Most of England’s ancient turf mazes have a rural location, set into a village green, or in the open countryside. But Julian’s Bower, in Alkborough, North Lincolnshire, must have the most enviable setting. Perched on a high hill, it overlooks the confluence of three rivers, the Trent, the Ouse and the Humber. Far below are the Alkborough Flats, a wetland reserve teeming with birds and other wildlife.
The Origins of Julian’s Bower
The origins of Julian’s Bower are obscure. The first recorded reference is by the Lincolnshire diarist Abraham de la Pryme in 1697. Pryme thought that the maze was of Roman origin, and the extent to which it is sunk below the surrounding ground certainly suggests antiquity. However, it is of a medieval Christian design; it is possible that it was cut in Roman times and later reshaped. Alternatively it may have been created by monks from the Benedictine cell that flourished in Alkborough until 1220. Or there is the local legend that the labyrinth was carved in the 12th century as a penance by a knight who was involved in the murder of Thomas à Becket.
The name is equally mysterious. Julian’s Bower is a traditional name for a labyrinth, perhaps derived from Julius, son of Aeneas (hero of Virgil’s Aeneid), who was thought to have introduced Roman mazes to the city of Troy. However, Pryme also uses the name “Gillian”. This was once a universal name for a girl or woman (equivalent to the male “Jack”), and symbolises fertility, which would tie in with the traditional use of mazes for courtship rituals.
While we’re on the subject of names, Pryme’s record shows that there was once a second labyrinth, of a different design. This one was known as “Troy’s Walls”. In maze terms this is a reference to the fact that the city walls of Troy were supposedly so confusing that no enemy would ever find his way out!
Sport or Penance?
Julian’s Bower is constructed from interlocking rings, built to the “standard Chartres design”. This is similar to the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral in France, where pilgrims would trace the route to the centre (known as Jerusalem), sometimes on their knees. This has led people to assume that, whatever its origins, the maze was used for penitential purposes in the Middle Ages. However we also know (from Pryme’s account and other local sources) that in Elizabethan and Stuart times it was used for sport, and that it remained in use for May Eve games until the 19th century.
Walking the maze remains a popular pastime; although it is only 13.5m wide, the path to the centre is said to be about a quarter of a mile long. Regular walking takes its toll on the turf, meaning that it has to be repaired from time to time (it was last done in 2007). However there is no danger of the design being lost. I saw it reproduced four times as I walked around Alkborough: on the village boundary stone, on the sign outside the Coronation Club, in the church porch and on the grave of James Goulton Constable in the village cemetery. Although we didn’t see it, the pattern apparently also features on a window inside the church. Clearly this is a village that is proud of its ancient heritage.