Upland Autumn

Posted on November 6, 2017 · Posted in News

In the matter of colours, nature employs as varied a palette on the high moors as she does in broad-leaved woodland. In late summer shades of purple and mauve coat the hills: bell heather and cross-leaved heath reach their best in July; then, as they fade, the paler ling blooms, prolonging the purple into September.

But when that’s over another spectacle begins, less well known and barely noticed. Now the palette is dominated by copper, cinnamon, sienna and amber, provided by the common plants of moors and blanket bogs: cotton-grass, hare’s-tail, purple moor-grass and others whose names I’ve yet to learn. Their intricate filigree is broken by pale buff wedges of withered sedge and dun patches of faded heather. In sheltered gullies bracken forms rivers of russet which, for a season, outweigh its nuisance value.

In his fascinating book The Moor: A journey into the English wilderness, William Atkins responds to the landscape artist William Gilpin (1724-1804), who found Bodmin Moor to be ‘as uninteresting as can well be conceived’. Atkins writes:

‘But try to name its colours and you’ll exhaust yourself. Beyond the white-grey of moss-spotted clitter, the moor sank through chartreuse slopes, down to the dulled emerald intake of Penhale Farm, to a motley lowland of pale lime dashed with tawny and dun and fawn, and then the intricate tapestry of purple moor-grass, cotton-grass, matt-grass, heather, moss and lichens: chamois, bronze, taupe, walnut – a hennaed, mouldering, rusting vastness shot with saffron, carmine and topaz, with swathes of reflectivity that shimmered like raffia in the low sun.’

I can’t better his catalogue of colour as an evocation of our local hills and gorges in the Cambrian Mountains. To my mind this neglected, unappreciated kaleidoscope equals any woodland for autumn beauty.

It therefore came as a surprise to me that the Welsh names of places and geographical features, which are typically descriptive, reflect little of this variety. Look at any map of this area of rural Wales and two colour-words predominate: coch (or goch) and du (or ddu), meaning red and black respectively. So we have Waun Goch, Foel-goch, Comins-coch, Craig Goch, Nant Goch, Fron-goch, Weirglodd-goch; Bryn Du, Mynydd Du, Fedw-ddu, Llyn-du, Llaithddu, Llan Ddu Fawr and so on. Someone who had never visited the area, trying to visualise it from names on the map, would deduce that it was almost entirely black and red, relieved by just a few flecks of white (gwyn) and blue (glas)!

The explanation seems to be (and this is merely an educated guess) that Welsh, like many other ancient languages, originally contained relatively few colour terms, and those that did exist often did double or treble service. Hence, according to the authoritative Geiriadur Mawr (‘Big Dictionary’), glas – commonly translated ‘blue’ – can also mean ‘green’, ‘grey’ or ‘silver’ (basically all the colours that water can take on); llwyd can mean ‘grey’, ‘brown’ or simply ‘pale’); and du can describe anything that’s dark and gloomy. I’m sure modern Welsh can supply all the terms necessary to translate an entire Dulux colour chart, but long ago, when places and geographical features were given their names, a few words had to stretch a long way. So moors, hills, crags and peat streams can all be called red – and rightly so – but without seeing the landscape in autumn the range of colours encapsulated in this one word can hardly be imagined.