Sunday, 31 December 2017

O Holy Night

I start this post in the last hour or so of 2017, on (I think) the seventh day of Christmas.

One of the things I did today was to get hold of a recording (actually I found three that I liked) of a Christmas carol called O Holy Night, and get them installed on my phone.

Apparently it's a very well-known carol, but I had never heard before it in my life until I caught a trailer on BBC Radio 4 for a programme about this carol and its inspirational significance in the lives of several persons affected by it, among them His Grace the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, and the singer Katie Melua. The programme was in the series Soul Music, and was to be aired on 20th December. I made a point of listening to it.


I was so glad I did. In between the discussions, several versions of this carol by different singers were played, all of them beautiful and uplifting. You did not have to be in any way religious to be profoundly moved not just by the words, but the music that went with it. The way the music jumped to another key after 'Fall on your knees...' was thrilling and shiver-inducing. I imagine that, if hearing this carol sung simply but well in a dark space, it wouldn't be difficult to believe in a heaven full of smiling angels, and a baby come to redeem us all. I thought of survivors, of hope rekindled in ruined cities, all eyes on a single candle, all ears listening to a single clear voice and finding hope and the will to go on.

I am astonished that I have been unaware of this carol for so long. Many very well-known singers have recorded it over the years. It was mere chance that I caught the trailer. Perhaps it was meant to be. I had been busy de-Christmassing Christmas at Melford Hall. Hearing this carol made me think again. Not to embark on a crass spending spree. But to ponder what Christmas really means for the human spirit. 

One way or another, we all rely on each other. We all need to co-operate. This is the time of year to examine one's worth, as measured by how many people's lives we affected for the better. How kind and understanding we were. How much of a help and support we really were to the people in our own circle of friends and acquaintances. 

I thought about my own efforts, or the lack of them. How 'me, me, me' had I been? Too much so? What might I do about it next year? Even if I did not believe in some Ultimate Judge, it still mattered that I live as if I might be judged. 

Happy 2018, everybody.

Brexit is Brexit

Now here's a thought.

After the Brexit Referendum on 23rd June 2016 (yes, it was that long ago), Mrs May (our Prime Minister) was repeatedly heard to say, when asked what the result might entail,  'Brexit is Brexit'. This phrase widely baffled political commentators and many others besides. It sounded pretty definite, but at the same time obscure. Yet she said it with utter conviction. Even so, some scoffed, asserting that it meant nothing at all - that it was just a verbal device designed to give nothing away and play for time.

But, thinking about it, it did have a clear meaning. It was a phrase that surely mimicked another, one that people who came out of the closet used: 'Out is Out'. Gay people, for instance - but really anybody who at at some point makes it known that they have a surprise secret, and intend to live openly from now on, with the secret revealed to all. They've 'come out'. Metaphorically, their secret self has stepped out of the closet. And that means everybody needs to know, regardless of the consequences, so that the person coming out can move forwards in a spirit of honesty and full disclosure. There is no such thing as a 'partial coming-out', so that some people know, but others don't. Out is Out. If not 'out' across the board, in every respect, then one is still 'in'.

Now I don't know if such thinking occurred to Mrs May personally. But I suspect that someone high in her circle of advisors was aware of the phrase 'Out is Out' and thought it could be adapted for Brexit use. Thus 'Brexit is Brexit' was born. And it clearly means 'Britain is coming out of the EU, in every way, and being completely open about it, and in no sense will we remain in the EU'.

Well, that's clear then. Britain is out of the closet, has unequivocally resigned from the EU Club, and has handed in her membership card. The resignation has been received coldly, but nevertheless accepted. We are out. Brexit is Brexit. If I were running a business in the UK, I would now make plans on the basis that the country will stand in 'splendid isolation' from the rest of Europe. (Lord Adonis' parting words, not mine)

As if we were an island, by Jove.   

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Did it matter?

By which I mean, did it matter that I sent no Christmas cards this year?

