In which I find that a place I first visited in spring is still resonant with life as the year draws near its close
Free of the woods you come out on the downs and follow a line of dark yews to a big tree-covered mound, on whose top is a clearing. In the centre of the clearing is the Miz-Maz.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
In May 2021, I made my first visit to the Breamore Mizmaze. It was Bluebell time, and the woods of the Breamore Estate were an ocean of deep blue flowers beneath shadowed green trees, ruffled by honey-scented breezes. Other flowers of the spring and early summer – Cuckooflower, Herb-robert, Primrose, Wood Anenome, to name but a few – were everywhere and, at the top of the hill outside the Mizmaze’s grove of Yews, Cowslips beckoned travellers further and on into the hills and dales.
It is a beautiful walk to take up to the downs…Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Joan loved this place, only bemoaning that for the first part of the walk Bill and Mr Bundy had to be kept on leads to prevent them indulging their “longing to plunge into the game-filled undergrowth…”. In Walking in the New Forest (published in 1934) she describes visiting in spring, the time of year I visited when I first followed her bootsteps here eighteen months ago. Now it is autumn, and it is the colours of senescent leaves and deep green yew, and the scents of damp earth that dominate.
But, before we head off into the orange and russet of autumn, here is a brief reminder of what is a mizmaze, and some history of the Breamore Mizmaze (reproduced from my previous post).
A mizmaze is more properly classified as a labyrinth; a maze has crossings and junctions, but a labyrinth follows a single winding path, rather like a coiled rope. The Breamore Mizmaze, a scheduled monument, is one of only eight surviving mediaeval turf mazes in England, and one of only two turf mizmazes. It is thought to be associated with the history of the nearby mediaeval Augustinian Priory of St Michael. The priory site is located about two and a half miles away, north of Breamore Mill. It is generally believed that the Mizmaze was originally cut in the twelfth or thirteenth century by Austin canons from the priory, and that they used it for penance; the canons would crawl around the turf path on their knees, stopping to pray and reflect on their sins at various points, in an act of humility and reconciliation with God.
A sketch map of the walk from Breamore (parking in the car park for the Countryside Museum and Tea Shop, both of which I heartily recommend). This is the map I posted when I first wrote about the Breamore Mizmaze in May 2021. It shows the site of the Austin Priory to the east, and where you can find the five-trunked Sweet Chestnut, and where I have seen Hares in the past. The way to the Mizmaze is a little under 1.5 miles. If you refer to a map, you’ll see there are several paths on which you can return if you do not want to come back the same way. The path may be muddy in places in autumn and winter.
So, now we are ready to set off on our autumn walk. I leave my car in the car park for the Countryside Museum and Tea Shop (I’ll be having a coffee and slice of cake when I arrive back here). The walk up to the Mizmaze begins by entering through the gates to the park of Breamore House, and then treading the relatively gentle climb up past the mansion house and into Breamore Wood. I walk past the glades where Bluebells reigned in the spring. An occasional Red Campion or Herb-robert braves the autumn – it is so far, after all, uncharacteristically warm for the time of year – but otherwise at ground level is a mass of fresh leaves establishing themselves in advance of next year, mingling with evergreen Ivy and fading Bramble. The Breamore Estate is part of a local Farmer Cluster, a group of farms that work together to help protect the wildlife across their fields and lands. And so, in the woods, fallen trees are left lying on the ground, becoming hosts to insects and fungi, mosses and lichens, as they slowly release their nutrients back into the soil.
There are indeed plenty of fungi. I am not much good at fungi identification, but I find what I am fairly sure is Hairy Curtain Crust, and then, on a fallen Oak, rows of Black Bulgar (sometimes called Rubber Buttons – they are indeed rubbery to the touch). (Apologies in advance if I am wrong on the identification – I’m extremely happy to be corrected!)
A little past the fungi, I find an old friend. By the side of the path grows a wonderful Sweet Chestnut, that must have been coppiced in its past. From fairly low to the ground, the tree divides itself into five trunks, each broad enough to be trees in their own right. Did Joan pass by the five-trunked Sweet Chestnut, back in the 1930s? Sweet Chestnuts can live for a several hundred years, so I imagine her pausing to greet this tree, placing her hand on its bark, just as I am doing now, a ghost of her fingers beneath my own. The tree knows, but it’s keeping its secrets.
The path up the hill is muddy in parts, rutted by Estate vehicles, but fallen leaves make the going easier (though sometimes hiding the worst of the puddles).
At the northern edge of Breamore Wood, the track opens onto the downlands. The views are wide and soaring, crossed by a Buzzard and two Red Kites patrolling the skies. To east and west, the fields curve down and then upwards again: to our right are fields where I have often seen Hares in the past, but there are none today that I can see. We are now walking along an old drove road – South Charford Drove – and it is easy to imagine the drovers driving their cattle along this way and on to market, or moving them from pasture to pasture.
Ahead, I see the Yew grove that protects the secrets of the Mizmaze. Even the path through the Yews curves, so that you do not happen upon the labyrinth itself until you have almost reached it. I have it to myself. After walking round its perimeter (you cannot follow the friars of old and step upon the Mizmaze itself, to protect its turf), I stop and, leaning on the fence, look up to the sky. There are clouds scudding fast across, but here, among the Yews, there is barely a breeze. It is a still centre, a pause in time that stays ever the same, although paths to many adventures lead away from the maze and into the world. It is hard to leave.
Leave I must, though, to find a cyclist paused in his journey as he admires the landscape. We chat for a few minutes, and realise we can see as far as Pepperbox Hill in Wiltshire, over five miles distant.
By the entrance to the Mizmaze is a wooden bench, engraved with the message: “Rest awhile & enjoy the view”. It is sage advice. The bench is dedicated “In loving memory to Andrew Brown who found peace here, 1981 to 2018, and Tessa his Labrador.” I feel sadness in Andrew Brown’s death so young, only in his 30s, but also gladness that he, and Tessa, found a place that brought them peace. And, yes, this is a peaceful place, haunted, in the best possible way, by memories of friars, farmers and drovers, and all those who, across the years, passed by and paused to contemplate, and to find solace and contentment.
The Mizmaze has not quite finished with me, and I am drawn to walk a little further before turning back. Here, the fields and woods slope down to another drove road – Long Steeple Lane – which is edged with golden trees beneath autumn-bronzed Whitsbury Wood. If I listen hard, I can hear a faint thrum of traffic from the Salisbury-to-Ringwood road off to the east, but it is easy to ignore, especially as I can see no cars. Instead, I close my eyes and think of the drovers and the herds, hearing the barking of their dogs hanging faintly in the autumn air as the friars walk their slow procession to penance at the Mizmaze.
If you want to find out more about turf mazes and labyrinths, then an article, English Turf Labyrinths by Jeff Saward, gives some background, including a short section on the Breamore Mizmaze.