Caught by the River

A word-lovers guide to the British landscape

20th March 2015


An extract from Uncommon Ground by Dominick Tyler
Guardian Faber paperback, 256 pages

In 2008 I collaborated with the writer Kate Rew on her book Wild Swim. It was a rare and wonderful project, an opportunity to travel throughout the UK finding and photographing the best places to swim outdoors. The work took us to the Outer Hebrides, the Isles of Scilly and hundreds of watery places between and in the course of that year, as I walked and swam around the Britain, I felt a restored sense of familiarity with the natural landscape. Until I began to feel it’s ebbing return I hadn’t realized this sense had ever left me. It must have drifted away when I wasn’t paying attention, when after spending the first 18 years of my life in rural Cornwall I moved to London, first to study and then to work, when I was no longer surrounded by the moors, the woods and the sea. Throughout this time and despite my urban surroundings I still identified my self as a rural person, I felt (or felt I felt) that my natural habitat was the countryside even as I acclimatized to the city.

My childhood home was surrounded by green spaces and by the age of 12 I was allowed to roam freely over a territory of fields and woods loosely defined by my parents as “not too far”. I knew this territory well, at least I knew it for my purposes: the trees for climbing, the places in the river for fording or swimming, the illicit routes through gardens. Over the years I had accumulated a rough and ready knowledge of the landscape. I was free from unnecessary facts: I did not need to know whether the climbing trees were ash or sycamore, that the swimming pools were formed in the meanders of the river by fluid dynamics or that trespassing was a civil offence.

My knowledge was pertinent but also superficial. During my year of wild swimming I realised my ‘knowledge’ was no longer as useful, or as satisfying as it had been when I was a child. In particular I found, to my shame, that my vocabulary for landscape was woefully inadequate. Back then I hadn’t needed, or more accurately wanted, to effectively communicate about my wanderings. I relied heavily on the single word “out” when faced with questions about where I’d been or where I was going. Full disclosure would have been an unacceptable limitation on my liberty and worse, might have led to restrictions. Now that I wanted to describe a journey across the Welsh hills accurately and effectively It seemed I only had the barest, blandest words at my command. There was a hill, then a dip, then some lumpy bits and then it got stony. It was acutely frustrating not to have the right words available, like trying to fix something without the right tools. I reasoned that there must be words for these details of the landscape precisely because I needed them to do what people must have needed to do for millennia: give directions, tell a story or find a place.

And so I began collecting words for landscape features, words like jackstraw, zawn, clitter and logan, cowbelly, hum and corrie, spinney, karst and tor. As they filled my notepads I saw that these words were as varied, rich and poetic as the landscapes they describe. Many of these words go above and beyond the basic job description of a noun: “ooze” does not just refer to an estuarial mudflat it evokes it, as does “gloup” for a tidal blowhole and “swash” for the action of a wave on a beach. There are, of course, several words, from different languages and dialects for common landscape features, a corrie in Scotland is a cwm in Wales and a coombe in England all of them referring to an amphitheater-like valley formed by glacial erosion. You could fill a book alone with words for hill. Other features, unique to one area, are only named in that region’s dialect, although sometimes the word is adopted elsewhere for related features. Regional language reflects the regional geography and human concerns; in Gaelic there are words to describe mountain peaks by their sharpness where in Norfolk they like to specify degrees of water-logging.


An accumulation of these words amounts to a glossary of the British landscape, which, I realized, is exactly what I’d needed in the first place. Dictionaries of geography were useful but missed out great chunks of colloquialism and works on dialect rarely had the detail I was after. The one book I did find that breached conventional typologies was Barry Lopez’s Home Ground which became a key inspiration for this project..

Rather than attempt an encyclopedic work like Lopez, I wanted to create a primer that would encourage and illuminate further reading, a touch-paper that would ignite interest. A definitive glossary of landscape would contain many dull pictures of fascinating things and many fascinating pictures of dull things. This work is not meant to be either definitive, or encyclopedic, or dull, so I decided to select features that, I hope, make for interesting words and pictures. Aside from this aspiration the selection is deliberately arbitrary and by no means should be though of as a landscape “best of”. Failure to visit all or any of the places featured in this book before you die is not something I want you to worry about. The material in this book was gathered in a series of field trips which together provided a representative spread of landscapes from the Cairngorm mountains to the Cornish coast. I’ve leaned geology, geography, history, etymology, linguistics and lore as I travelled and Uncommon Ground has become my exercise book for these lessons and my rambling songline across Britain.

Photography has been my way to investigate the world for the last twenty years, it would have been practically impossible for me to make sense of this journey without a camera. The process of photography is a lot to do with creative exclusion. Choosing what to leave out of a picture is often more important than choosing what to include. This book presents the truth, but not the whole truth: in selecting one, single example of a landform to photograph I am, apparently, offering an archetype. But they are often atypical or extraordinary examples simply because those are the most interesting. Between the text and the photograph I hope to define both the necessary characteristics and also something about the essence of each feature.

