Being Amazed by the Saffron Walden Maze

Saffron Walden maze
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Last week I wrote about my fascination with old walls. Now I’m turning to another of my obsessions: medieval turf mazes. I’ve been on a quest to visit all of the eight remaining English turf mazes, and I’ve managed to tick three off the list in the last month. 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.

Saffron Walden maze
The ancient Saffron Walden maze

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.

Super Chartres design of the Saffron Walden Maze - www.worldwidewriter.co.uk
The maze follows the Super-Chartres design

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!)

Saffron Walden maze - www.worldwidewriter.co.uk
The maze is full of sharp turns that can slow down a 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.

Jubilee Garden Labyrinth, Saffron Walden - www.worldwidewriter.co.uk
The Jubilee Garden Labyrinth has a sleeping hare at the centre

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.

 

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10 thoughts on “Being Amazed by the Saffron Walden Maze”

  1. How fascinating! I am wondering if the labyrinth-style mazes were used for meditation as well as penance (probably the same thing). I am currently watching “The Tudors” from start to finish and now I know I’ll find myself keeping an eye out for a maze (some of the gardens appear to have them).

    1. I think you may be right about meditation. I’ve seen a reference at another labyrinth to it having been built after the end of the Crusades as an alternative “pilgrimage route”. The theory was that once people could no longer go to Jerusalem they would follow the path around the maze instead (possibly stopping to meditate at each sharp turn).

  2. So glad you discovered our new bandstand maze! But there are even more, if you look really hard. Katherine Semar School has a sensory play maze – a spin-off from the 2013 festival- and a couple of us have small finger labyrinths on our houses. We’re also hoping that there will be another new maze for the next festival 20/21 August 2016, as well as lots of temporary mazes, games, walks, art and more.

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About Karen

WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren. I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 60 countries at the last count). I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica (I still hope to get there one day…), and my current favourite destinations are Italy, Spain and North America. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way.

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