DISCUSSIONS with a fellow author led to a debate about the name of Northallerton. She understood it should be spelt as two separate parts, ie North Allerton whereas in most modern publications it is a single word.

One supposed reason for splitting the name was to distinguish it from Allerton Mauleverer, which lies further south.

It does appear that common local usage has created a single word in this town's distinctive name, but the next question she asked was how the town acquired its suffix of Allerton. The prefix North is not difficult to work out!

My dictionaries of place names suggest it derived from the personal name of Alfhere, ie Alfhere's tun or town, this apparently being a very common personal name in bygone times. Between the 11th and 14th centuries, Northallerton was called either Alverton, Alvertune or Alverton which developed into its current name towards the end of the 14th century. Even today, I have heard people refer to the town as Alverton.

Other locations such as Allerston, near Scarborough, might also have derived from Alfhere, with the ston section referred originally to a stane, the old name for a stone. Allerston was once known as Alverston, so similar to Northallerton's older name.

However, there is an alternative suggestion for Northallerton. It might come from the name Aller Town that has links with places such as Aldershot, Allerwash and Allerford. One alternative of aller is eller, and thus we have names like Ellerby, Ellerbeck and Skelton Ellers with Ellerbeck being not very far from Northallerton.

In this case, eller is a reference to the alder tree. The alder is a very common tree that is sometimes mistaken for a hazel although the elder's leaves are more rounded, often with notches at the tip, and they can be slightly rough to the touch, rather like mild sandpaper.

Like the hazel, however, it produces yellow catkins that mature around this time of year.

The alder favours low-lying ground and is most often found along river banks or in marshy areas. Alders are sometimes planted beside rivers, streams and ponds because their roots prevent the collapse of the banks and in addition, they have a beneficial role to play. Rather like the roots of peas, alder roots contain bacteria that use nitrogen from the air, and thus enrich the soil in which they grow.

The timber has few uses, although it has long been associated with clog making, and it is still widely used for making the soles of modern wooden soled shoes as well as handles for tools like brooms and gardening implements.

Although the mature timber is a yellowish-white colour, it produces a reddish-orange tinge when first cut. In the past, the people associated this with blood and there developed a belief that the tree contained a living spirit.

Some were afraid to cut down the alder for fear of antagonising its spirit whilst others believed the spirit represented the devil; in turn, this led to a superstition that the tree was evil.

The Irish honoured what they called the Seven Noble Trees and alder was one of them. The others were apple, birch, hazel, holly, oak and willow. I am not sure why such trees were given this kind of group title, although according to Irish law, if anyone cut down one of those seven trees, they were fined one cow. I do not know what happened to the cow.

In Germany, the alder spirit was called erlkonig originally meaning alder king, but this was later corrupted into elf king. It is not difficult to understand how our superstition ancestors thought elves lived in alder trees.

Unless the elves actually lived in North Elverton?

MY morning walk today produced a nice surprise.

A small finch-like bird darted from the undergrowth beside the lane, but I was in time to note that it appeared predominantly black and white with a patch of dull red on its chest. It could have been mistaken for a chaffinch but the colours were more striking with lots more white. It lacked the latter's grey head and it had a distinctive white rump.

I must admit I did not recognise it immediately and had to rely on my reference books when I returned to my office. It was a brambling, a cousin of our finch family and a winter visitor to these islands. It comes down from Scandinavia and parts of Russia, arriving here in the autumn.

One might see bramblings in Britain from late September until April or even May, which is when they usually return to their breeding grounds in the north.

However, a few might linger during the breeding season to build their nests in our pine woods or among birch trees. Our country might also attract those on migration as they pause here for rest and refreshment before continuing further north.

The likeness to a chaffinch can be confusing; indeed, the two species will form small flocks and feed together as they hunt for seeds, nuts and other suitable food. It is said they are so similar that they will even interbreed.

Bramblings love to visit farmyards where grain is stored, and are frequent visitors to places like beech woods, pine forests and even stubble fields, all good sources of grain and seeds.

I have not yet seen this species on our bird feeders, but an increasingly frequent visitor is the siskin. This is also a member of the finch family, rather like a smaller version of a greenfinch, and it also likes pine forests where its favourite food is seeds from conifers.

At the far side of the dale in which I live there is a large forest of coniferous trees, and that might explain the presence of these two interesting species.

However, their visits to areas of human habitation is perhaps something new. According to the recent Big Garden Birdwatch conducted by the RSPB, bird numbers in general are declining, but members of the colourful finch family are on the increase.

There is one spectacular and colourful example - goldfinches are being seen more frequently in gardens.

The reported increase in all finches may have links with the fact they are now being noticed more regularly in and around feeders in gardens and parks.

Many birds are experiencing a shortage of food in the wild which means they are increasingly forced to seek food elsewhere, and garden feeders would seem to be providing the solution.

Finches in particular are very capable of feeding from nut containers and seed feeders, being able to cling to the mesh with all the skill of blue tits, but also feeding from the ground where spillage occurs.

On our own bird feeders, and on the ground beneath them, we have noted chaffinches, greenfinches, siskins, goldfinches, a linnet or two and bullfinches.

Our finches produce some of the most colourful and fascinating of garden birds. I now await the arrival of that brambling - he was only quarter of a mile away when I spotted him!

CONTINUING the topic of bird visitors, next Monday is Cuckoo Day, when this infamous bird is expected to arrive in this country to spend the summer months here. The first indication of its presence will generally be its distinctive call, and our friends in the south might hear it some time before the bird reaches northern areas.

However, the cuckoo appears to have been quite a rare visitor during the last few years, with fewer reports of its call being noted. While we might miss its presence, I am sure many smaller birds will be pleased that they will not be forced into rearing the chicks of this parasitic visitor.