Well, so far, nobody has taken me to task about it. Nobody has said things like 'Huh! So I wasn't worth dashing a card off for? Some friend you are.' One friend said in a text - but only in passing - that she was disappointed she wouldn't be getting a card from me. Another gave me the mild rebuke mentioned at the end of this post. But, really, that was the only negative feedback I got.

Almost everybody who became aware of my new 'no-cards-any-more' intention thought it was fair enough. They got it. Some said they'd still like to send me cards in the future, even though I wouldn't be doing the same for them, presumably because it was, for them, an essential part of the Christmas Tradition. Like making Christmas pies and puddings, cooking the Christmas Dinner, and having all the family around. I assured them, and meant it, that if they sent a card it would be welcome. I'm not going to impose my own ways on anybody else.

Although I didn't send cards - not a single one - I did send emails and a couple of letters. I didn't begin to do that until quite close to Christmas Day, so not everybody who was on my list was emailed or written to. Whether they noticed my silence is a moot point. I rather think that if they had a busy Christmas they did not. Perhaps in a moment to come, when binning the cards they received, they might say 'Hmm! We never did get a card from Lucy. I wonder if she's all right.' And if I do matter to them sufficiently, they might try getting in touch, and we can then have an exchange. Otherwise, some opportunity to confirm that I am still alive and kicking will no doubt crop up in the year ahead.

I took some care over those emails and letters. I pondered on the design and content, wanting to make them seem both Christmassy and completely individual. After one or two had been sent, I hit on the idea of inserting a picture above the typed message, similar to the kind of thing on the front of commercial Christmas cards, but a picture taken by myself. There was ample material in my vast photo archive. I found half a dozen pictures without the slightest difficulty, and popped them into my emails and letters as the recipient's personality dictated. The printed letters actually came out best, because Microsoft Word let me select a number of styles, whereas Gmail didn't. I chose a style that added a shadow effect. Here, for instance, is the letter I sent to my very elderly (and now bedridden) aunt in South Wales. I thought of hand-writing the letter rather than typing it, but the extra-large font would be much easier for her to read. I signed the letter in my own fair hand though.


This example brings out several things that were important to me. One: a high degree of personalisation. This was sending Christmas greetings my way, and not in some shop-bought, same-as-everybody-else-on-my-list fashion. Two: the message, though brief, was individually composed. Nobody else's greeting was the same. Three: though short, the message was still more meaningful - and longer - than normally possible on most commercial Christmas cards, especially if - like me - you have large handwriting. 

I didn't mind the effort of creating such a greeting one bit. In fact it was a lot more satisfying than tackling a long Christmas card list in the manner of a huge industrial operation. 

Only the letters required stamps. I had just enough of them, and did not have to buy more. The high cost of stamps is nowadays an issue, but really it's a trifle compared to the labour of complying with the annual Christmas Greeting Ritual in what I shall henceforth call the Old Way.

I really regret not hitting upon this method of sending Christmas Greetings earlier in December. More people would then have heard from me this year. Next time, I will start sooner. But my list will still be very short. It will still exclude those whom I see frequently throughout the year - there is no point in sending someone you might speak to two or three times a week an additional greeting. But I do want to include everyone living far away - anyone I don't often see. And to respond to every card sent to me - which was indeed this year's plan, although only partly fulfilled.  

I'm sure that some will think me disorganised and/or lazy for abandoning the Old Way, and wanting to do it all differently. A woman friend even said, in a seriously-meant rebuke, 'That's not what women do. Women always make sure that the family's Christmas cards get bought, written and posted. Only men neglect that duty.' The key word there is 'family'. If you have no immediate family, no partner, and are not part of a household, then you represent no-one but yourself, and 'family rules' don't apply. Or at least, I can't see why they should.

So I don't think it mattered that I changed the rules of the game to suit my personal situation, and what Christmas actually meant to me. I'm rather glad I broke the mould. I'm now looking around at other old customs that have had their day. 2018 may well be a good year for doing many things a bit differently.

