Country diary: filling the fields with private sobriquets


It has been five months since any journey was more than an hour’s walk, and in that time we have populated our circumscribed world with names. A fellow Guardian writer reminded me that in the Gaelic-speaking parts of the British Isles, every hillock, every burn, every feature was given a name. In her childhood, she tagged landmarks around her own North Yorkshire home with television programme titles. Brideshead Moor? The Dukes of Hazzard Copse? I did not ask.

Britain’s practical forebears may have given place markers to resolve questions of ownership or common purposes, such as navigation aids. Over the past few months, our own half-conscious process has provided shorthand answers to the daily question: where to go for a walk? The writer Robert Macfarlane talks of Britain being a “storiated landscape”: in these peculiar circumstances, with only the close and ever more familiar on offer, we are writing them almost by the day, fixing our sense of home and belonging.

When we reach the far side of skylark fields, farthing lane offers a right fork towards partridge walk, the reservoir spoon and sloe lane. A turn to the left runs past stonechat ditch into bunting alley. Only two of those appellations predate the pandemic; we have filled the fields with private sobriquets for the rest ever since.

Bunting alley earned its name some time over Christmas, when two cousins landed on top of each other in the hedge, a drop-in centre for any perching bird in otherwise open country. A foot apart, the yellowhammer and reed bunting carolled a soft, sub-song duet, both bobbing as if in time, then flashing the family livery of light outer-tail feathers when they flitted off.

Today, courting and competing skylarks are using the hedge as a tennis net, with the birds as balls – 40-15 sends five of them into a puddle on our side of the hedge, where they are joined by a linnet and a single eponymous hero of this farm track- a male reed bunting with black head and white collar. The close flocks of winter have dispersed, the resident pair remains – miles from the nearest reeds, of course.


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