I have to confess to a slight obsession with medieval labyrinths. I was on a quest to visit all of the eight remaining English turf mazes, with three left to find. The first was Saffron Walden, in Essex, the largest labyrinth of this type still in existence. And I was surprised to find that Saffron Walden doesn’t just have one maze, but a whole town of them.
The Obscure Origins of Turf Mazes
Like most ancient turf mazes, the origin of Saffron Walden’s labyrinth is obscure. It probably dates from the Middle Ages, but the first written record is of a payment of 15 shillings (75p in modern money) for it to be recut in 1699. It has been recut on several occasions since, and later reinforced with bricks. There is a local tradition that it is actually a copy of another, earlier maze. Intriguingly, this idea seems to be backed up by an aerial photograph taken in the dry summer of 1996, showing the faint outline of an identical maze elsewhere on the Town Common. Perhaps the maze was moved, or perhaps there were once two mazes.
It is more properly described as a labyrinth than a maze, as there is only one route from start to finish, with no false paths. The design is described as “super-Chartres”, a medieval Christian design based on (but not identical to) the famous labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France. The pattern consists of seventeen linked circles, with four raised bastions around the edge. Of course, the remarkable thing about mazes and labyrinths is their ability to wind up long paths into a small area. The whole 1500 metres (almost a mile) of Saffron Walden’s maze is packed into a space only 35 metres wide.
Games on the Saffron Walden Maze
No-one is really sure why the maze was first built, although medieval labyrinths are often associated with religious penances and fertility rites. But, whatever the original intention, this one has a long history of being used for games and revelry. It stands on the Town Common, itself an ancient piece of common land that has hosted fairs and festivals for centuries. So it is not surprising that the maze should have played a part in these proceedings. There are several accounts of wagers of beer being placed on the outcome of races to the centre of the maze. (This is not as easy as it might look, as there are frequent sharp turns in the path which can trip up the unwary runner!)
Sometimes the games and festivities could become quite rowdy. The Town Museum records a game in which “a young maiden stood in the middle while young men competed to follow the path as quickly as possible without stumbling”. And the Guy Fawkes celebrations of 1823 were so lively that an old ash tree in the middle of the maze was burnt to the ground.
A Whole Town of Mazes
Before I went to Saffron Walden I thought there wouldn’t be much to see apart from the turf maze. How wrong I was! Apart from the old buildings, churches and Art Gallery (which will have to wait for another time), this turned out to be a whole town of mazes. There is a historic hedge maze at Bridge End Garden, is itself a historic maze, dating back to the end of the 18th century. And a more modern paved labyrinth in the Jubilee Garden, built on the base of the bandstand in 2013. Then there is the Sun Maze Sculpture in the local Art Gallery, created by Michael Ayrton, an artist and writer who was passionately interested in mazes and the legends surrounding them.
But four mazes are not enough for Saffron Walden. In 2011 the town held its first Maze Festival, with lots of temporary mazes and maze-themed events. There were challenges too, including maze racing through the labyrinth. There have been two festivals since, the last in 2016. This is a town keeping in touch with its ancient traditions.