Recently I was presented with a beautiful gift – a book by Dominick Tyler called Uncommon Ground: A word-lover’s guide to the British landscape. The book is the product of a year that Tyler spent travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles to photograph specific features of the natural world.

Realising how limited was his vocabulary for naming the things he saw in the landscape – ‘There was a hill, then a dip then some lumpy bits and then it got stony’ – Tyler began collecting words for landscape features that would improve upon the vague generalisations we tend to use today, such as hill, rock or stream. The terms he collected had invariably been used for generations by ancestors who depended on specific words to give directions, tell a story, find a place, or describe the land on which they worked.

The words collected by Tyler – words like zawn, jackstraw, clitter, logan, cowbelly, corrie, spinney and tor – are as varied, rich and poetic as the landscapes they describe. Often they are words in local dialect or the various languages of these isles that describe the same thing: so a corrie in Scotland is a cwm in Wales and a coombe in England. Tyler has arranged his book in eight regional sections, starting in the South West and finishing in the Fenlands of eastern England.  Following his journey, it’s easy to see how regional language reflects the intertwining of regional geography with human activity and culture.

Uncommon Ground cover
Uncommon Ground cover

Uncommon Ground has the square format of one of those ‘1001 Things to See/Hear/Read/Experience before you die. Each two-page spread consists of Tyler’s photograph of a particular landscape feature, with text on the facing page.  Tyler’s words are are as good as his photos: each regional section is prefaced by a personal account of how he explored the area and captured the images, while the explanations of the words are engaging and witty, with the result that reading the book feels far removed from the sensation of ploughing your way through a glossary or dictionary of terms.

Tyler begins in the South West with the term that was already familiar from our many holidays in the far-flung West Penwith tip of Cornwall: Zawn.

Zawn from Uncommon Ground
Zawn from Uncommon Ground

He writes:

Let’s start at the end, or close to it. In flagrant inversion of alphabetisation we begin with zawns, some of the best examples of which are found near Land’s End in Cornwall. Zawn is derived from ‘sawan’, a Cornish word for chasm. […] These steep-sided coastal inlets are formed by wave erosion on weak spots in the cliff face. In taller cliffs, zawns can be formed when waves carve out a cave that grows until its roof collapses completely. […] The Zawn pictured is at at Nanjizal beach, a few miles south of Land’s End, and is called Zawn Pyg (‘pyg’ means ‘pitch’ or ‘tar’ in Cornish, a reference to the black marks on the granite here, perhaps). […] This stretch of coastline, where the unhindered force of the Atlantic Ocean dashes against the seemingly immutable granite cliffs, is punctuated by zawns, a reminder that in geological terms there really is no such thing as immutable.

Clitter Clatter from Uncommon Ground
Clitter/Clatter from Uncommon Ground

Tyler’s superb photographs are supported by interesting and sometimes witty accounts of the terms they illustrate. So clitter in Devon (clatter in Cornwall) are the piles of irregular granite boulders that litter and clutter the hillsides around tors. Tyler’s description of how tors came into existence some 280 million years ago, and how clitter was created at the end of the ice ages when water that had seeped into cracks in the granite expanded as it froze and levered off rocks that then tumbled down the hillsides, is accompanied by his remarkable photo – the twisting forms of tree branches in ancient woodland contrasted with the rounded, noss-covered shapes of the fallen boulders – taken at Wistman’s Wood in the West Dart valley

Erratic from Uncommon Ground
Erratic from Uncommon Ground

Erratics are large rocks that have been carried by glaciers that subsequently melted, abandoning rocks that are strangers to the local geology. This can happen to individual rocks (we’ve passed the Logan Rock at Treen in West Penwith many times), or to a whole group, as with the Norber erratics near Austwick in Yorkshire, a whole pod of beached greywacke boulders stranded on a Carboniferous limestone pavement. Tyler’s photograph for this term is of the Blaxhall Stone, a five-ton erratic that in the last ice age made its way as far south as Suffolk (though the local legend is that it simply grew there, having been ploughed up in the 1800s as a stone the size of ‘two fists’.

