Lost Words on the Ullswater Way

Ullswater Evening (Zoom) Talk by Jamie Normington, Education Officer of Cumbria Wildlife Trust

It was the eve before our second lockdown. The US elections were hanging in the balance. Many of us were feeling anxious, perhaps even fearful, of what the future might bring. 

Jamie Normington had been due to talk about “The Lost Words on the Ullswater Way”  back in April at Watermillock Village Hall but the first lockdown put pay to this. Instead there were 50 of us, some from as far away as Canada, gathered virtually for what was to be a truly magical experience. To set the scene Jamie played us the Lost Words Spell Song Blessing.

To begin his talk Jamie introduced us to our first lost word, conker, showing us an image of a young girl who clearly didn’t know how to play conkers and probably, like too many young people of today, doesn’t even know the word conker.   In contrast we saw the beaming smile of highly skilled, 88-year-old John Riley, a Chelsea Pensioner who was conker champion at 85. He has probably played conkers every autumn since being a young lad – conker is a very familiar word to him.

Together with bluebell, otter, fern and kingfisher, conker was one of 50 nature words removed from the Junior Oxford Dictionary when it was revised in 2017.  These are words that we use to describe what we see and come to value when we spend time exploring the outdoors. They were replaced by words such as ‘broadband’ and ’email’.

Illustrator Jackie Morris was deeply concerned to see our connection to the natural world fading in this way. She shared her concerns with writer Robert Macfarlane and together they have created a magical book, ‘The Lost Words – A Spell Book’ which aims to conjure back these lost words. 

Cover of ‘The Lost Words’ by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

The book begins…

“Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed – fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker – gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren … all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.”

Jamie showed us the book, explaining that each of the lost words is first introduced by its absence – hiding on a page of scattered letters. Turn the page to find the word – starling for example – elevated to a gold icon, title for the spell that follows, and beautifully illustrated on the opposite page.  Turn again and see starlings in their habitat, gathering on the telegraph wires before taking to the skies in thousands to form a murmuration.

Illustration by Jackie Morris for ‘The Lost Words’

Jamie described to us his first sighting of a murmuration, shared with his friend Pete, who unlike Jamie, had been wise enough to wear a hat. After wheeling and diving in the skies above them, an estimated quarter of a million starlings settled down for the night in a small conifer plantation close to where Jamie and Pete were standing.

Not long after discovering ‘The Lost Words – a Spell Book’, Jamie was due to take a sabbatical and wanted to challenge himself by completing the Coast to Coast long distance walk. As he walked he would explore what the lost words meant to him and also to those he met along the way. He would wonder about the interconnectedness of the natural world and reflect on his own connections to nature.  

Following advice and inspiration from friends, he also decided to use the walk to raise money for charity – firstly to buy copies of ‘The Lost Words’ for primary schools in Cumbria and secondly to support children with autism.

It was June when Jamie set off from St Bees, spare boots, three pairs of his favourite socks and a copy of ‘The Lost Words’ in his backpack. By the time he reached Grasmere he had holes in all his socks and a huge blister but, after a few purchases in Keswick he was all set to tackle Helvellyn. On the way up Jamie, struggling with a borrowed walking stick that seemed to be broken, met a man coming down. He asked if the man could fix his stick. Sadly, he couldn’t and became angry. However, when Jamie showed him ‘The Lost Words’ his mood changed – or at least it did until he came to dandelion, at which point he said, “I bloody hate dandelions”. Jamie reminded him that dandelions are bumblebees’ breakfast, providing food early in the year when the queens emerge from hibernation. He still wasn’t impressed, even when a bumblebee landed on the page. Jamie had discovered that even those who love nature often dislike particular plants or animals.

Illustration by Jackie Morris for ‘The Lost Words’

As Jamie continues his journey he introduces us to others he meets along the way

On the top of Helvellyn, he met a boy called Reuben and his parents. Reuben had “a face like thunder”. His classmates were on a school trip to Ambleside but it was decided that Reuben, who is autistic, might have been overwhelmed by the Ambleside experience so he had been asked what he would like to do instead. He had chosen to run up Helvellyn with his parents. Jamie took ‘The Lost Words’ from his backpack and asked Reuben if he would like to look at it. Immersed in the book, Reuben’s look softened. He chose otter as his favourite word.  As the family headed off, Reuben came over to Jamie and offered him a jaffa cake. The lost words had helped Reuben, who sometimes struggles to connect with people, to make a connection with Jamie.

