A poet's field guide - Robert Macfarlane's Cambridgeshire glossary

A poet's field guide - Robert Macfarlane's Cambridgeshire glossary

  • Bullfinch: a hedge that is allowed to grow high without laying

Image courtesy of Roger Coleman Photography

For a decade, Dr Robert Macfarlane has been compiling a dictionary of terms for nature and landscape in Britain. Here he gives a glossary of place-words from Cambridgeshire and its neighbouring counties.

Haze-fire, tarn, hoarhusk, gruffy-ground, af’rug: for nearly a decade now I have been collecting place-words – terms for aspects of landscape, nature and weather, drawn from dozens of the languages and dialects of the British Isles. The original impulse arose from a sense that our modern lexis for landscape has become impoverished in terms of variety and precision. The most recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, for instance, excluded the words acorn, beech, cygnet, fern, pasture and willow, replacing them with blog, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste and MP3 player. A shared literacy of landscape is being lost, and it seemed to me worthwhile to record and celebrate some of the fine-grained and diverse place-vocabulary that has existed in these islands in the past. What began as a work of salvage became one of guarded optimism, though, as I travelled the country meeting farmers, conservationists, glossarians, writers, sailors, walkers and other place-specialists, and learning both from their living languages and their knowledge of vanished vernaculars: the extraordinary Hebridean Gaelic vocabulary for moorland and peat, for example – or the trove of East Anglian words for arable agriculture, weather and water.

roke – n., smoke-like mist that rises in the evenings off marshes and water meadows; also very faint rain. With so much standing water and wet ground, the epiphenomena of moisture have been well represented in East Anglian dialects, with numerous words for kinds of mist (mug), dew (dag), heavy soil (clogsum, clunch, clag) and mud (slab, slip, slub). Roke is thought to come from the Old Swedish rökr, meaning smoke or vapour, has memorable regional counterparts and variations in, for example, Yorkshire (summer geese, meaning the steam that rises from the moor when rain is followed by hot sunshine) and Shetland (grumma, meaning a mirage caused by mist rising from the earth).

rodham – n., a raised bank or ridge of silt in the Fens, formerly the bed and sides of a river or tidal creek; roddamy land is rolling or undulating land. Most rodhams (also known as roddons) are thought to have formed between 1500 and 6000 years BP, during periods of extensive silt deposition in Fenland rivers. Those rivers later dried up, and subsequent shrinkage of the surrounding peat – due to the drainage of the Fens – left the rodhams standing proud. Peat being such poor founding material, settlements in the Fens have often followed the lines of rodhams (examples include the villages of Benwick and Prickwillow). The extent of such land features – like Henry James’s “pattern in the carpet” – can be hard to discern at ground level. When aerial photography emerged as a technique in the 1920s, though, the roddams could suddenly be seen from above: wriggling across fields, showing pale against the black of the peat – the ghosts of ancient waterways.

fizmer – n., rustling noise produced in grass by petty agitations of the wind. Fizmer is a  fabulously onomatopoeic wind word, and therefore kindred with better-known terms such as susurrus. John Clare relished words concerning the sounds of air, and sounds travelling through air, and his poetry includes references to suthering (a heavy sighing or rushing sound) and crizzling (the action of frost forming on water: “And the white frost gins crizzle pond and brook”). Fizmer also puts me in mind of zwer, a wonderful Exmoor term for the sound a covey of partridges makes when taking flight.

rawky – adj., of weather or atmosphere: cold, damp, chilly, dull, foggy. Anyone who has studied at Cambridge will have experienced a rawky day, in which the cold feels much keener than the air temperature suggests it should. Typically, this is because of the notorious east wind, more recently christened the ‘wind from the Urals’, but in the early 19th century known as the ‘red-wind’ – and blamed for bringing the blight with it. A contemporary student version of rawky is baltic, though this is by no means specific to Cambridge, and tends to be prefixed with an unrepeatable intensifier.

smeuse, smuise, n., a hole in the base of a hedge caused by the repeated passage of a small animal; a hare’s track through a hedge. While researching my new book, Landmarks, I became interested in the capacity of certain words to direct attention to landscape phenomena that might, because unnamed, otherwise pass unnoticed. Smeuse is one of these; since learning it, I have begun to see these signs of creaturely habit while walking footpaths near the city.

clock-ice – n., ice that has been cracked and crazed by fissures, usually produced by the pressure of walkers or skaters. East Anglian dialect is unsurprisingly poor in words for aspects of high ground (where Gaelic and Scots excel), but it does do well with terms for snow and ice, including windle (a snowdrift), blunt (a heavy fall of snow), stivven (filled with drifted snow), and the beautiful ungive,meaning to thaw. The appeal of this verb I find hard to articulate, but it surely has to do with the paradoxof thaw figured as restraint or retention, and the wintry notion that cold, frost and snow might themselves be a form of gift – an addition to the landscape that will  in time be subtracted by warmth.

horizontigo – n., the malaise induced by sustained exposure to flat terrain; the sudden feeling of fright brought about by contemplation of an intensely lateral terrain. I confess that this coinage was sent to me by a correspondent who suggested that a noun was urgently needed for such a feeling. I rather like it, and – as a mountaineer who lives in Cambridge, and is thus a chronic sufferer of horizontigo – I take this opportunity to encourage its future usage.

honeyfur – n., the soft seeds of grasses and rushes. In 2013, I worked with a former anthropologist turned-children’s educator, Deb Wilenski, who was researching the language-for-landscape of pre-school children. From January to April, Wilenski worked weekly with a group of around 30 four- and five- year-olds as they explored the Hinchingbrooke Country Park in north Cambridgeshire, an area of woodland, meadow and lake. She tried to record without distortion how the children met the landscape, and how they used their bodies, senses and voices to explore and relate it. The children, Wilenski wrote, ‘weaved words and ways together’, creating stories, place-names and coinages to account for the world they were inhabiting. Among these coinages was a word used by a girl who had run her pinched fingers together along a stem of meadow grass, bunching up the seeds as she did so into a soft fingerful of honeyfur. It was a word that could have come straight from the poetry of John Clare, and a reminder to me that although we have forgotten thousands of place-words, new ones are constantly being made.

mabish, mavis – n., regional names for the song thrush (Turdus philomelos). In 2006 I went to the Fen village of Methwold Hythe to interview a 98-year-old farmer, Eric Wortley, who had spent his entire life living and working on his family’s land. In nearly a century, he had been twice to the East Anglian coast, once to Norwich (around 40 miles away) and never to London. Eric’s speech was thick with dialect terms. He recalled birds’-nesting as a boy during the first world war, taking eggs from the nests of jennies (wrens) and mabishes. The Northamptonshire poet John Clare – whose work is famously rich in regionalisms for nature, place and weather – uses mavis for song thrush in his poem The Fallen Elm (“The mavis sang and felt himself alone / While in thy leaves his early nest was made”); he elsewhere refers to the yellowhammer (with its beautiful Linnean, Emberiza citrinella) as the “writing lark”, an allusion to the scribbled black marks on its eggs that resemble handwriting.

Dr Robert Macfarlane is a Fellow of Emmanuel and University Senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature. His latest book, Landmarks, is published by Hamish Hamilton, and is part of the Crossword prize.

This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 74. Find out how to receive CAM.