A monkey's birthday - ten words for the British landscape

A monkey's birthday - ten words for the British landscape

Marfer - Dominick Tyler

Writer Dominick Tyler shares ten evocative and unusual words for the British landscape and weather, from his book 'Uncommon Ground'.

Monkey's Birthdays and Fox's Weddings

Simultaneous rain and sunshine is a fleeting and often otherworldly event that has been given strangely similar idioms in a wide range of cultures around the world. In parts of Dorset and Somerset it’s know as a “monkey’s birthday”. In other countries animal nuptials seem to feature widely, apparently there are versions of “fox’s wedding” in Bangladesh, Brazil, Finland, Japan, Italy (Calabria and Salento) and Portugal. Bulgarians replace the foxes with bears, for the Koreans it’s tigers and the equivalent phrase in arabic is “the rats are getting married”. In France and Morocco it’s a wolf’s wedding. South Africans can choose between the Zulu phrase umshado wezinkawu, “a wedding for monkeys”, and the Afrikaans jakkalstrou, “jackals wedding”.

Hell and the devil are also commonly invoked. The Dutch and Germans have versions of “There’s a party going on in hell”. This is already a lot of coincidences but just pause for a moment to consider the extraordinary fact that the people of the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu and the disputed Black Sea republic of Abkhazia have both independently decided on the same story: in the Bislama pidgin of Vanuatu it’s “ol devel oli mared” or “the devils are getting married”, which is an identical phrase to the one used in Abkhazia.

Hawaii has my favourite phrase - “ghost rain”, which I think captures the weird atmosphere of this phenomenon beautifully.

The Hungarians offer an altogether darker interpretation with “the devil is beating his wife” and other variations on this theme of demonic domestics abound in the US, where there are even associated instructions on how to eavesdrop on the commotion: by putting your ear to a rock, or to a pin in the ground, or to a horseshoe wrapped in cloth on the ground.

In Russia they call it “mushroom rain”, which for me conjures images of nuclear fallout but which is presumably because the combination of warmth and moisture is good for fungus. Hawaii has my favourite phrase - “ghost rain”, which I think captures the weird atmosphere of this phenomenon beautifully.

Monkey's Birthday - Dominick Tyler

Monkey's Birthday - Dominick Tyler


Flatfish hunt by ambush, making use of their shape and camouflage to lurk inconspicuously just beneath the surface of the sand and await unwary passers-by. Whilst they are in this state of concealment however some are themselves preyed upon by an unusual form of fishing.

Flounder tramping involves wading barefoot in the shallows of the rising tide to seek out buried fish with your feet. Sensitive toes are useful but success absolutely depends on being able to replace the strong urge to lift your foot when something squirms beneath it with a reflex to press down and secure your catch. This method of fishing had been used in Scotland and the North of England for centuries, and while it’s no longer a working practice it’s kept alive in the small village of Palnackie in Dumfries and Galloway, which holds an annual Flounder Tramping Championship. In Cumbria a “doake” is the shallow platter-shaped  indentation in the sand that remains when a flounder, plaice, sole or similar, has left it’s concealment to pursue food or to escape capture.

Since the fish are practically invisible once they have shuffled themselves into place, doakes can often be the only indication to would-be trampers that there are, or have been, fish nearby. If you find a doake while you’re paddling in the shallows you might want to mentally prepare yourself for the chance that your next footstep could secure your next meal.

Coined by the cartoon character Homer Simpson, “ass groove”, for the indentation left by habitual occupation of one spot on the sofa, is a useful term but it lacks poetry. “Doake” seems to me to be an ideal and appropriate alternative, perhaps for use in the presence of genteel relatives or to avoid confusion with the intergluteal cleft.

Doake - Dominick Tyler

Doake - Dominick Tyler


This is the Welsh word for causeway and its plural “sarnau" is the name given to a group of shingle reefs that extend in parallel out into Cardigan Bay. The Sarnau were once thought to be the remains of dykes that protected the lost kingdom of Cantre'r Gwaelod.

Depending on which version of the story you read the kingdom was overwhelmed by a spring tide when the either the appointed watchman got drunk and failed to close the sluice gates, or the maiden appointed to do so was seduced by a visiting king. The story thus came to be used as a multipurpose cautionary tale: intemperance or lust, take your pick, they’ll both lead to ruination.

The remnant tree stumps that are exposed at low spring tides on the west Welsh coastline have been carbon-dated to 2500BCE

Beneath the waves and the morality tales there is evidence that the Cantre’r Gwaelod legend has a basis in fact. Before the sea-level rose at the end of the last ice age, around 7,000 years ago, Cardigan Bay would have been a fertile forested plain into which the sea gradually encroached over the following 6000 years. The remnant tree stumps that are exposed at low spring tides on the west Welsh coastline have been carbon-dated to 2500BCE. It’s possible that this and the many other “deluge myths” around the world are the cultural remnants of the post-glacial flooding that profoundly changed the shape of the global landmasses. The sarnau are made up of material deposited by the receding ice sheets and so are themselves as much a product of this reshaping process as the legend with which they are associated.