Reuben and his mum Ann-Marie on Helvellyn summit – picture by Rob Bushby

Otters, Jamie reminded us, are a triumph of conservation success. They have now returned to all the water courses in the Ullswater Valley, following efforts by landowners and others to improve the health and water quality of the rivers and streams. He mentioned the dedication of Steve Hewitt, from the Tullie House Museum, who has walked the shores of Ullswater collecting otter spraint and analysing it to look for unusual fish scales – those of the schelly, which rises from the depths to the surface just once a year to breed.

On Helvellyn Jamie was walking with Rob, who used to work for the John Muir Trust. Rob had suggested they walk over Striding Edge and take a photo of Jamie reading ‘The Lost Words’ with the impressive view of Striding Edge behind him. As they prepared for the photo a group of fellow walkers soon gathered around them, intrigued to see what was going on. Jamie talked to them about the book and asked them to choose which spell he should read. They picked Bluebell, a difficult choice for Jamie who had promised his wife he would never again read bluebell aloud because it had made her so sad. Clearly the spells work their magic in different ways for different people.

Jamie reading Bluebell on Striding Edge – picture by Rob Bushby

Jamie spent that night at Greenside Youth Hostel in Glenridding and the following morning walked, via Lanty’s Tarn, to Patterdale school to talk to the pupils. By chance, one of the children had a birthday that day. Jamie asked what he had been given for his birthday present and the very confident little boy said “a knife”. Somewhat surprised, Jamie asked what kind of knife and the little boy replied, “a whittling knife”. He likes to whittle animals and people. He also told Jamie he was a survival expert. Here was someone who probably knew many of the lost words.

Walking on to Angle Tarn, Jamie met Isaac, who works for the John Muir Trust, and was previously an apprentice with the Cumbria Wildlife Trust. He chose skylarks as his favourite lost word. 

Isaac from John Muir Trust at Angle Tarn

A little further on he came across Steve and Beth Pipe, who turned out to be writers and ambassadors for the outdoors with strong feelings of connection to the natural world. They chose dandelion as their lost word. They also asked Jamie to help them with a secret royal visit that was due to happen a few days later. Prince William and Kate were due to visit Ullswater and Beth and Steve were organising a part of their visit. They asked Jamie to help engage the Patterdale School children who were to accompany the royal couple on a walk onto the fells behind the school.  After the visit, which took place a few days later, Prince William said he would write to the publishers of the Oxford Junior Dictionary about the lost words. Both he and Kate feel strongly that it is important for all of us to have a connection to nature.  

Picture Credit: Kensington Palace

On to Haweswater and then to Jamie’s home county of Yorkshire and the heather moorlands where he grew up. He describes heather moorlands as an abused habitat, citing crimes against hen harriers, the shooting of hares in Scotland and the excessive burning carried out for grouse shooting. Sadly, on his walk, he came across an illegal trap on the grouse moors. The traps are intended to catch stoats and weasels (weasel is a lost word) but this one was missing its protective mesh so larger animals could be caught too.  Jamie kicked the trap to trigger it, to ensure that it could not catch anything that day.  But he was angry and kicked it so hard that it broke. Realising he had committed a crime, he took the broken trap with him, committing another crime. However, he later spoke to the wildlife police about what he had done and they were understanding.

Trap – set illegally (without proper restriction) in 2019. New 2020 laws have now made this particular Fenn mechanism illegal.

Through his walk Jamie raised enough funds to provide copies of ‘The Lost Words’ to 300 schools and organisations in Cumbria. As a result Cumbria has gone gold on the map created by Harry Whinney ‘Gorsebush’ to show where ‘The Lost Words’ books are already working their magic. Northumberland has now turned gold too. Jamie also made a donation to support autistic children, after learning that his 8-year-old nephew, who is autistic, had just had his school support withdrawn. 

Map by Harry Whinney ‘Gorsebush’

Perhaps even more important are the ripples Jamie is causing as he shares his experiences and, through his stories, illustrates the power of the lost words to connect people with nature and with each other. 

“So let these spells ring far and wide; speak their words and seek their art, let the wild world into your eyes, your voice, your heart.” (from, ‘The Lost Spells’, the latest book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris)

Cover of ‘The Lost Spells’ by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

You can follow the rest of Jamie’s journey on his blog. https://200milesofskylarks.wordpress.com/

For free resources based on ‘The Lost Words’ go to https://www.johnmuirtrust.org/initiatives/the-lost-words

by Anne Clarke