Hidden away, often far from cities or public transport, turf mazes are a puzzle of the English countryside. Many known to have existed across northern Europe, including at least 60 in England. However only eleven now remain: eight in England and three in Germany. The mazes (or labyrinths as they are more correctly known) were created by cutting grooves in an area of turf to leave a continous path of grass. These paths wear down quickly so that regular re-cutting of the grooves is necessary, making it difficult to date them with any certainty.
The maze designs appear elsewhere in the form of stone labyrinths (particularly in Scandinavia) and in churches across Europe, a famous example being the maze on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France. All of the English mazes are unicursal, meaning that there is only one path from the entrance to the centre, with no junctions. This differentiates them from the more commonly known “puzzle mazes” in which it is easy to become lost.
Two of the English mazes are of the classical design, the remainder being of the medieval Christian pattern, although it is possible that in some cases this design was superimposed on an earlier structure.
Purpose of Turf Mazes
It is hard to be certain why the mazes were originally built. However they have a prominent place in all mythologies and there seems to be an association with the Cretan legend of the Minotaur, as well as with the labyrinthine city walls of ancient Troy.
Whatever the original intention, since the Middle Ages mazes have been used for religious purposes and as a part of community festivities. The medieval Christian maze represented the journey of the human soul, where the goal was clear but the way to achieve it was confusing. The maze was often linked to the idea of pilgrimage. It is suggested that, after the end of the Crusades in the 13th century, pilgrims would walk, or crawl, along the long paths of the labyrinth, stopping for reflection at each turn. In some mazes, such as the one at Chartres, the centre is actually known as Jerusalem.
Because the same patterns frequently appear in churches it is thought that mazes were also used for penitential purposes, whereby sinners would be made to trace the path upon their hands and knees. Yet another theory is that mazes were a way to confound the Devil, who could only travel in straight lines.
The mazes were normally in public places, often on village greens. This led to them being used during village fairs and other festivities. An early recorded instance of this is in Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream, where Titania says
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green,
For lack of tread, are undistinguishable.
(Act 2, Scene 1, lines 98-100)
Maze games were outlawed during Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth of 1649-1660. However they were soon revived and continued into the 19th century. The games might take the form of races or other sport, but they were often closely connected with courtship and fertility rituals.
Old English Turf Mazes
The remaining ancient turf mazes in England are as follows
- Mizmaze, Breamore, Hampshire. On Breamore Down, the earliest record of this maze is in 1783 but it may be of medieval origin.
- The Maze, Hilton, Cambridgeshire. In the middle of the village, it has a pillar and sundial at its centre.
- The Maze, Saffron Walden, Essex. This is the largest turf maze in England, located in the Town Common.
- Troy Town, Somerton, Oxfordshire. In a private garden, possibly dating from the 16th or 17th century.
- Mizmaze, St Catherine’s Hill, Hampshire. Just to the south of the city of Winchester, the Mizmaze has an unusual rectangular design.
- The Old Maze, Wing, Rutland. A medieval maze on the edge of the village green, traditionally used for running.
- Julian’s Bower, Alkborough, Lincolnshire. A cliff top maze overlooking three rivers. Probably of medieval origin.
- City of Troy, Dalby, North Yorkshire. The smallest remaining turf maze in Europe, situtated on the roadside outside the village of Dalby.
Modern Turf Mazes
Interest in mazes as a garden feature was revived during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of these have been hedge mazes or more experimental designs such as mirror mazes. However some turf labyrinths have been cut in recent times. Unlike earlier mazes most of the modern versions are artistic creations, with no religious or recreational purpose. Two contemporary examples are Peter Randall-Page’s “Turf Maze” (2001) in the Burghley Sculpture Garden, and Jim Buchanan’s “Convex Green” (2005) in the grounds of Clitheroe Castle.
One modern labyrinth that was built for religious reasons is that in St Giles Churchyard, Oxford. People are invited to walk the path and to pray or meditate as they go.
Maze festivals, such as the annual event in Saffron Walden, have also become popular. Mazes may be mysterious, and puzzling, but it seems that our fascination with them is as strong as it was in the days of the Minotaur.