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Goose Dinner - cooking and eating

The last post about my Goose Dinner on 19th December left me with guests arriving shortly at 6.30pm. I had to stop my preps by then, as the kitchen would inevitably get full of people wanting worktop space to dump wine, gin and beer bottles, and the prepared starter and dessert. I just about managed it. Outside, the sun had already disappeared, and it was dark. It had been a pretty good sunset - a good omen, I thought. This was the view from the back of my home.


I'd stood outside my lounge window, looking in, and took a photo. It had seemed cosy enough.


Off to the left in the photo above was my conservatory, which tonight would be my dining room. There was a connecting door. I left it open, so that the warm air in the house could circulate. This was a sound idea: it proved unnecessary to turn on the electric heaters in the conservatory. 

Jackie next door was already there: she had provided extra chairs, cutlery, glassware and her prepared nut roast, being of the vegetarian persuasion. 

At 6.30pm exactly, the first guests arrived. Jo and her husband Clive; Valerie and her husband Mick. Big hugs all round in the kitchen! 


The remaining guests, Sue and her husband Dave, arrived soon after. I managed to steer them into the lounge for gin and tonics and beer.


I should perhaps remark at this point that I grabbed shots as I had an odd moment in between my ongoing kitchen tasks. As a rule, nobody had time to pose, and I caught my victims wearing natural expressions that at times looked serious, even moody. It crossed my mind that (a) while everybody appreciated my willingness to buy and cook something different, there might be much less faith in my ability to deliver an edible meal; and (b) geese need carving, and the thought of being asked to do that was weighing on more than one mind...

Back in the kitchen, I was still inspecting the bird, the gammon ham, and the stuffing, and tending my improvised and simmering tomato-courgette-and-garlic wok-cooked side-dish. Jackie was popping in and out to make sure her nut roast was doing nicely. 


Suddenly it was 7.00pm, and the goose was due to come out of the oven and rest.  It looked OK, although I didn't really know, never having cooked one before. I placed it in my study, with a cover over it. Jo now took a turn in the kitchen, making little round toasty things to spread her salmon mousse starter upon.


Then it was time to get people to the table. We began to open the wine bottles. 


Then it was time to carve the goose. 'Which of you men is going to do it?' I asked. None stepped forward. They prevaricated. I suppose they all felt that tackling the bird was likely to court disaster and possible humiliation. That goose was no turkey! Clive was the man who eventually agreed, after being assured that my carving knives were ultra sharp. (Brave fellow, we all must have thought. I certainly did. Thankfully, nobody suggested that I might do it. I was the cook. I'd done my bit) 

Well, Clive set to in admirable fashion. And believe me, that goose needed careful handling. I gazed on in trepidation. Would the first slices be properly cooked?


Yes - definitely OK! Phew.... 
  
While Clive carried on, I adjourned to the kitchen with Jackie and Valerie. Time to put the cooked vegetables in dishes and onto the table. But also time to see how the gammon ham had turned out. This was another vital component of my Goose Dinner, a meat backup, in case (as was all too likely) even a big goose wouldn't provide enough for seven (thankfully not eight: Jackie was having her nut roast). 


Hmmm...it looked all right on the outside. Valerie started carving it...


Quel relief! Back to the table then! Surely we must each have felt like a conspirator, making it all up as we went along. But the meal was coming together. Clive was making manful progress with the goose, aided by Jo.


But for a bird of its size and weight - and cost - there really wasn't an awful lot of meat on it. All seven meat-eaters did indeed have a couple of very decent slices, but there wouldn't be anything left over, and I wouldn't be enjoying any cold goose meat next day. Still, there was plenty of gammon ham to add. (In fact, after the Dinner, half the ham was left - and I did enjoy that, cold and sliced, over the next two days) Jackie made gravy two-handed...clever...


And then we all settled down to toast each other, and to eat.


Dear me! Everyone was concentrating on the food, and not on smiling inanely for the camera!

This was my own plate.


It wasn't the most artistically presented meal there had ever been - but hey, it was hot and tasty, and on a trendy square dinner plate! 

Valerie eventually served up her yummy apple and mincemeat tart for dessert. 