These were not, however, the dykes that protected a kingdom, nor was there ever much of a kingdom but there may well have been settlements up until the Bronze Age and some traces could still remain in the bay. In 1770 Welsh lexicographer William Owen Pughe reported seeing what he took to be the the ruins of Cantre’r Gwaelod "three or four miles in the sea between the outlets of the rivers Ystwyth and Teivi... I sailed over the ruins, on a very calm day and thus for about three minutes I had a clear view of them".

Sarn - Dominick Tyler

Sarn - Dominick Tyler


Just inland from Cellar Head on the northeast coast of Lewis is an abandoned sheiling marked on the map with the name Maoim. The stream that runs beside the ruined huts shares the name, as does Tom Mòr na Maoime the rising expanse of moorland that lies to the west. Maoim is an interesting word to find as a place-name because of its dual definitions: it can mean “eruption” as in maoim sneachda meaning “avalanche” (literally “eruption” of “snow”), but it can also mean “fear” or “panic”. Maoim the place (pictured opposite) most likely takes its name from having been the site of a maoim slèidhe, which translates as either “gush of water” or “land-slide”, there’s evidence of past movement in the peat nearby.

Rionnach maoim (which can be literally translated as “mackerel panic”) is the running over the land of shadows cast by fast-moving cumulus clouds

The two of senses of maoim, terror and outburst, add nuance to each other, giving the physical event a psychological quality and vice versa. Beyond the literal meaning maoim sneachda might be understood as “a panic of snow” or “fearful snow” and the nature of the fearfulness is sudden terror rather than creeping dread. In the Inuit language there are two root words for fear: Ilira and Kappia. Barry Lopez defines them in his book “Arctic Dreams”, “Ilira is the fear that accompanies awe; kappia is the fear in the face of unpredictable violence. Watching a pola bear – ilira. Having to cross thin sea ice – kappia.” Walking on shifting snow or peat – maoim.

Maoim is also used to describe a phenomena that could well induce mild ilira. Rionnach maoim (which can be literally translated as “mackerel panic”) is the running over the land of shadows cast by fast-moving cumulus clouds. If this phrase is not intended to evoke the shimmer of a shoal of fish darting away from a cast net or a hunting seal I don’t want to know, I’d rather
assume it was and be wrong for ever with my iliria.

Maoim - Dominick Tyler

Maoim - Dominick Tyler


On any given beach from Britain to Bali the high-tide line is typically marked by an assortment of natural and man-made remnants called tidewrack, fly-tipped onto the sand by the retreating waves.

Wrack’s three meanings, “wreckage”, “marine vegetation” and the archaic “retributive punishment” encompass, with disquieting precision, much of the wider significance of this strip of detritus. Tidewrack would once have been composed of driftwood, kelp and other floating marine vegetation but during the twentieth century the mix comprised more and more plastic as this most un-biodegradable material became ubiquitous and cheap enough to waste. There is now scarcely a beach in the world that isn’t endowed with it’s own multicoloured display of the many and various forms which polymers can take, of which I think two deserve special mention:

Ghost Nets - Commercial fishing nets are now almost exclusively made from Nylon and HDPE (high density polyethylene) which are extremely resistant to damage from saltwater and UV light. Nets that are lost or abandoned at sea won’t degrade or break and can continue to pose a threat to sea-life for hundreds of years. These “ghost nets” drift with the ocean currents, by the time they wash up onshore they have often become shrouds for the unfortunate seals, turtles, dolphins and whales that they snare.

Nurdles - Also known as mermaid’s tears, these small pellets are a bulk material in an easily transportable form ready to be melted and processed into anything from bottles to fleeces. Their resemblance to fish eggs is unfortunate for the many species that ingest them with dire and sometimes fatal consequences either through choking or as a result of the leaching of chemicals.

The things we discard, through carelessness, wastefulness and thoughtlessness, return in tidewrack like guilt and in this sense they fulfil that archaic meaning perfectly.

Tidewrack - Dominick Tyler

Tidewrack - Dominick Tyler


The two things absent from all tolmens - the stone that used to be where the big round hole is and an indication of how it was removed, make these objects a compelling mystery.

