Julian’s Bower, Alkborough: an Ancient English Turf Maze

Julian's Bower, Alkborough
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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.

Julian's Bower, Alkborough
Julian’s Bower sits on a hilltop overlooking wetlands

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.

Sign outside the Coronation Club
The sign outside the Coronation Club shows the maze and the view from the top of the hill

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.

Gravestone
The gravestone of James Goulton Constable shows the design of Julian’s Bower

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.

Alkborough church
The labyrinth features in the porch of the village church and also on a window inside

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14 thoughts on “Julian’s Bower, Alkborough: an Ancient English Turf Maze”

  1. One of the things I love when I am reading a post is reacting with, “I didn’t know that!”. I was especially surprised when you wrote about the Chartres Cathedral in France and the labyrinth there. I had to do a Google search because I didn’t even know it was there! Now I will always know what a Julians Bower is!

    1. No – mazes with hedges came later (I think they became popular during the Renaissance). Early mazes (or labyrinths) tended to be at ground level.

  2. We never cease to learn and I am always interested in historical tidbits. If these mazes have medieval origins, could they not possibly have been the maze gardens of some long gone castle? Thanks for an interesting posting!

    1. Most of the remaining labyrinths are in quite remote places, not near to any castle remains. It’s possible that some of the mazes that have disappeared were in private grounds, but I think that maze gardens were a later innovation.

  3. Terrific information about the origin & history of labyrinths. We have seen and walked the one on Chartres and we actually have one in our church in Chicago. They are quite good for reflecting and relaxing.

  4. Julian’s Bower looks fascinating. Glad it doesn’t have high walls. We once got lost in a maze and it was a bit daunting, I could deal with this one.

  5. Hi Karen, I
    I was brought up in NE Lincolnshire in the villages of Burton on Stather and Alkborough where Julian’s Bower is located. Some of my earliest memories are of being taken for a trip to the “Maze” and the nearby stream where you can find Star Stones (fossilised core of a plant stem).
    My parents were family doctors in the area and lived in the villages for 60 years.
    All the children and adults in the family would visit the Maze when we were spending time together.
    When I moved to West Cork in Ireland and we bought a small holding I have always had an itch to recreate the Maze in memory of my parents and childhood. Lockdown has given me the perfect opportunity and the West Cork Chartres Labyrinth is almost complete. “Lockdown Labyrinth” as it is currently known.
    I will send you photos once complete and we would welcome visits from enthusiastic Maze hunters. Accommodation is available on site as we have the original farm Cottage and a converted Hayloft let through Airbnb. Look for ” Nick and Annie’s quiet country cottage or Hayloft”.
    I would love to have contact with anyone who knows of other grass cut or paved Chatres Labyrinths to be able to set up a group page.
    Nick Bowen
    Church Cross
    Skibbereen
    Cork.

  6. My father, Edward Hewitt (he died in his late eighties 10 years ago), was born and brought up in Alkborough, the son of the Miller there. ‘Alkborough is a pretty place. It stands upon a hill. It has two chapels and a church and Charlie Hewitt’s mill’.
    In my father’s day all the domestic buildings were single storey cottages as you may imagine. The one exception was a building shaped like a tower some three stories high, known in the village as ‘the High House’, only 100 yards from Julian’s Bower. It may still be there.
    The house was built for a Victorian sea captain. Having docked his ship at the small port beneath the hill, he climbed up to the village. The skies are big here – you can look across the Humber and see York Minster on a clear day. But the day was not clear. A squall whipped up out of nowhere and, to his terrible despair, took his ship…and his new bride with it.
    From that awful day our captain gave no thought for the present, nor looked to the future, but seemingly forever sat in his deep buttoned leather chair in the house he had built overlooking the spot, and reflected on what might have been, until he eventually died, hopefully to be reunited with his beloved.

    When he retired my father wrote a romantic historical novel based on the story that had been with him all his life. It was picked up by a publisher and is in print around the world. A number of books followed under ‘The Cartwright Saga’. He did not stop at the bedroom door either – my mother used to say that she did not know where he got it from.
    Just thought someone may be interested in a little local history.

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