All in all, everyone ate and drank sufficiently and had a good time. We all knew each other well, and I'm sure plenty of allowances were made for the things I hadn't thought to serve or provide. I make no pretence at being the perfect hostess. But thanks to my fabulous friends, and the help they gave, it went rather well. Afterwards I was congratulated on my small part in the affair - cooking the goose, entirely without assistance. My home-made stuffing had been a big hit too. And the gammon ham had been considered perfection itself, but I was quick to rebuff that praise by explaining that I had followed Clive's advice to add half an hour to Waitrose's recommended cooking time.

A few days later, over at Jo and Clive's on Christmas Eve, I discussed the economics of that goose quietly with Clive. They didn't add up. £84 for so little cooked meat, however succulent...no wonder so few people ever bought one! I said I wouldn't do it again, but it had been well worth the experience. And I had so wanted to take my overdue turn at entertaining! Well, job done.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Subtle background changes to the blog

Keen-eyed blog-sleuths may detect one or two subtle changes to my blog. Yes...the profile picture has changed, though it's still the usual me. But it's more subtle than that! If you look at my 'Complete Profile', you'll now see that not only has the number of profile-viewings suddenly reduced to very little, I'm said to have been on Blogger only 'since May 2011'. But some readers will know that isn't correct. I've been posting on Blogger since February 2009, and the 'Blog Archive' on the right edge of my main screen view does indeed show posts going back to that time.

So what have I done?

Well, I've rationalised my Google accounts. In February 2009 my internet was being provided by an outfit called Tiscali, a company long since taken over by a bigger fish in the communications industry. I had a picturesque email address - driftwoodbeach@tiscali.co.uk - and the blog was set up using that address. Later, in May 2011, I began to use Google's Chrome browser. I set it up with the Gmail address I had by then - lucymelford@gmail.com. That Gmail address became the name of my main Google account, and therefore the prime portal for everything provided to me by Google to my desktop PC, laptop, and (from 2012) my Android tablet and phone. Except the blog. That stayed where it was, at the old Tiscali address, which had become a secondary Google account.

As the years passed, having the blog in a separate account, set apart from the rest of my Google stuff, became more and more awkward. And occasionally it was a nuisance, when for instance I was away from home and for some reason I couldn't sign into driftwoodbeach@tiscali.co.uk address, even though lucymelford@gmail.com was readily available.

I began to wonder whether the blog might become orphaned at some point, should Google proceed with some rationalisation of its own, and wipe it all by design or blunder. I had of course a complete backup of every post in a long series of monthly Word documents, but copying the content of those into a brand new blog would be a truly monumental task.

I really wanted to shift the entire blog from the driftwoodbeach account to the main one. But I suspected that it wouldn't be easy.

I was both right and wrong. Wrong, because there is in fact a proper procedure for lifting a blog out of one Google account and dropping it into another. In principle, it's dead simple. But I was also right, because in practice it's tricky to carry out every straightforward little step without a daft slip-up. I got it correct on my ninth attempt.

What you have to do is get yourself (as the owner of another Gmail account) set up as co-author of the blog. You send an emailed invitation to yourself as the 'new' co-author (in my case at lucymelford@gmail,com), and accept it. The blog settings then show two author accounts, yourself as administrator of the blog, and yourself as the new co-author. You then swap the admin role to the new co-author account. She (that's myself at lucymelford@gmail.com) now acquires full admin rights - including control of what the blog looks like, and all final editorial control. And that's that. Getting the sequence of actions absolutely correct, in order to achieve this end, wasn't so easy. But it's done.

So now everything is conveniently handled by one Google account.

The driftwoodbeach@tiscali account is redundant. I won't delete it yet, just in case I still haven't quite made a mistake-free blog transfer. And I may never delete it, as it might be useful to have an established but 'empty' account ready for some other use. No doubt, however, I will get a message at some point from Google, warning me that they will automatically bin that old account if it remains unused for more than six months.

Will readers notice any practical difference? I don't think so.

If anybody wants to delve into what I was writing years ago, they still can. It's all still there. But, you know, human nature being what it is, I suspect that nobody does. Nor ever will, not unless I become infamous for some unforeseen reason.

