Listen With Others

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Listener No 4439, Where Falls the Axe?: A Setter’s Blog by Hedge-sparrow

Posted by Listen With Others on 19 Mar 2017

The inspiration for Where Falls the Axe? was an article I read about the proposed felling of a tree known as the “Cubbington Pear” to make way for the HS2 railway line. Being about 250 years old, the Cubbington Pear is believed to be the second largest and possibly the oldest wild pear tree in Britain, and living fairly nearby in Birmingham, and having friends actually living in Cubbington, I feel some particular affinity to it. See, for example, The Woodland Trust. Reading a bit further, I was saddened to discover just how many ancient woodlands are in line for disruption or complete destruction when the first stage of HS2 is built, despite the efforts that are being made to minimize the damage.

The theme seemed to me to be suitable for Listener crossword treatment. I was aware, of course, that it was a contentious subject, and particularly so as, in the way the puzzle turned out, my own feelings on the matter were made plain, and many people might well hold the opposite view. In my submission, I did indicate to the editors that I’d be happy to adjust the puzzle, removing references to my own stance to make the puzzle more “neutral”, but they seemed happy to proceed with it as it was. I do hope that no one was too offended!

From the start, I had in mind the idea of the term “High Speed Two” being inserted along the NW–SE diagonal (roughly representing the respective geographical locations of Birmingham and London), and cutting through a series of trees representing the ancient woodlands. The fact that “Curzon Street” (the proposed Birmingham terminus for HS2) and London Euston both comprise pairs of six letter words suggested the unusual grid shape. I probably should have had the term “High Speed Two” running SE to NW rather than the other way, but living in Birmingham, I always tend to think of HS2 in terms of going to London.

How to bring in the trees? I didn’t want the theme to be apparent too early on in the solving process, so I decided to make the insertion of the phrase “High Speed Two” complete the names of the trees. Thematically, this is a little bit the “wrong way round”, since the trees should really be there before HS2 arrives. I also decided to use jumbled entries further to try to disguise the presence of the trees in the grid. However, I rather regret doing this now: there is not really any thematic justification for the jumbled entries, and I think an alternative construction in which all entries were real words would have been possible, and more elegant.

To complete the theme, instructions derived from extra words in the clues told solvers to insert “High Speed Two”, and then remove six trees from the grid (representing the destruction of the ancient woodlands), keeping HS2 in place. The preamble carefully stated that the actions of the second instruction were dependent on those of the first: this was to try to prevent solvers finding and removing other trees which might appear in the completed grid (such as “ti” which appears in 14dn). The final grid is perhaps a little chaotic, but I justified this to myself, at least, on the basis that construction of HS2 will lead to quite a bit of chaos!

The idea for the phrase “Can’t see the wood for the trees” actually came a little later in the process of compiling the puzzle. Looking at the partially-completed grid I had at that stage, I could see that – by good fortune – I already had cells in normal grid order which virtually spelled out the first part of the phrase. The “Can’t see the wood” part is obviously appropriate for the final grid, and with the “For the trees” part representing my own view, I hoped no-one would mind my wearing my heart on my sleeve in this puzzle.

The Listener editors worked hard to schedule the publishing of the puzzle as close as possible to the granting of Royal Assent to the HS2 bill. This process has taken several years, and even when it was clear that the granting of Royal Assent was soon to happen, the actual date was never certain. In the event, the editors got it absolutely right – Royal Assent to the HS2 bill was granted on 23rd February, 2017, just two days before “Where Falls the Axe” was published. The Listener editors are wonderful!

With Royal Assent having been granted, construction of HS2 is due to begin soon. Sadly, the Cubbington Pear, and all the other ancient woodlands remembered in this puzzle, still stand in its path, and will be cut down. We will never get them back.



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