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The essence of a place is in its name

In our nature column, Ian McMillan visits Cat Hill, Jump and other eccentrically named locations.

Secrets in the soil: Ploughed Cracked Puddle Field, a painting of a scene near Cat Hill by Iain Nicholls

The story has been told many times but it still bears retelling: Sir Percival Cresacre is making his way home from the Crusades. As he passes along the ancient salt route from Goldthorpe to Darfield in Yorkshire, he is attacked by a wildcat that leaps at him, a shadow from the shadows, and rakes its claws into his neck. Sir Percival swipes at the cat with his sword. The two fight. If this were a cartoon, there would be a whirl of armour and fur and some repeated bars of mock-dramatic music. As Ted Hughes, who lived a few miles from what is now called Cat Hill, wrote in the poem “Esther’s Tomcat”: “A tomcat sprang at a mounted knight,/Locked round his neck like a trap of hooks.”

The injured Sir Percival retreats to the steps of the church in Barnburgh a few miles away, with the animal hot and furry on his heels. The pair battle for hours. Eventually, the cat is crushed beneath the man’s armoured body; both are killed in showers of blood. Now, in Barnburgh, people say you can still see blood on the church steps. I think it’s confetti. Sir Percival’s tomb gathers dust by a stained-glass window and, in a neat touch, a cat lies at the feet of his effigy.

I’ve just been for a stroll down Cat Hill. It’s cut off from the main road these days and it’s a quiet space for dog-walking and running and other activities when night falls. In Darfield, older people will tell you the “cat and man” tale with variations and improvisations, like jazz riffs. There was never a street sign for Cat Hill, simply a sign in folk memory, but it is official now – the roundabout next to it, on the Dearne Valley Parkway, was named Cathill around the turn of the millennium. One word, not two – which is important, because when an American leaned out of his car and asked me for directions, he said it like “catheter” and I didn’t know what he meant. Does it matter that variations in the legend place the cat/man face-off closer to Barnburgh, because there was no reason for Cresacre to be anywhere near Cat Hill? I don’t think it does.

Names are important round here. New Scarborough is a section of Low Valley between Darfield and Wombwell. There used to be an estate there with just a few houses; nobody can tell you how it got its name. It was nothing like the real Scarborough.

Then there’s Plevna, officially called Little Houghton. There’s another village called Plevna in Bulgaria; the story goes that workers from that part of the world sunk the Dearne Valley drift mine; they named their shanty town Plevna to remind themselves of home. I can’t find any evidence of this but I want to believe it and that somehow makes it solid fact.

Place names can come from anecdotes and weather, from memories and public reactions to landscape. Near Cat Hill is a village called Jump – so named, people say, because you had to jump over the stream to get to the church. I wonder if our new estates will have names with such resonance. I hope so. See you by Car Park Corner. Meet you at the New Bench.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become obsessed with Cat Hill, walking its few hundred yards over and over again with a friend, the artist Iain Nicholls. We detour on the old railway track, finding shadows of gardens that would have been cultivated beside the long-abandoned line; we scramble down to a hollow where someone has lit a fire and left a balloon hanging in a tree like a DIY sunrise. We’ve made poems and paintings about the place, trying to get to its essence – when maybe all we need is the name.

The names are the place; the names mean the place. Some scholars say that the cat and man story couldn’t have happened, because wildcats were extinct long before the Crusades. So all we’re left with are names that ripple into stories, ensnaring us in a trap of hooks.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

Tags:nature