Sequel
I've deleted the old driftwoodbeach account. My phone wouldn't show me the new Gmail-account version - only the old one, and yet wouldn't sign me out of it. So it had to go. I deleted it from the laptop, and everything then defaulted to the Gmail account, including what I saw on the phone.

Goodbye driftwoodbeach. At least, goodbye in Googleland.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

The Goose Dinner - purchase and preparation

I'd felt it was time to play hostess at Christmas, and so last month I ordered a goose from Alan Woodward, my favourite butchers shop in Henfield. And I invited my local friends and their husbands. In the end, after adjustments, there were eight to feed, myself included. But I had a big goose. I'd asked for a bird of at least 5.5kg (say 12.5 pounds), to be ready for collection on 19th December. The goose I actually got was slightly heavier, weighing in at 13.175kg (13.5 pounds), but that was all right. More than all right. After ordering, I'd wondered whether I'd specified too small a goose: so a bird with a little more meat on it was welcome.

I was being doubly ambitious here. First, I'd never cooked a dinner for as many as eight adults.

Second, I'd never cooked a goose.

But given a fair wind, and if necessary the sacrifice of a dozen horned oxen and a score of uncircumcised goats to the god that watches over hapless cooks, I thought I might pull it off. Also, my fantastic friends were pitching in. Jo was doing the starter. Valerie was doing the dessert. And Jackie next door was handling all the roast vegetables. I had only to cook those vegetables that would be boiling or stir-frying on the hob. Plus the home-made stuffing in the small oven. And the goose in the main oven. So in theory the kitchen at Melford Hall shouldn't become a scene of terror and despair. Such hubris!

I drove over to Henfield to pick up the goose mid-morning on the 19th December. Here's the shop.


I took pictures of it because by now I'd learned that they were closing down at the end of January 2018. It was a rent problem - the landlord wanted a lot more, which made the shop unviable. So, very sadly, one of the best butchers in all Sussex was going to shut forever. They stocked only farm-assured Scottish fresh meat, and other choice items sourced from farms that the shop owner knew personally. I'd made friends with the shop staff Eddie and Pete, and had even met Alan Woodward himself. I felt quite choked about this shop shutting down. In my dreams, I stepped in to buy the freehold and make a go of it, with myself in charge. But in real life, I'd have to stand by and see it vanish, and then, like its many other customers, begin the search for a substitute.

But for now all was as usual. Here's Eddie serving a customer, while Pete halves and cores some lambs' kidneys for me.


I was buying bacon and gammon steaks too. This was their cured pork section.


My goose was behind the scenes. Pete got it for me. The overall bill was enough to make me gulp, but hey, it was Christmas. And I had plenty of cash with me.


I got Pete to take this shot of myself, holding the goose in its rather nice box. It felt very heavy.


Back home, the bird joined the rest of my recent Goose Dinner purchases. On the previous afternoon, I'd bought a lot of whatever I might need. The ensemble had looked most impressive.


I was trying to be comprehensive. Not everything would get used on Goose Dinner night. Some of it would instead be consumed on Christmas Day, when I was visiting a friend in Hastings - Alice - who was unexpectedly on her own this year, having sold her car, and without wheels, and unable to travel. We'd pool food and drink resources and make a day of it.

Back to the goose. I put the box on the conservatory table, alongside the big oven pan I already had, and a roasting rack recently purchased for the Big Event. It soon became clear that pan and rack were hardly big enough.


Well, let's have it open, and view the carcass!


I hadn't been quite sure what to expect. It was all a lot neater and cleaner than I'd thought. Remembering the hash Mum and I had made of plucking a pheasant one Christmas in the late 1960s - 1969 I think - it was amazing to see the result that professional pluckers could achieve. Touching the bird was another thing. It was strangely like touching a human being, albeit a cold one. Hmm. I was also conscious that not so long ago, this carcass had been a living creature, with a personality. I supposed that abattoir and butchers staff must develop a detached attitude to flesh. But I wasn't so neutral. The thing reminded me of a torso in a suitcase. 