Rhaeadr from Uncommon Ground
Rhaeadr from Uncommon Ground

Sgwd, Rhaeadr, Pistyll, Berw and Ffrwd: Topology and climate have given Wales a good number of waterfalls in a variety of forms, explains Tyler; as a result, the Welsh language has a variety of words for waterfall, of which these are the five most common. The distinctions between these Welsh terms are not straightforward. ‘Rhaeadr’, which translates as ‘cascade’ is the most common and widespread in use. ‘Sgwd’ meaning ‘a shoot of water’ or ‘cascade’ is practically synonymous with ‘rhaeadr’ but only used in South Wales. A waterfall of lesser volume that a rhaeadr, or one that is temporary or seasonal, is known as a ‘pistyll’.

Dell from Uncommon Ground
Dell from Uncommon Ground

Dell or dingle: both have the same meaning, the former word coming down unchanged from Old English, the latter of uncertain origin, but brought into literary use by Milton in his 1634 work Comus:

I know each lane, and every alley green
Dingle or bushy dell of this wilde Wood,
And every bosky bourn from side to side.

Both terms have the same meaning: a small valley or hollow, usually wooded. In Liverpool, there are two familiar locations that bear these names.  We have an allotment in the Dingle, a valley which ran down to the Mersey and gave its name to the densely-populated district of working-class terraced housing that grew up around it in the 19th century.  The allotment plots still sprawl up and down the banks of the former dingle.  Meanwhile, over in Sefton Park, there’s The Dell, a landscaped hollow in which waterfalls tumble amidst shrubs and winding paths.

On Vimeo you can watch a short video made by Dominick Tyler to illustrate Dell and Dingle:

The Dell video is just one of a series posted on Vimeo by the Landreader Project, established by Dominick Tyler to promote the idea of preserving the ancient vocabulary of landscape.

Turning the pages of this book brings encounters with beautiful images and wonderful words. Some words are familiar – machair, glen, scarp, carr, rime, beck and briar – while others – such as daddock, dumbledore, scowle and shivver – were new to me. Most of the terms are local.  As Tyler writes:

For all the creeping homogeny of culture and corporations there is also a strong seam of localism in Britain. People value local knowledge and a lot of the words are used only in a small geographical area.

Oddly enough, Robert Macfarlane was engaged at the same time on a similar project, also compiling landscape terms for his latest book Landmarks.  I heard the book serialized recently on Radio 4, but haven’t yet read it. In Landmarks, Macfarlane states that knowing the right word for something in nature re-emphasises its value. “Language-deficit leads to attention-deficit”, he writes, adding:

What is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word-magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place.

The potency of his assertion is underlined by the fact that in January Margaret Atwood, Michael Morpurgo and other writers were compelled to protest to Oxford University Press about the removal of nature-related words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary – words such as acorn, blackberry, hamster, heron, magpie and catkin have been dropped to make room for words such as analog, broadband, blog, chatroom, and cut and paste. “Children no longer use these words,” OUP responded in defence.

As for Uncommon Ground, Dominick Tyler hopes that his book:

By starting to re-enrich our nature vocabulary and our landscape stories … will be a reminder that there was a time when our ancestors read the lines on the land as clearly as any text.  We can learn to read it again, perhaps never as fluently as before, but maybe well enough to make it feel more familiar, more real and more connected. In order for us to belong to a place, and it to us, we must first name it.

 See also

6 thoughts on “Uncommon Ground: learning to read our landscape again

  1. Many thanks for such a comprehensive review, Gerry … I had been toying with the idea of treating myself to this book, and now it is very definitely a ‘must have’!

  2. Hi Gerry, great post. Mac Farlanes book is also very good. I have just bought it for my Dads birthday, and hope to borrow it shortly!! Anything that might just counter the starting of sentences with “So” and the repeat every three words of “Like” is to be welcomed.
    We have such a rich language and it is sad that it is being used in such a limited way.
    Will definitely nip to Waterstones and sneek a look at this!
    Andy Lancaster, late 50s reactionary bloke, West Yorkshire.

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