In fact, they are the result of a combination of natural forces. Obstacles in fast-flowing rivers can create vortices in the current called kolks, which can generate enough force to move rocks weighing many tons. On a small scale they gather up gravel and stones and, as they spin and orbit, these can bore holes called ‘rock-cut basins’ in bigger stones. A basin formed on an overhanging slab, as it might under a waterfall or cascade, can be deepened by freeze-thaw erosion eventually cutting right through, leaving a neat circular hole. These holed rocks are called tolmen from the Cornish for hole (toll) and stone (men).

We have the benefit of modern insight into fluid dynamics to explain the curious appearance of these stones. But without knowledge of these centuries-long processes – whose timescales defy our easy conception – it is easy to see why our forebears reached for answers that involved supernatural forces.

A range of complaints and diseases were treated by climbing, or being passed through, the tolmen.

Pagans, and later Christians, saw the holy in the hole. Recognising the liturgical potential of a form that suggested both a window and a portal, and thus vision and transportation. Both groups made good use of them in their rituals, especially those concerned with healing. A range of complaints and diseases were treated by climbing, or being passed through, the tolmen.

Those unable to fit might have consoled themselves with the promise of second sight, which could be obtained just by looking through the aperture. Hefted from their riverbeds to stand upright as they sometimes are, tolmens resemble the later works of Henry Moore. They are the ultimate expression of his abstraction of natural forms distilled down to a single negative space, and an aesthetic meeting point of the sculptor’s sensibilities and the blind work of water, stone and time.

18th Century historian William Borlase’s book Observations on the Antiquities Historical and Monumental of the County of Cornwall, published in 1754, features a fine etching of the Tolmen at Constantine in Cornwall. This massive stone was extensively pocked with holes (rock basins) on it’s upper surface, hence the name Tolmen, but it also rested on the points of the stones beneath so resembling a megalithic tomb structure called a cromlech. Borlase’s work was widely read especially among the growing numbers of Celtomaniacs in Britain and France who lapped up his fevered speculations on the rites of celtic druids. One such Celtophile was the french officer and antiquarian Théophile Corret de la Tour d'Auvergne who published in 1796 a work entitled Origines gauloises (Celtic Origins) in which he says of megalithic tombs “The enormous stone that covers this monument from antiquity is known in our language as a dolmin”. This is the first recorded use of that word and Corret de la Tour d’Auvergne’s assertion that it originates in Breton has no factual support. so it seems likely that he appropriated the word from Borlase’s work, which was widely read in antiquarian circles and almost certainly know to him. Attempting to pronounce “cromlech” with a thick french accent will give a useful insight into the reasons “dolmen” quickly caught on and came to refer to the whole tomb structure not just the upper stone. In the early 19th Century the word “dolmen” came back to Britain having been adopted by the newly developing science of archaeology and the rest is history.

Tolmen - Dominick Tyler

Tolmen - Dominick Tyler


When swimming in a deep lake, your mind can become filled with images of terror from the depths (see loch & lochan) and you might want to stop and tread water as you overcome the panic that clutches at you. If, when you do this, you suddenly feel that your feet are dangling into much colder waters it can somehow make the imagined dangers palpable and cause a swift and irreversible drop in moral. Instinctively you retract your feet from the cold and without a steely grip on your nerves this can very easily become the initial motion that confirms your instinct to flee, sending you tearing back to shore with the sum of your irrational fears in sharp, dark pursuit.

Perhaps this just happens to me. In any case this experience illustrates the thermal stratification of lakes which happens typically in summer and winter when distinct zones of temperature form at different depths.

Changes in the relative density of water and the ambient temperature account for this layering. Water is at it’s densest at 4°C and so a layer at this temperature is often at the bottom of a lake. In the winter the layers above become progressively colder as you go up, with ice, which is less dense than liquid water, forming on the surface. In summer the arrangement is reversed with the warmest water at the surface and the temperature dropping as you go deeper. Spring and Autumn are periods of transition between these two different states of layering during which the waters are thoroughly mixed up, which helps redistribute oxygen and nutrients throughout the lake.

Epilimnion - Dominick Tyler

Epilimnion - Dominick Tyler


A fraoin offers sanctuary from the elements, a place to seek temporary refuge from the rain, wind and snow, to hunker down and wait for the worst to blow over. In foul weather, finding a fraoin under an overhanging cliff or beneath a mass of boulders might well keep you alive, if not comfortable. Many such places have been used as shelters for hundreds, even thousands, of years and over time short-term tenants may have improvised additions to the meagre facilities, a rough, stone wind-break at the entrance perhaps or a level bit of ground to lie on.

The pile of snow in the entrance of the shelter pictured below seems to be a natural formation, a result of thetrapped air inside the space pushing against the wind to form eddies in which drifting snow collects. In Scotland “snow wreath” was once a more common, and more lyrical, expression for a “snow drift”, so in this case a snow wreath has been laid at the doorstep of the fraion.