But the show must go on! This was a Christmas delicacy for which I'd paid a small fortune! No flinching now.

And, transferred from conservatory table to kitchen worktop, the goose did begin to look like food rather than a corpse. I got out a knife and made numerous little stabbings in the skin, all over, so that while cooking the fat would drain off easily into the pan. Then. ignoring the lard I'd bought, I sprayed the goose lightly with one-calorie Fry Light and rubbed sea salt in. 


The goose wasn't by any means all solid meat. There was a big cavity inside, supported by a stout ribcage. I didn't try to fill it. I intended to prepare home-made stuffing from scratch, and cook that in a dish. So the only thing left to do was turn the main oven on, cover the goose with foil, pop it in the oven, and give it a twenty-minute hot blast to get it started. Then to turn the heat down and cook it slowly for four hours, periodically taking it out to baste and drain fat off into glass pots (my friends wanted the goose fat for their own roasting). That was the 'Welsh Method'. For the last half-hour, the goose would rest under a cover in my study, prior to carving. But that's for the next post. Once the oven was warmed enough, in went the bird. My goodness, it only just fitted!


I shut the oven door. The die was cast. 

Next, I began to lay the table properly. I wanted it to look suitably festive. The place mats (showing fox-hunting scenes, and Thelwell cartoons) had been Mum and Dad's. I think they dated from 1980, as did the table and matching chairs. But they might well have been older.  


It was almost 3.00pm. Time to send a text message to my guests. This was it. 

Good afternoon, my honoured guests for tonight's Goose Dinner at Melford Hall! Kick-off is at 6.30pm with drinks (gin and slims courtesy of Clive, I think), closely followed by the starter (courtesy of Jo) so that we are ready for the main course at 7.30pm, with dessert to follow (courtesy of Valerie) within the hour. The only foody things I've forgotten to get in are nibbles, crackers and cheeses. As for drink, I have four bottles of wine, mostly white, but nothing else, so if you fancy something different or special, please definitely bring that for your own enjoyment. Also I haven't much ice. Jackie is helping me out with the vegetable cookery and any plates and cutlery I lack. She is also doing a yummy veggie roast which I for one will wish to try. Dress: comfortable - no need to impress too much, we all know each other - so ordinary gowns will do (I mean jeans) but vainglorious bling is fine if you are so inclined. Men can wear mess jackets and kilts if they wish, but risk a ribald laugh or two. Otherwise golf sweaters or rugby shirts might catch the zeitgeist best. As for the goose, it's a cracker: farm-fresh, and weighing in at 6.175kg (13.5 pounds). It will barely fit into my oven! Let's hope it turns out as good as it looks. Very much looking forward to seeing you later. Lucy XX

I was attempting some humour, while I still felt chipper about the result of my bold endeavour. But as the afternoon progressed, and the vegetable-prepping seemed endless, I began to think that, despite he solid assistance of my girl friends, I'd bitten off more than I could chew. I abandoned any thoughts of making a special sauce. But I invented a wok-cooked courgette-tomato-onion-garlic side-dish on the fly, and got that going (and then simmering, to concentrate the flavour) before anybody turned up.   

As the goose-cook, I thought it best not to wear a dress. So it was jeggings and a blue top, donned before any kitchen preps whatever had been undertaken. Good enough.

With the time at 5.00pm, and guests due to arrive at 6.30pm, I took one last major step. Although I was cooking a big goose, I had bought a gammon ham from Waitrose as a backup, in case there wasn't enough meat. 


It was an insurance policy. It was right to make a claim. I broke it open, put it in a pan, covered it with foil, and started cooking it according to Waitrose's instructions in the smaller oven. 

I had barely got everything under control than my doorbell rang. Here we go! 

(The next post covers serving and eating, with the verdict)

Now we are four


A new pleasure this year. My little great-niece Matilda - known to one and all as Tilly (though personally I prefer Matilda, but it's not my name at stake here) - has lately turned four, and so this year she is old enough to be given Christmas presents suitable for a young lady of style and distinction. Well, a very young lady, to be sure;  but nevertheless it's time she had some real-life girly accessories, and not just miscellaneous things to play with. Mind you, she can play to her heart's content with all that I've sent her, if that's her true inclination. 