As well as simply informing I hope this work will raise questions about our relationship with the environment and the changes that this relationship has undergone. Ever since humans have communicated, we have communicated about our surroundings. But our surroundings have changed. My move from country to town one followed a general trend that started in the industrial revolution. Our increasingly urbanized lives and the resulting loss of countryside knowledge means that large parts of this communication has become vestigial and many of the words I’ve collected have fallen into obscurity (most of them are lit up by a standard spell-check, many return only typos in a web search). In general we no longer need to be able to describe the landscape with precision and detail. Where a specific need remains, for example in groups like mountaineers, coastal fishermen or wetland farmers, pockets of language persist like oases. Our growing estrangement from the landscape mirrors a growing unease with the natural world. We want to keep the outside out, the countryside has become the unfamiliar “other”, a threat to be overcome and dominated, not understood and enjoyed. Might this partly be because we feel uncomfortable with things for which we have no name? Perhaps we choose to render the landscape in such bland, generic terms in order to insulate ourselves from the loss of it?

There is a risk that this unfamiliarity with the actual countryside leads to a fetishized version that only really exists in our imagination. Even as I write the word countryside I am aware that it’s a shorthand term for a complicated knot of ideas. Adding to the tangle are conflicting concepts of the countryside as a “natural” environment. In the country we are surrounded by nature but for the most part it’s nature bent to the will of man. This is, after all, a smallish island whose land resources have had to be well exploited to supply the demands of a biggish population.. Landscape and waterscape features which show human influence, historic or modern, are not excluded from this book. For me, any useful definition of the “natural” landscape must include humans and human influence and I have tried to resist the impulse to sanitize my images by cropping out pylons and roads. Hardly any people appear in the photographs in this book but the presence of humanity is everywhere, in the shape of the land and in the stories we tell about landscape.

Landscape is sometimes described as a palimpsest, bearing the marks of each event that has been written onto the land like the manuscripts that were scraped clean and reused by frugal monks . Just as traces of these deleted texts can be detected we can often read historic landscapes hidden beneath the surface. What may be more difficult to perceive are the strata of knowledge that once lay over the land, much of which was once fundamental but has now become redundant. Some of this knowledge is held in folklore like an insect in amber, admired for it’s beauty but deprived of life. To really come alive these narratives needed an audience capable of navigating in the physical landscape as well as the mythological landscape and to recognize the features common to both. In myth the rivers contain spirits that might lure you to your death and in the “real” world the running waters themselves are as dangerous as they are attractive. The risks and rewards in the landscape become animated and personified in folklore, all the better to convey their natures. I wonder if this connection is still understood as it was or whether these characters, which once inhabited the forests, streams and mountains, are now irreconcilably divorced from actual locations. If so, have we lost anything more than superstition? By repurposing allegory as children’s entertainment have we perhaps devalued a useful store of information?

Rebuilding our landscape vocabularies might enable more complicated conversations about nature to take place, and complexity offers more than just a deeper understanding. An ecosystem is most resilient when it is most complex. The more you simplify and homogenize the system the more susceptible to attack it becomes. A wild meadow, with its variety of species and myriad connections will never fall to a single natural factor as might a wheat-field to a plague of locust. The greatest threat to a meadow is that it might be ploughed up and turned into a wheat-field. Wherever complex natural systems are replaced by monocultures there is an increased risk of collapse so modern agriculture mitigates this risk with fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. There is a parallel with what might be called conceptual ecosystems. We hold a concept of landscape that has become vastly simplified and homogenised. Rather than reflecting the variety and interconnectedness of nature our concepts are reduced to blocks terms like “green-field”, “brown-field” and “industrial estate”. Just as simplification renders a natural ecosystem vulnerable so do these block concepts make our ideas of landscape, and in particular its value, fragile and easily dismantled. When the then UK Environment Minister, Owen Patterson, announced that developers might be permitted to destroy ancient woodlands, provided they planted replacement trees elsewhere, he demonstrated a mindset that results from a collapsed conceptual ecosystem. To consider trees a transferable commodity like steel or oil is a woeful misunderstanding of the value of a tree, especially an ancient tree. A mature oak can support a network of something like 1000 other species: lichens, mosses, birds and mammals, and over 400 species of invertebrate alone. Accepting the equation of new for old could only make sense to someone whose concept of the natural landscape is so simplified and disconnected as to be rendered meaningless.

We often equate complexity with difficulty (read any “end-user license agreement” for an example) but subtlety and intricacy is important in the natural world. . In this book I’m interrogating the superficial simple labels we use, to reveal the specific terms each with its own set of links to others. I want to replace the general, replacing ‘hill’ with ‘stob’. I want to replace discrete knowledge with a sense of the intertwined. When the threats come, as come they inevitably will, our sense of the land needs to be complex enough to resist any single attempt to dismiss it.

By starting to re-enrich our nature vocabulary and our landscape stories I hope Uncommon Ground 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.


Uncommon Ground can be found in the Caught by the River shop, priced £13.00
Dominick Tyler is among the guests at The Caught by the River Faber Social taking place in London on 13 April