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 and 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. 

Tuesday, 12 December 2017


It was an hour later from Capel-y-ffin. There was already a sunset feel to the afternoon light. I'd been up and over Gospel Pass, and now I was driving south-east on the English side of The Black Mountains, in the far south-western corner of Herefordshire. A somewhat remote bit of countryside, a place of ridges and scattered farms and houses, and very few proper villages. This is what you'd see while driving down-valley.

The largest village hereabouts was Longtown, with its old ruined castle, but that was a few miles away yet. Presently I was driving into a strung-out community named Craswall, which seemed to have no particular central point. Here's a location map, which might help. Click on it to enlarge.

The yellow line is both the Welsh-English Border, and the eastern edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. This has been debatable land, much disputed in centuries past, sometimes in Welsh hands, sometimes in English hands. You can see a double-kink in the road that goes from top left to bottom right on the map. At the outer point of the upper kink is a little cross, the map symbol for a church without tower or steeple. I am always attracted to remote historic buildings. I thought this one might be worth investigation.

Well, it certainly looked promising. I opened the gate and went through the old churchyard. First thought: what had happened to all the graves? There was just a monument of sorts, with a wooden celtic cross as its centrepiece.

All very mysterious! As has become my habit, I did a circumnavigation of the church before entering it.

It mostly resembled a low barn, with a porch and a stunted belltower. It seemed to grow organically out of the surrounding grass, as if planted as a seedling or bulb some time back. And no proper path to the entrance. Was it still in active use? Was it one of those redundant but preserved churches? Let's see.

Leaf litter in the porch, peeling plaster. This church wasn't presently getting enough TLC. But despite the apparent lack of maintenance, it was in use. There were notices pinned to the door. I'd look at them in a while. Only one keyhole, you notice, not like Capel-y-ffin. No need to triple-lock then, and presumably no teddy bears inside to disturb. I opened the door carefully, a little surprised that it was unlocked. 

A rather bare room, purpose unknown. Perhaps when people turned up for services, or events held here, this is where they would be greeted. The place was supplied with electricity, and could be used after dark. But it all looked cheerless to me. And not at all ecclesiastical. There was a squat door in the far wall. It didn't seem the right kind of door for a church entrance - how did they manage coffins at funerals, for instance? Or if there was ever a wedding here? But it appeared to be the only way into the main part of the church. If, that is, it were unlocked.

It wasn't locked. I was even more surprised. Ducking a bit, I opened the door and stepped inside. Utter silence greeted me. You could almost pat it. And the shadows were getting more pronounced.

I wondered what would happen if the local keyholder came along while I was hidden from view inside. Would I get locked in? What was mobile phone reception like hereabouts? Pretty dire, I supposed. And within these thick stone walls, even more dire. Meaning that if I were locked in, I couldn't phone for release. Nor would anyone hear me from the lonely road outside. Fiona was parked not at the main churchyard gate, but in a wider section of the road some way off. Would anyone work out that a parked car down the lane meant somebody inside the church? Possibly not.

A whole night spent in this drear place wasn't a happy prospect! Oh, surely the person with the keys would check that the place was truly empty? Surely. 

With that somewhat unfounded hope in my bosom, I looked around. It was actually a picturesque interior of historic merit. Not ultra-special, but amply worth the visit.

A bit bare of creature comforts, but neat and tidy, and there was at least an electric heater that could be switched on. And lights: if locked in here by the keyholder, I could put the lights on, and somebody would doubtless come to find out why they were blazing. The lights would be my distress signal. I felt reassured at the thought. It also helped that there was no row of Voodoo teddy bears lurking on a seat. I didn't want the wrong sort of company while waiting for rescue. 

There was another of those upstairs galleries, so popular in this part of the world. Naturally, I went up to have a look.

You'd have to be pretty keen on religion to endure a long sermon while perched on such hard and uncompromising seats! Perhaps there was no choice about it in the old days. Well, at least you'd have a bird's eye view of the proceedings. 

The roof beams looked a bit old, and possibly not too healthy.

Downstairs again, I checked out the little organ.

A Victorian instrument by a local maker.

The final thing I wanted to do was examine the pinned-up notices.

Ah. They had the occasional music evening here. There had been a woodwind and harpsichord recital two weeks previously. I wondered how many had turned up. Where had their cars gone? The road outside wasn't wide, and I hadn't noticed an obvious church car park.

Hmm. It was, not unexpectedly, a listed building, and 'at risk'. But a Friends of Craswall Church group had been formed. In fact there was a meeting here just a few days ahead. I'd have moved on to the New Forest by then. If I'd still been in the area, I might have attended, to find out how the group intended to proceed. I was mildly curious to know. 

Obviously I was not locked in!  

Still, it had been a very solitary experience. Nobody else came to look at the church as a passing tourist while I was there. This said, it struck me that despite the loneliness of these places, I much preferred to view them on my own. I could then feel free to examine whatever I wished, and photograph whatever I pleased. 

I supposed that anyone catching me there could assume that I was either an active churchgoer, or keen on local history - the second approximating my interest in these places best. But really I just wanted to satisfy my constant curiosity, and bag some shots, and these reasons for intruding seemed flimsy and frivolous. It was difficult not to feel like a half-guilty trespasser and voyeur.