Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Eve in the Late 1970s

Last night (Christmas Eve) the BBC broadcast a version of the Hound of the Baskervilles.

Like a lot of TV drama it was watchable without being memorable.

But the memories did come back of Christmas Eves in the 1970s, when accompanied by a set of grandparents, the family would all go out to dinner at friend’s pub/restaurant a few miles away called the Maesllwch Arms.

It was a pre-Christmas treat, as much for the adults who were spared preparing one formal meal, as for us children who seldom went out to a proper restaurant. I remember having a rather ghastly duck in orange source there one year, followed no doubt by delicious black forest gateau and then possibly cheese and biscuits. Yes it was all very sophisticated and wonderful for an 11 year old.

The food may have been unreliable at times but the venue was great; there was always a log fire which was not just pretty but functional in mid Wales in late December. Then there was a magnificent collection of brass ornaments on and around the fireplace, including real horse brasses (you can always tell the real ones because they are large and crudely made and chunky).

My favourite objects on the mantelpiece were (typically) a pair of heavy brass artillery shell tips with a scale engraved on the bottom of each cone in 1/10ths of a second. Presumably you swivelled the tip of the shell around to the correct setting for a certain range before loading it for proximity firing.

Of course every 1/10th of second counted that night; the long wait for Christmas itself, which began in earnest for us after Halloween, was nearly over. It was the best day of the year by far for us kids, and it’s the only thing about my childhood I genuinely miss – that visceral thrill of waking up on Christmas day and knowing there were presents, perhaps as many as 20 of them, waiting under the tree to be opened.

Maesllwch, pronounced my-slou-ch, is a little area about half a mile from Glasbury on the River Wye. It takes it name from the once impressive Maesllwch Castle, which is a lovely not-very-old castle with magnificent views across the valley and down to the Wye.

During our time in the area, lots of people became enchanted with the castle, but nobody could work out a way of making money from the place. I remember it being a luxury hotel, then a health-club, and finally some kind of spa and outdoor sports centre. It may even be abandoned now. The main trouble was the location – that part of mid Wales is really very remote, and a long way from any customers, let alone rich clients.

A local story that said Sir Arthur Conon Doyle once stayed at Maersllwch Castle, and used it’s scary remoteness and haunted gothic atmosphere as his inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles, although he transferred the location to Dartmore. Alas Wikipedia doesn’t support this story, so it must have been one of those Welsh stories told to the guilible English.

Never mind – it’s a nice story and it’s nice to remember those Christmas Eves.