We went most summers to Devon when I was a child. My uncle owned a farm with land extending from inland pasture right to the edge of the cliffs overlooking the sea. I remember in sharp detail the walk from the farmyard to the beach. At the start the path was bordered by stone walls higher than me and then broadened out as it reached the open grass on the clifftop. Compensation for tired legs was the view along the coastline and the endless ocean stretching to the horizon. On a good day you could see right across to the Eddystone Lighthouse and, depending on the tide, the sharp needles of the rocks sticking into the sea like outstretched fingers.
The view came with a promise and a certainty. Just round the corner there was a beach, with sand to play on and rock pools to explore. With renewed energy we would all start running down. From the top of the cliff a zigzag path, hidden behind the curve of the slope, led down to the beach. Initially the seashore was hidden completely from view but as we hurried down, more and more of the cove was revealed. Finally, the large old boathouse, constructed of big unhewn boulders with a corrugated iron roof came into sight.
With a few more jumps down the steps we had arrived, an afternoon of simple pleasures ahead. One of these was swimming out to the large rock in the middle of the bay that at low tide afforded a hollowed-out cavity to sit in. It took some years before I was a strong enough swimmer to reach it and the sense of achievement made it a favourite destination, despite the sharpness of the rocks.
Journeys with a safe starting point, along a familiar path to reach a pleasurable destination are rare in life. More often journeys are like traveling through a maze. My interest in mazes started with a crayon, scribbling messily in a holiday drawing book, to find the path to the centre of the maze. As a child the other strong association with uncertain paths stemmed from rainy days, curled up on a sofa reading the Greek myths.
A favourite was the legend of Theseus, who was sent as part of the yearly tribute of young people to King Minos on Crete. Theseus succeeded in slaying the minotaur in the labyrinth below the palace at Knossos and helped by the gift of a thread from Ariadne he found his path back out of the maze. The story is a compelling one with a powerful story line, a mixture of triumph and tragedy, promises and betrayals that is known and liked by most of us. The strengths and frailties of the central characters grip our attention.
Perhaps subconsciously whenever we enter a maze, though we enjoy the excitement of finding the way through and the challenge of solving the puzzle, we also are pitting ourselves against the hand of fate. The more difficult the maze, the more pleasure we derive from reaching our goal. The modern attraction of mazes is borne out by the popularity of garden mazes, many built by the Victorians, and restored post 1945. The maze at Traquair House in the Scottish borders is nearby but there are many intriguing mazes throughout the UK. What is striking is that the effort to design, build and maintain a maze of several thousand beech, yew or cypress trees is high, yet we probably only spend part of an afternoon in good weather exploring. One possible reason for the current popularity of mazes (and for their enduring appeal over many centuries) is that they answer a hidden and recurrent need in all of us.
At present most of us not occupied in essential jobs have more time to reflect on the paths and directions we have taken. We can rue the blind alleys we entered and ponder the direction to take in the future. Although superficially we are all isolated in similar cells and the restriction on our movements are the same, our circumstances both physical and mental vary enormously.
The physical pressures on families living close together in a limited space are different from couples with a large house and garden. The situation for those having lost jobs contrasts starkly with those enjoying the luxury of a steady pension. Being isolated at home has difficulties but they are nothing compared to the hazards facing those working in hospitals. Plenty of advice has been published on getting through the coronavirus pandemic. Mostly, it seems, we are adapting well and creating a new way of life with support from neighbours and the resources from the virtual world of the internet.
Yet we have entered a new maze, complex and multidimensional, that shifts with time and circumstance. Each of us has to find our own way through it, like a traveller along the pilgrim’s path. We need to confront the issues in front of us whether guilt about not contributing, worry for friends and family, fear for the future or difficulty in coping with isolation. We may not be able to see round the next corner but we do have the time and opportunity to consider our route, to cut ourselves a stave for the journey and to decide what to put in our backpack and what to leave out.
Written 15th April 2020