The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking from Bramblehurst railway station, and...

According to OALD, down (n) means very fine soft feathers of a bird or fine soft hair; which I don't think is true in this context.

The excerpt is from the beginning of the novel, "The Invisible Man" by "H.G. Wells".

I'm learning English as a second language, and this book is a part of my school syllabus and has countless other similar phrases. Any suggestions would be helpful.

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  • 1
    Interesting +1 But IMO, I think you already found an answer. So it is over the down, meaning, over the cloth made from the fine soft feather. I wish I am correct! Meaning, even the cloth can't protect the cold. – Kentaro Tomono Mar 6 '17 at 12:05
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    The fourth definition on Bing, and similarly in other dictionaries, fits far better. – Nathan Tuggy Mar 6 '17 at 12:07
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    @Kentaro I thought of that at first, but I don't really think it means that he was walking through strong wind and heavy snowfall and stepped on a piece of cloth made from soft feather. I don't think the writer would mention such an irrelevant detail at the beginning of a story. – Raknos13 Mar 6 '17 at 12:09
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    @Nathan "A gently rolling hill" I agree, I think that might be the correct meaning. – Raknos13 Mar 6 '17 at 12:11
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    @mettledmike You might like to know about Torpenhow, where "tor", "pen" and "how" all mean "hill" in three different dialects. Border areas frequently changed ownership, so the original "Tor" (just meaning "The Hill") became "Tor Pen" ("Hill Hill", thought now to mean "the very top of the hill"). The next wave of immigrants didn't know what that meant, so they called it "Torpen How" ("Hill Hill Hill"), and that gave its name to the village of Torpenhow. And since the village and not the hill is generally marked on maps, people might now talk about the hill as "Torpenhow Hill"... – Graham Mar 6 '17 at 17:24

Bramblehurst gives us the important clue in this context. It's a village in the Weald region of south-east England. This region is essentially a broad 'bowl' between two long ridges of chalk hills - the North and South Downs.

Down in this case is not referring to the direction, nor to the feathers of a bird, but to a type of hill. Downs are long chalk ridges, typically steeper on one side and gentle on the other, with thin soil and few trees. The famed White Cliffs of Dover are formed where the South Downs reach the English channel. Downland is generally somewhat 'wild', with few roads or paths across it - most roads run through passes and cuts, rather than straight across the hills.

This meaning can be seen elsewhere in literature - Watership Down uses downland to great effect, and Lord of the Rings has several regions of hills referred to as downs.

So the passage means:

The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the unpopulated hills, walking from Bramblehurst railway station, and...

  • So it should be plural or either archaic. – Kentaro Tomono Mar 6 '17 at 14:03
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    No, it's neither archaic nor necessarily plural - it's absolutely current usage (says the guy from a couple of villages over from Bramblehurst), and while it's often plural to refer to the whole system of hills, it's also used to refer to notable or local parts of the downland. – Werrf Mar 6 '17 at 14:14
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    @KentaroTomono: Note that the dictionary only says "usually used in the plural" - not always. So the plural is more common, but the singular is also used. – psmears Mar 6 '17 at 15:42

Down is an slightly archaic term for "hill" (dun in Old English). It both describes a landscape (typically in plural "Downs") and individual hills in singular form, e.g. the Berkshire Downs, the North Downs and South Downs but also Watership Down, which gave the Richard Adams novel its name.

To deconstruct your sentence in question:

"over the down" refers to "the stranger came, not to the snowfall. The sentence has a long list of descriptive clauses in a parallel structure (= each could be removed without influencing the others).


The stranger came
       early in February 
       one wintry day
       through a biting wind and a driving snow 
             the last snowfall of the year 
       over the down (= hill) 
       walking from Bramblehurst railway station....

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