The cat's face above is one of those presents. Actually it's the design on a zip-up fabric bag with an orange shoulder strap. So when out and about she can carry a few essential items. Such as? Well, a zip-up purse with a cat on it - another present. Purses are boring unless they contain coins, and to create an intriguing rattle I've popped a £2 coin inside, which of course she can actually spend on a jet-set lifestyle, or whatever else takes her fancy. And to help pass the time while she considers all the trendy things that £2 might buy, I've included two small globes - the sort that 'snow' inside if you shake them - each containing a silver reindeer. There's yet another little surprise in the cat bag, one which she may not discover straight away: a little white mouse. Here's the entire collection, before I wrapped it all up in merry Christmas paper, and then in plain brown paper for posting.


And here's the stiff paper bag the presents went into, before I got to the brown-paper stage.


Hitherto, I've simply sent her parents - my nephew and his wife - a cheque to spend on Matilda as they see fit. I've still given them a smaller amount of cash, to put towards her shoes or general welfare, but from this year onward she will be getting presents directly from me, and I will have all the fun of choosing them. And thus it will be, year by year, until she wants only cash.

And she won't be alone. My niece has just had her first baby, a little girl called Ruth. So in four years' time, I will be choosing Christmas presents for two young ladies of sensibility and perception.

I don't think this post is likely to be a spoiler for Matilda. I'm sure she is quite unaware that her great-aunt has a blog!

Friday, 15 December 2017

The Mizmaze

It was 5th November, and I'd moved on from South Wales to the New Forest. I was at the tail end of my final caravan holiday of 2017.

I'd parked Fiona near the church at Breamore (which is pronounced 'Bremmer'), a small village between Salisbury and Fordingbridge. Here's a location map. Breamore is lower-centre, on the A338. As ever, click on it to enlarge.


I'd visited Breamore several times before, usually to see the list of Dead Dommetts on a plaque in the church porch, Dommett being the family name on Dad's side. The first such 'genealogical visit' was in the company of a lady friend, Edwina, in July 1976, when we were both living and working in Southampton. This was her then.


We were firm friends during 1976, and indeed 1977, but I was but one of many, many friends and acquaintances in her life. I was very lucky to enjoy so much of her time. My job shifted to London in 1978 and gradually we saw less and less of each other. I haven't been in touch with her since 1984, and often wonder what became of her.

Earlier in 1976, in February, I'd come to Breamore with another friend whose present life and whereabouts are also a mystery. On that occasion it was Jenny. Here she is, by one of the lion-topped gateposts at the entrance to Breamore House, the local big house. We were on our way to see the Mizmaze, of which more anon.


Now it was 2017, forty-one years later. I took a selfie at the same gatepost, in much the same pose as Jenny's.


I wonder what they look like now, Jenny and Edwina. They are both older than me. Jenny would be in her late sixties, and Edwina in her late seventies, but neither would necessarily look their age. I dare say both would still be game for a walk through the Breamore Estate to the Mizmaze!

In the intervening years since 1976, I'd come here twice with M---. She too was always up for a decent walk on the downs. I seemed to specialise in feisty girl friends!

This larger-scale map gives a better idea of the walking route to the Mizmaze (top left) from where I'd left Fiona (bottom right).


And here is a close-up of the immediate vicinity of the Mizmaze.


The uplands in these parts are studded with ancient burial mounds and other features. The Mizmaze itself is an old maze (strictly a labrynth) cut into the turf. Just how old is unknown, but it may be medieval, and connected with ecclesiastical penances and punishments. There was a priory at Breamore from 1129. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mizmaze and http://www.breamore.gov.uk/406. The second link has an aerial photo, clearly showing the layout. The Mizmaze is set in a woodland clearing, hemmed in by yew trees (creepy!), but originally it may have been much less enclosed, perhaps even out in open downland. 

