftly describes the brutal business of farming and the successes and failures from each challenge flung his way. His writing is vivid and vital and we see the world as freshly as he does, and learn the fascinating complexity of farming sheep when bequeathed with infertile soils and inclement conditions.
There are thrilling tales of lambing, flooding, shearing and digging sheep from the snow. There are schemes to generate electricity and the electric atmosphere of auction day. Firbank superbly evokes the excitement of selling off his sheep every autumn. ‘The long climax of bid, counter-bid, and bang of the gavel must be sustained from the first to last. What connexion is there between a farm sale, mob hysteria, religious ecstasy, yoga, the immunity of fakirs, hypnosis? There is a connexion,’ he insists. For all Firbank’s usual lack of sentimentality, there are also moments of great intimacy, written with delicacy and even poetry. During lambing, a first-time mother ‘stares in superstitious amazement at the slimy morsel of life which has so mysteriously appeared,’ before warily approaching to sniff the suspicious object. When her maternal instinct is triggered, and she licks her newborn clean, the lamb sits ‘a-sprawl, his legs at impossible angles, as if pinned to him by a blind man’.
We learn alongside Firbank how his Welsh mountain flock is ‘hefted’ to the hill and so even though the mountain is unfenced, the sheep will not stray; we learn how when a lamb dies, its skin must be cut off and wrapped around a twin or orphaned lamb so the bereaved mother will adopt and feed another. Most of all, though, we learn that Firbank cannot do this alone. He quickly falls in love with a local woman, Esmé Cummins, who is memorably described as having ‘the face of an elf’ and being ‘as dainty as a Dresden shepherdess’. Fortunately this porcelain figurine in person is also strong, practical and as bubbling with ideas as Firbank. Ultimately, Firbank swiftly realises that he cannot cope without his local community – not only the expertise of his two shepherds, John Davies and his son, Thomas, but a host of neighbouring farmers.
In this way, I Bought A Mountain is a portrait of a lost era when farming was a communal endeavour. Firbank requires his neighbours’ help every time he gathers in sheep. Forty men assist with sheep shearing, and for no payment except the food that Esmé spends days preparing in the kitchen. Firbank must lend his shepherds freely to his neighbours as well.
For all that has changed in hill farming since the 1930s, Firbank’s experiences echo more modern accounts by farmer-writers such as James Rebanks. Firbank encounters salesmen flogging every kind of farm technology and tonic. He also pursues ‘diversification’ 80 years before it became an agricultural buzzword. He tries farming pigs and chickens as well as sheep, which ends badly, but finds success with a snack bar he builds for the tourists flocking to the Welsh mountains. He and Esmé start a trend for reconditioned shepherd’s huts decades before today’s boom, buying a beautiful wooden wagon which they rent to holidaymakers.
Firbank’s arguments about the importance of farming are highly pertinent today. He is writing on the eve of the Second World War, when Britain produced just 42% of its own food and knew it must urgently produce more. Ever since the lifting of the Corn Laws in 1850, which allowed the importation of cheap grain from overseas, the British government has prioritised cheap food for its urban majority over self-sufficiency for the nation. Firbank’s appeal for better support for farmers is the same as many current arguments, when the global crises of climate and extinction are making an irresistibly important case for Britain to produce more of its own food without wrecking this land or any other.
As with almost any book published more than 80 years ago, the ecological message – or absence of it – within these pages does not chime with contemporary thinking. Firbank pursues what almost every twentieth century farmer regarded as his duty: ‘improvement’ and ‘modernisation’. He mercilessly killed foxes, drained ‘bogs and swamps’, fertilised natural grassland and ‘harrowed’ square miles of ‘matted pasture’. Over the last century, this ‘improvement’ has driven wildlife from farmland, and virtually eradicated flower-rich meadows in favour of grass or arable monocultures. Occasional instances of archaic language or attitudes within these pages may also grate with 21st-century readers. Firbank counteracts the casual prejudice against Welsh ‘duplicity’ that was commonplace among the English of the day and his writing is suffused with respect and generosity towards Welsh people. Sometimes, however, his humour is directed against them; and he seems untroubled by the fact that his labourers will at times toil for no payment while the boss goes on foreign holidays and drives a Bentley. Firbank and Esmé break the record for the fastest ascent of the 14 hills above 3,000ft in Wales but there are plenty of times when Esmé’s role as farmer’s wife is simply to make lavish teas for everyone.
So Firbank’s farming story is not a flawless emancipation or perfect ecological awakening but the seeds are certainly there, as what happened next reveals. Published in 1940, his uplifting tale of personal development, resilience and strong communities was well-suited to wartime. I Bought A Mountain was a bestseller, and has rarely been out of print since, inspiring many subsequent generations to move to the countryside.
Unexpectedly for any reader, its publication marked the end of Firbank’s farming story. Before war broke out, he left Dyffryn and enlisted in the army, where the resilience honed on the mountainside served him well. He was awarded a Military Cross for bravery in Italy in 1943, later writing a book about his experiences, before moving to the Far East in 1954 to work as an engineer. During the war, he split from Esmé but left the farm in her hands. She remarried and managed it successfully for many decades. Her deep love of this mountain led her to become an influential conservationist. In 1958, after a successful campaign to stop a youth hostel being built on the slopes of the Glyder mountains, she and her husband Peter Kirby founded the Snowdonia National Park Society.
For both Esmé and Thomas Firbank, who returned to live in North Wales in the 1980s, Dyffryn became their cynefin, a poetic Welsh concept which prosaic English struggles to translate as a place of belonging to which a person feels an intense spiritual connection. For all the pragmatism of the farming life on show, this spiritual connection with the land is revealed on virtually every page. The profound fulfilment and freedom both author and his wife found in hard labour in a place where they enjoyed meaningful relationships with all its inhabitants remains deeply inspiring to us today.
Short Books’ re-issue of ‘I Bought A Mountain’ is out now in paperback, and available here (£9.49).