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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Getting the hots for a short-cut

Have been enjoying reading Robert Macfarlane's Landmarks, which, I have to agree with the Guardian, is "a joyous meditation on words, landscape and the relationship between the two. This is a field guide to the literature of nature, and a glossary containing thousands of remarkable words used in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales to describe land, nature and weather".

Thanks to this book we can rediscover not just some delightfully sonorous words, but the realities of nature which they describe. Such as "Smeuse", which according to MAcfarlane is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”.
Desire lines, London, cycle paths, cycle routes, short cut, democratic
As soon as you know what "desire lines" are you start seeing them everywhere. Here's one on Clapham Common, south London - it provides a short cut link between two sections of cycle-paths, also avoiding a dog-leg on the dangerous rat-run of Windmill Lane.
Photo: Bill Hicks

Once you know the word you tend to notice the things they name more often. As I live almost entirely in an urban setting, you'd think there's be little use for such a glossary - but you 'd be wrong. LOndon is full of smeuses, even if they're more likely to caused by rats or pets or foxes than by field-mice.

London's parks are also full of another phrase which I first heard in a radio discussion of this book - "desire lines". Sadly these have little to do with illicit assignments in dark alleyways - a desire line, according to Websters, is "a path that pedestrians take informally, rather than taking a sidewalk or set route; e.g. a well-worn ribbon of dirt that one sees cutting across a patch of grass, or paths in the snow".

I did not have to cycle far from home to find my first desire line. It was in the middle of Clapham Common, and it's a path cyclists have worn, to create a quicker and safer route the the next bit of the cycle path from Cedars Road to Clapham SOuth.

I'm reminded of the goat-paths you see in the Atls Mountains, worn down by the hooves of grazing goats over centuries.

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