RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Getting to the root of England’s great forests

If you take this week’s walk you will be passing through one of the great forests of England.

The word forest today simply means very large area of trees, but back in the Middle Ages it had a somewhat different meaning.

A forest then was an area of woodland and wild pasture set aside for game, especially deer, which only the monarch could hunt. Even ‘silly birds’, as they were called, such as blackbirds and thrushes, were protected for the monarch, and anyone killing such could lose a hand as punishment.

Henry II and Richard I added the forest surroundings for their bounty hunting and called them purlieus, but they were taken back by private owners under the Charta de Foresta. The glossary of ancient words relating to deer alone, numbers over 400.

Some have now gone from our everyday vocabulary, though some are in use even now.

A ‘cool stag’ for instance did not mean a stag of which the young approved, but one which was fresh and ready to be hunted long and hard. Deer’s antlers had scores of descriptions.

Animals with few if any tines and which looked like goat’s horns were cabers. Today we still use the word switch-head which is an alternative. In the case of roe bucks these are very dangerous, and look like long daggers. Caber-crom, caber-slat, or caberschloch were regional variations (My word processor is having kittens as it tries to understand these!).

Cotyings were the droppings of fallow deer, but croties were those of any deer, as are fewmets, a word still used. Snet was deer fat, while suet that of red and fallow deer. Spines were the pearlings on roe buck antlers, spitter a second year fallow buck, a sorel being three years of age.

There are plenty of those wandering around this week’s walk’s woods. We all know that stags and bucks clean the velvet off their antlers, (which then hangs in ‘tatters’) and venison is deer meat, but what is a veel? That was a red deer calf.

A toady stag was the companion (squire) of an older stag. They could then ‘go tappy’, or hide up unseen, when they could be ‘unharboured’ or ‘upreared’ and made to run for their lives.

Staggards, sur-royals, splays, spoon-heads and tinckhells are all words that could win you a place in the local pub quiz or scrabble game, but would anyone but a verderer believe you?