England is home to a number of historic turf labyrinths. But the only place where you will find stone labyrinths is on the Scilly Isles, off the coast of Cornwall. I set out to discover where you can see the stone labyrinths of the Scilly Isles, and why they were built.
What Are Stone Labyrinths?
In the Middle Ages, labyrinths were a common feature of the northern European landscape. Unlike modern puzzle mazes, they had no dead ends, but created a meandering route to the centre. Perhaps they were designed for games, perhaps for prayer or penance. (I discuss this further in my post The Riddle Of English Turf Mazes.)
All the known medieval English labyrinths were cut from turf. However stone labyrinths were common in Scandinavia. Many still remain in Sweden (around 40, both ancient and modern, just on the island of Gotland). They are usually in coastal locations, and are likely to have been associated with the need to protect sailors from evil spirits and inclement weather.
Puzzle mazes usually have tall walls or hedges. However, historic labyrinths were flat structures. The turf or stone is close to the ground, marking out clearly visible paths.
Troy Town St Agnes
The only historic labyrinth on the Scilly Isles is on the island of St Agnes. It is thought to have been built in the 1790s by Amor Clarke, a lighthouse keeper on the island. It is however possible that there was once a much older structure on this site.
The St Agnes maze is known as Troy Town. This was a common name for traditional mazes, a reference to the winding streets of the ancient city of Troy. The seven ring design is of a type that is frequently repeated elsewhere.
Troy Town Today
By 1988 the St Agnes labyrinth had deteriorated and the site was renovated. This caused a certain amount of controversy: dissenters claimed that insufficient attention had been paid to the original structure. However, it was eventually rebuilt and it remains in its rebuilt form, to be enjoyed by those who seek it out.
The maze is by the coast just south of Troy Town Farm. It is not signposted and takes a bit of finding. You will be rewarded by an isolated spot and lovely sea views.
Modern Stone Labyrinths Of The Scilly Isles
The argument over the rebuilding of Troy Town sparked a revival of interest in labyrinths. This contributed to a craze for the construction of new mazes that had commenced in the mid 20th century.
Several modern stone mazes have been created across the Scilly Isles. These include one at Giant’s Castle, near the airport on St Mary’s, and others on the small islands of Gugh and Bryher. However, the structures are liable to disruption and, without maintenance, may simply disappear.
The St Martin’s Maze Field
The best place to see modern mazes is on the island of St Martin’s. The St Martin’s Maze Field is a collection of stone labyrinths, built by different people at different times. Although the exact origins of the maze field are unknown, it is thought that it was started by airmen stationed on the island during the Second World War.
These labyrinths are of different styles and design, according to the whim of the individual builder. There is even an unusual square maze. Interestingly, the gradual disappearance of some labyrinths and creation of new ones means that the maze field may not look the same from one visit to the next!
The St Martin’s Maze Field can be found in the north west of the island, close to the shoreline overlooking White Island.
For a more detailed description of the stone labyrinths of the Scilly Isles have a look at this discussion of the Scilly Troytowns.