Fell Ponies and Inspiration

According to The Fell Pony Society, the Fell Pony is “the old breed of pony which has roamed the northern fells for years.”  Within the ponies’ home range lies the Lake District with its national park and World Heritage Site.  While the Fell Pony hasn’t been well integrated into the park’s activities or site’s plans in the past, it certainly can be in the future.  I love photographer Emma Campbell’s goal:  “…one day, I’d like the Lake District to become as famous for its fell ponies as its sheep.”  (1)

Fell Pony Hanging Bracket courtesy Eddie McDonough

The Lake District World Heritage site has three themes:  identity, inspiration, and conservation.  It’s fairly easy to see how the Fell Pony fits in the ‘identity’ theme as this theme is about the historic farming and industrial landscapes.  And our ponies likely can be fit in the conservation theme via conservation grazing, if not other ways.  But you may be surprised, as I was, that inspiration is more problematic.  Fell Ponies have certainly provided inspiration over the years to many with artistic and literary skill, but the inspiration in the World Heritage Site plan is defined quite narrowly:  “The beauty of the Lake District inspired artists and writers of the Picturesque and Romantic movements and generated ideas about landscape that have had global influence.” (2)

The Fell Pony isn’t unique in being left out of the inspirational view of the Lake District.  In his book The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks tells a story that is both disturbing and illuminating.  Rebanks recounts being a school boy and hearing a teacher lecture on the Lake District as a place of nature and romantic ideals of beauty.  He found himself confused because he lived in the Lake District, as had generations of his family before him, and what the teacher was describing was totally foreign to the place that he knew firsthand.  “The Lake District in her monologue was the playground of an itinerant band of climbers, poets, walkers, and daydreamers… people whom, unlike our parents, or us, had ‘really done something….’  Sitting in that assembly was the first time I’d encountered this (basically romantic) way of looking at our landscape.  I realized then, with some shock, that the landscape I loved, we loved, where we had belonged for centuries, the place known as ‘the Lake District,’ had a claim to ownership submitted by other people, based on principles I barely understood [at that time.]” (3)

The Picturesque movement was characterized by an interplay between architecture and landscape that resulted in a pretty picture like one might see in a painting.  A medieval ruin in a country setting was considered ‘picturesque,’ for instance.  William Gilpin, in his 1772 guidebook, encouraged tourists to the Lake District to visit particular places to see the sights from particular perspectives that were pleasing.

The Romantic movement was characterized by a love of nature and of history and a sense of the individual and of emotion.  Realism was considered a polar opposite to Romanticism.  The Fell Pony Museum indicates that Fell Ponies were available as mounts for tourists who wanted to see “the Romantic aspect of the countryside” during the period. (4)  Both the Picturesque and Romantic movements were in part a reaction against the Industrial Revolution.

While horses were sometimes the focus of artists and authors in these movements (late 1700s to mid 1800s), the equine subjects were often sporting, racing, or military in nature.  It doesn’t appear that there was any artistic interest in the native ponies of Britain, including the Fell Pony.  Perhaps their close association with industry through their use as pack horses and later as pit ponies made them uninteresting?

Beatrix Potter was not directly a part of the Romantic or Picturesque movements, but she does figure in the World Heritage Site plan.  And of course there is a Fell Pony connection through her.   Her essay “The Lonely Hills” has a short description of wild fell ponies on Troutbeck Tongue.  One reviewer calls the essay “…a ruminative piece… treating the Lake Country's romantic aura.” (5)  So here, at least, we have one tie of the Fell Pony to the Romantic movement’s view of the Lake District!

While Fell Ponies may not have been considered inspiring by the Romantic and Picturesque movements, they have been inspiring for a number of people since then.  In addition to paintings and books and photos and films, I’ve seen jewelry, holiday greens, textiles, and sculpture.  Here are some examples specific to the Lake District (some of which also touch on the identity and conservation themes):

I’m sure I’m forgetting some obvious artists and authors of the past who were inspired by the Fell Pony and its presence in the Lake District.  I look forward to being told about them so I can add them to this list.  In August 2018, numerous painters and photographers and authors who have taken inspiration from Fell Ponies exhibited their works at the Heritage of the Fells event in Shap.  While I was unable to attend, I was thrilled when a colleague sent me a poem they wrote about their ponies for the event. Heritage of the Fells was supported by Friends of the Lake District via a ‘Discover Cumbria’ grant and by the Fell Pony Society with a grant and merchandise.

The Lake District World Heritage Site plan is hundreds of pages long, and I admit I haven’t read it thoroughly yet.  I hope when I do I discover more ways that the Fell Pony fits within the site’s inspiration theme.  In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the many Fell-Pony-inspired works of art and literature that come my way.

  1. Campbell, Emma, as quoted in Borrell, Robert, “Fell Ponies in the Lake District,” Lancashire Life, 12 April 2018 as found at https://www.lancashirelife.co.uk/out-about/fell-ponies-in-te-lake-district-1-5466508,  accessed 1/10/19.

  2. http://lakesworldheritage.co.uk/blog/2017/july/euphoria-as-lake-district-becomes-a-world-heritage-site/

  3. Rebanks, James.  The Shepherd’s Life:  A Tale of the Lake District.  Allen Lane/Penguin, 2015, p. xiii

  4. “Tourists’ Mounts,” at http://www.fellponymuseum.org.uk/fells/19clate/19thc2.htm

  5. Thomas, Joyce.  “Beatrix Potter’s Americans:  Selected Letters (review),” at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/248147/summaryhttps://muse.jhu.edu/article/248147/summary, accessed on 1/10/19