The Riddle Of English Turf Mazes

Alkborough maze

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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.

Traditional Maze Designs

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.

Turf maze with a pillar at the centre and trees behind
The turf maze at Hilton, Cambridgeshire

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.

One of England's remaining turf mazes
Julian’s Bower, Alkborough

Penance And Pilgrimage

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.

Maze Games And Festivities

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.

There is also a historic stone labyrinth on the island of St Agnes in the Scilly Isles.

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.

Turf maze at Burghley Sculpture Garden
Peter Randall-Page’s Turf maze at Burghley Sculpture Garden

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.

Convex Green, Clitheroe Castle, Lancashire
Jim Buchanan’s Convex Green at Clitheroe Castle, Lancashire

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.

St Giles Churchyard, Oxford
People are invited to pray or meditate as they walk the labyrinth in St Giles Churchyard

Maze festivals, such as the occasional events 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.


3 thoughts on “The Riddle Of English Turf Mazes”

  1. Mazes were originally the drainage and aeration grooves installed beneath giant haystacks.The groove which probably may have been a helix was called a rigoll.In the centre a rig pole and in concentric positions small posts which held the ropes or riggbands to the rig pole.
    they were called rig bolls and held the straw in place.Four held the pole in place.
    In the spring dances took place on the rigoll.
    Many were what we call reels.Old spelling righeouls.
    heoul stone at stone henge.
    Not labyrinths.Labyrinths according to Plato, ” Not those things in the fields but a place with many rooms and corridors”
    Intellectual museums for learning and meditation.One symbol of quick change was the double headed ace of The Minoans, the labrys.Labyrinth overlooked Lake Moeris in Egypt.Morris Dancing ?
    see more in book PRDS Paradise The Secret Garden.

  2. So many parts of current life go back.
    Read PRDS Paradise The Secret Garden, book full of rebuses.A re bus is a secret that is on full view not hidden

    BEA was only Egyptian , “god?” who was shown facing you.
    He was a bringer of goodness.They said in ancient Egypt that if a child smiled in its sleep it was because it had dreamed of BES.
    Telling you to T ?

    So all the BEST.

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