I have Volume 3 of a series of books that describe the original Ordnance Survey triangulation of England in the early 1800s, with reproductions of the first One-Inch map produced from that. 


Volume 3 includes this part of Hampshire, and here is the Mizmaze (spelled 'Mizaze') as first shown on a published OS map.


I rather think the misspelling is down to the surveyor enquiring with the local farmhands and shepherds - who he thought ought to know - as to what the maze was generally called. Uneducated rustics were however notorious for corrupting local place names in various ways. In Sussex dialect, for instance, a 'wasp' would become a 'wapse': thus Wapses Farm, and so forth. Here the rustics had already decided that 'Bree-more' or 'Bray-more' should be properly called 'Bremmer', so it's unremarkable that they should tell the surveyor, in all seriousness, that the turfy maze up on the Downs 'be known to every man as the Mizaze', the second M being slurred away in the usual agricultural fashion. The map also suggests that in 1808 or whatever the yews formed a neat ring around the maze, and had not yet become wild and ragged, so that the maze was half-lost in a dense wood. Also that at the centre might have been a feature of some kind, such as a little stone monument, a cross perhaps, long since gone.

Well, shod with my trusty Alt-Berg boots, I set forth. The first leg took me past Breamore House. My route was entirely on a public bridlepath, but it felt all the way like a private drive, and there was a distinct feeling, hard to suppress, that one had no right to be there. The House wasn't a country house in the grand Blenheim Palace way; but it was certainly old - Elizabethan - and seemed a very handsome affair in the afternoon sunshine. The complex of buildings included an imposing clock-tower.


The driveway became a woodland track. I followed it uphill for a mile or so. Eventually it emerged onto open downland, with good views. Up ahead was a dark wood.


I approached it, and then looked back.


Hmm. The sun was definitely starting to set. I'd better not dilly-dally. I wasn't keen on returning through woods after dark. Well, here was the sign to the maze. My goodness, it had seen better days. 


And there was the path into the yew wood. Right, here goes. 


It was an easy path to follow, but it wound this way and that without seeming to get anywhere. Surely it had been a lot shorter on my previous visits? The yew trees were silent, brooding. In the late-afternoon light they looked dark, and not very friendly. Their dense evergreen foliage blocked the sunlight. But then the maze suddenly came into sight. It was, as before, fenced in. There was another notice.


Keep outside the fence. Fair enough. But having walked up here, I'd want my photos. There was a well-worn footpath all around the perimeter. I made my way along it. That wasn't altogether easy.  The trees overhung the fence in places, and you had to push through.


The maze wasn't in a good state. It needed a lot of tidying-up. I'd seen it looking far better than this. In 1976 you could duck under the surrounding rail and stand inside. Here's Jenny doing just that. The chalk between the turf sections was then white, and neatly-defined.


And here's M--- at the maze in 1993, when if anything it looked even nicer.


We returned in 2005, just after I retired. The maze was still looking very well cared-for - possibly the best I had seen it so far.


In 2017, however, things were not as they should be. There was a definite air of neglect. I earnestly hoped that some badly-needed TLC was scheduled for 2018.

Meanwhile, here I was. How as I to impress myself onto the maze without actually treading on it? I tried to do it with my shadow, when two-thirds of the way around.


But that wasn't satisfying. No, despite the plea not to do so on the notice, I'd have to stand inside, just for the experience. Who knows when I might next come? The same notion had obviously occurred to many before me. Part of the fencing had been broken and pushed down, to allow one to step over it. I stepped. But that's all I did. I respected the maze enough to stay at the edge, and not walk into the centre.


(An incriminating photograph, if ever there was one. If caught and convicted, I now face transportation for life to Australia. And woe betide me if I come up before a hanging judge)

It was time to go. The sun was going down fast. The shadows were deepening. I left without a backward glance.

It seems surprising to me that the Mizmaze isn't in the care of the National Trust, or English Heritage, or whatever government or local authority body it is that usually has responsibility for these things. It ought to be. A team of official workmen (or even a team of well-directed student volunteers) could surely restore it to fine fettle, with fresh fencing, information panel and signage, inside a week.