Wordjoy: Going up the country

Hey hey, time for Saturday Wordjoy. This week we’re taking a walk in the English countryside.

First we’ll see a lot of cows (we’re in England, so they are cows, not coos). Since beast-housen is pretty much obsolete everywhere these-a-days, we’ll call the cowsheds byres. If we’re on a grand estate the cows might be bounded by steep-edged ditches called ha-has. Yes, really. A ha-ha stops cattle from crossing it without interrupting the view of the landscape. They were in special favor during Jane Austen’s time. In case we come across a regular fence or wall we want to cross, we should look for a stile: a set of narrow steps that allows humans to cross without opening a gate (and letting the coos … er, cows out).

There are sheep, too. It’s springtime so the ewes are ready for tupping, or being bred. If you spot a ram he might be wearing a raddle, a device strapped to his chest and filled with blue chalk to mark the ewes he tups. In Return of the Native, Diggory Venn is the reddleman. He sold reddle, a reddish chalk that used to be used in raddles.

Now, goats escape because they’re smart, but sheep escape because they’re stupid. Any hole in a fence and they’re off. To prevent this, the English invented the art of hedgelaying. Americans hear “hedge” and think of neatly clipped evergreen, but hawthorn trees were the favorite material for traditional English hedges. One would use a billhook or brummock, a heavy curved knife, to cut the trunks nearly through, lay the trees down, and pleach them, or weave them together. The trees then grew into a nearly impenetrable mass of thorns.

Another tree that was important was the willow. In the spring their pollen-bearing bodies are covered in velvety fur. These bodies are called catkins, because they’re as soft as little cats. Willow sprouts in long, flexible branches that are cut into withies. Withies are used to thatch roofs and to make wattle fences–you set out a series of stakes or staves where you want the fence to be, and weave the withies back and forth through the stakes. Withies were in such demand that willows were often pollarded, or cut just to their forks, so they would grow a large number of new shoots. Another word for pollard is coppice.

And I think that’s a good place to stop for this week. It’s a wide world of words in the English countryside, so I have more entries on the topic planned. See you next Saturday!


One thought on “Wordjoy: Going up the country

  1. We didn’t live in a “country estate”, but we did have a ha ha in the front – and just as you said, it keeps the cows out of the garden – however my mother would plant flowers on the edge of the ha ha, and the cows would eat the flowers, so we ended up having a fence as well. But it was still a real ha ha with bricks leading u to the top of it. Seriously though, I love your foray into words, particularly the English ones. And trees have not just catkins, but they have lambs tails too. Incidentally, if you are in Northern Yorkshire, cows are pronounced more like coos!

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