Sitting at my desk staring at the pouring rain it is hard to remember that I have only recently returned from my holidays. I am busily pulling together some articles from my travels. Here is the first: about the historic St Catherine’s Hill and Mizmaze, just south of Winchester, famed for its views, its history, and its mysterious Mizmaze.
St Catherine’s Hill is a steep chalk hill just south of Winchester, offering fine views of the city to those who manage the strenuous climb to the top. Today the hill is managed as a nature reserve, but it is also steeped in history: the site of an ancient fort and chapel, and a not-so-ancient turf maze.
History of St Catherine’s Hill
Iron Age settlers built a fort on the hill 2,500 years ago. Its circular ramparts ringed the top of the hill, giving ample opportunity to observe the surrounding countryside.
The group of beech trees at the top is known locally as ‘The Clump’. Beneath them lie the remains of St Catherine’s Chapel, a Norman structure built 900 years ago. The chapel was destroyed in 1537.
There are differing explanations for the naming of the hill, and of the chapel that was built upon it. According to one source, it derived its name from the circular form of the hill fort, St Catherine having been martyred upon a wheel. Alternatively, it is locally thought that she was the patron saint of hilltops (having supposedly ascended to heaven from Mount Sinai), and the name is in use for hills elsewhere in the region.
The Winchester Mizmaze
To the left of The Clump is the Winchester Mizmaze, one of eight historic turf mazes still remaining in England. Cut into the chalk, with no junctions or crossings, this is not a maze in the modern sense but a labyrinth. It is 624m long and formed from nine nested squares, in a pattern similar to that used for the traditional game of Nine Men’s Morris. Unusually for a turf maze, its form is rectangular rather than circular.
The origins of the Mizmaze are obscure. Although mediaeval in design, it is thought to date from the 17th century. Local tradition links it with Winchester College, as boys from the school used the hill as a recreational area. The legend is that it was carved one summer by a boy who had been banished to the hill for bad behaviour. With nothing else to do, he drew on his knowledge of classical maze design and set out on the lonely task of measuring out the maze. The story ends with the boy drowning on the last day of the holidays!
Far fetched though this tale may seem, no other explanation has been found for the creation of the maze. It is equally uncertain what it was intended for. It is thought that some mediaeval mazes may have been built for penitential rituals but a recreational purpose is more likely by the time of the 17th century. Certainly, walking around the maze (known locally as “tolling of the Labyrinth”) became a regular pastime for the College schoolboys.
The maze fell into disuse for a while, but was recut in the late 19th century. The practice of tolling the Labyrinth was resurrected and has continued to the present day.
Getting to St Catherine’s Hill