Leafing through Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in search of themes for a new crossword, I’ve come across the entry for Gretna Green Marriages, which looks like it might be suitable. Straight away I can imagine a grid with GRETNA highlighted in green, so that’s a good start, even if it’s rather obvious. And maybe SMITH could be shaded in black? I can also see that ELOPER would be a partial anagram of TOLL-KEEPER, so maybe I can do something with letters E,L,O,P,E,R contributing to TOLL-KEEPER, or the other way about. But there’s a rather nasty T,L,K,E left over. What could that make – KELT? Isn’t that the same as Celt? Yes it is, and I see that it’s also a salmon, and a type of black and white cloth. Hmm. Well, you sometimes eat salmon at weddings, don’t you? Maybe not. LICENCE, PRIEST and BANNS, not being needed at Gretna, look ripe for removing in some way, to resolve clashes or something.
I’d better check the database set up by Dave Hennings before I go any further, to see if the theme has been used before. No, it doesn’t seem to have been, and I can’t find anything in the Listener database either, so that’s good news. This looks like it might lead to something, but I’d like to do a little more research into the theme first, and a few days away next week will give me an opportunity to do this.
It’s a dull September Thursday, and I’m now on the M74 driving north after a few days break in the Lake District.
Arriving at the outskirts of Gretna now, there’s a building on the right which looks a bit like a Community Centre, with a large car park almost full, and a sign outside saying MARRIAGE ROOM RESTAURANT. They’re claiming that well over 10,000 weddings were conducted there in just a few years. Is this it, I wonder? It doesn’t look like the photographs which I’ve seen. But no, this isn’t it. The road sign ahead is saying Blacksmith’s Shop 1 mile, so I’ll keep on going. I wonder why couples would have bothered going the extra mile when they could have stopped here? Maybe the layout of roads was different in those days, so that travellers approached from the other side of the town. And isn’t “going the extra mile” something from the Bible? I wonder if that could be used in some way. Probably not.
Anyway, let’s press on. All the way through Gretna and out the other side, in fact – and there it is now, straight ahead of me. There’s a bit of a detour to get to the car park, which isn’t very full at all. There’s a field on the other side of the fence with some rare breed cattle and sheep, who seem to be watching my every move. You’d think they would be used to visitors by now.
Oh, look – there’s a couple about to get married – how exciting! There doesn’t seem to be a big crowd of people with them – are they running away together, I wonder? She’s got the full white wedding dress on, so they don’t exactly look like they’ve been rushing to get here, but it seems a little odd that they’re more or less on their own.
There’s a small museum and visitor centre here, some shops, and a restaurant opposite. I can see a couple of tourist coaches arriving, so think I’d better head for the restaurant before they arrive – I don’t want to get stuck in a queue behind them. I’ll pick up a paper on the way, which will give me a crossword to do. Maybe that will give me some cruciverbal inspiration. I hope it’s an easy puzzle, as I don’t have a lot of time to spare and want to be back on the road again in an hour or so.
Well, apart from one answer (which is probably obvious but I can’t get it), I’ve managed to finish Phi’s puzzle in the Independent while having my tea and scone, so I think I’ll head for the museum now. The couple getting married are still here getting their photographs taken – no, wait a minute. The bridegroom had rather more hair the last time that I saw him, so that must be another pair on their way to get married. I wonder how many weddings they have here in a year? It must be quite a lot, if this is a typical day.
I’ve been round the museum now, which didn’t take a lot of time, but it was very interesting nevertheless, and I’ve learned quite a bit about the history of the place. And by the time I came out, a third wedding party had arrived. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m wandering through a film set. But it’s time to get back on the road now. The tourist coaches which arrived after me have gone, no doubt on their way back across the border again. I’ve seen three different weddings in the short time that I’ve been here, and it all seems a bit surreal. I haven’t had any more ideas about what to do with my puzzle, but I’m glad I came anyway.
I’ve decided to have a grid which will be split into two areas by a dotted line, which will represent the border between England and Scotland. I’m going to have to sacrifice geographical accuracy to keep it simple, as the border actually runs more North-South than East-West locally, but having Scotland to the left and England to the right doesn’t look right. So it’ll be a horizontal border running East-West. Solvers are going to have to remove “licence”, “priest” and “banns” from the top half of the grid, as they aren’t needed in Scotland, and the letters of “elopers” are going to move away from “England” the bottom half of the grid to fill an unclued “tollkeepers”. Gretna will be just across the border, to be highlighted in green.
“Elopers” and “England” both have seven letters, but the nasty alignment of the two E’s means that I can’t use clashing letters in the grid. I think I’ll have answers which would need two letters squeezed into one cell, forcing some letters to move away. I can use the same gimmick for the words to be removed.
It would be nice to have T-L-K-E-E-S as the unclued entry, but I’d have to do something with the E and S left over, and the only thing that I can think of is to use these to make hu(s)band and wif(e), or maybe witness(es). But looking at how much thematic material there is to be fitted in, I think that would be just too much. So I’ll stick with T-L-K—– as the unclued entry. It isn’t in Chambers, but it is in Brewer all the way back to 1970, and before then everything else is there. So I think I’m OK with that.
Here’s where I’m going to position the thematic letters.
I’ve been using up all of my spare time over the last few weeks trying to fill the grid, but it just isn’t working out, so I’m going to try a different approach and have the thematic material in a different arrangement. I’m also going to have the doubled-up letters in unchecked cells, so that I’m not forced to have both Across and Down answers with doubled-up letters, as I think this is too restrictive. Let’s have another attempt:
Well, that was better, and after some more changes to the positioning of the thematic material, I’ve arrived at what I think will be the final grid, with licence, priest and banns removed from rows 2, 3 and 6:
It’s been a long struggle, and I’m relieved to have got something which I think is just about passable. The asymmetry is annoying, but I’ve tried to retain as much symmetry as I can. I’ve managed to find a place for FIDO, which is going to be clued along the lines of “helping to see the light” with I DO, in the hope that it provides a subliminal hint to solvers who are really stuck, though I doubt if anyone will notice. I’ve managed to get two “Scots” in the top half of the grid, though one is mutilated when licence is removed, and in the bottom corner there’s a cluster of cells which, with a bit of imagination, could make a jumble of “Carlisle” before the elopers move north. I’ve also put my initials more or less centrally. I can see an accidental “loch” in the final grid, and no doubt some eagle-eyed solvers will spot some other unintended patterns, as they did with my last puzzle. So, it’s now down to writing the clues, which I hope to finish in good time, as I want to finish this one off and move on to a theme which is crying out for “Carte Blanche” treatment…