Fraoin is Gaelic, but seems to be little used. It’s meaning “a place of shelter in the mountains, or in a rock” is nicely specific and certainly useful but nevertheless I’ve not found it on any current maps. A well known, and well used rock shelter near the head of Loch Avon is rather stolidly called Shelter Stone.

Fraoin - Dominick Tyler

Fraoin - Dominick Tyler


This term appears in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English published in 198, which is a particularly rich resource of words from the fishing communities of northeast Canada. Many in these communities were immigrants from Britain who brought their language with them to the new worlds and in many cases the words that dwindled in their place of origin were kept in use much longer in their adopted homes. “Wellum”, sometimes spelled “willem” is a word for the radiating ripples set of by a surfacing fish.

“Wellum”, sometimes spelled “willem” is a word for the radiating ripples set of by a surfacing fish.

I have seen many wellums but hardly ever seen the fish that made them. They are what you see when you turn to the sound of the plop, to the fish what the quivering branch is to the bird and the swaying curtain of grass is to the deer. They are a sign of presence in absence as poignant as a closing door.

Wellum - Dominick Tyler

Wellum - Dominick Tyler


Alongside the bottom of a hedge there is almost always a strip of grass that lies just out of easy reach of either the trimmer and the plough and so escapes both. This grassy border to fields and lanes is called marfer in Lincolnshire.

The wildlife value of these ‘field margins’ is considerable and since they represent the least productive parts of arable fields many farmers have left them alone to create habitat for a wide variety of species. Wild flowers and invertebrates can thrive in margins just a meter wide. These narrow borders provide shelter for ground-nesting birds like lapwings and skylarks, both of which were once a common sight on farmland but are now critically endangered through loss of habitat.

This grassy border to fields and lanes is called marfer in Lincolnshire.


Roadside marfer is more likely to harbour crisp packets and cans than lapwing nests but it also has an agricultural connection. Drovers used to call these grassy verges “the long acre” in reference to their function as on-the-hoof pasture (the original drive-through perhaps). Turning onto a single-track road that is not only edged with marfer but has a strip of grass down the middle is, for me, a clear sign that you are probably heading somewhere interesting. These miniature central reservations surely deserve their own name but I haven’t been able to find one so I humbly submit “rohican” (being a contraction of road+mohican) to the national lexicon.

I should note that “Marfer” appears in “The Place-names of Shropshire” by Margaret Gelling and H.D.G Foxall where it’s defined as ‘a boundary furrow’. This may well be the original meaning but I think the Lincolnshire divergence has better prospects.

Marfer - Dominick Tyler

Marfer - Dominick Tyler

Dominick Tyler

Dominick Tyler grew up in rural Cornwall and moved to London to study philosophy at UCL. His photography career started in student media and quickly led to freelance work for national newspapers.

Since then he has built up a wide list of editorial, commercial and NGO clients, shooting location portraits and reportage as well as more produced commissions. In his personal work, Dominick frequently explores the relationships between people and their environment and often focussing on the experiences of indigenous communities around the world.

His long-term project “The Edge of Two Worlds”, documenting the changing lives of a community of Innu in northern Canada, won second place in the Observer Hodge award in 2004, and the Marty Forscher Fellowship Award for Humanistic Photography in 2005. This work was also exhibited in the Leica galleries in Frankfurt and Solms and the Proud Gallery in London.

In 2007 Dominick collaborated with writer Kate Rew on the book Wild Swim which has sold over 25,000 copies and launched an outdoor swimming revival.

Dominick wrote and photographed "Uncommon Ground: a word lover’s guide to the British landscape", which was published by Guardian Faber in 2015. He continues to balance commissioned work with long-term projects and collaborations.


Uncommon Ground

Uncommon Ground offers an enchanting visual glossary of the British landscape: photographs and stories which take the reader from the waterlogged fens to the white sands of the Western Isles. 'Out...over the hill and then down the dip and through some lumpy bits.' This was how Dominick Tyler used to describe the places he roamed during his childhood in rural Cornwall. Vague generalities were good enough then, but later he felt a more precise, more detailed language must exist, precisely because he needed it to do what people must have needed it to do for millennia: give directions, tell a story or find a place.

And so he began collecting words for landscape features, words like jackstraw, zawn, clitter and cowbelly, shivver and swag, tolmen and tor. Words that are as varied, rich and poetic as the landscapes they describe. Many of these words for our landscape are falling into obscurity, some endure only by haunting place-names and old maps. 

"A beautiful and constantly surprising celebration of landscape and way we understand it. A witty and unfailingly fascinating guide, Dominick Tyler takes us to the hidden corners of Britain and the overlooked gems in our language ... Wonderful." (Patrick Barkham)

"This is an astonishing book of heart-wrenching beauty, which will re-ignite your enchantment with the natural world." (George Monbiot)

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