At first sight it is similar to any other English turf maze. But the Hilton Maze, in Cambridgeshire, has one or two unusual features. Not only do we know the exact date on which it was cut, but that date is in the 17th century, rather than the more usual medieval period. And, unlike other old labyrinths, the path follows the turf rather than the sunken earth beside it. But things may not always be as they seem…
The When and Why of the Hilton Maze
We know – because there is a pillar at the centre that tells us so – that the Hilton Maze was cut in 1660. It was the work of William Sparrow, a 19 year old Royalist sympathiser, celebrating the Restoration of the British monarchy and the succession of King Charles II to the throne. However this may not be the whole story. Most mazes of this type are medieval in origin; it is possible that William Sparrow built his labyrinth upon the site of an earlier one.
There is also a question mark over why he created the maze. Medieval mazes have religious connotations, and are thought to have been used for penitential purposes. But the Restoration was the end of a period of religious austerity. Is it likely that a 19 year old Royalist would have marked the return of the King with a penitential maze? Or did he want to recall an earlier, more carefree, time? Perhaps his maze was intended for recreational use, for races and games.
Classic Chartres Design
If you visit the Hilton Maze, take a moment to look around the Village Green. Local tradition has it that the Green was laid out by the landscape architect Capability Brown, who owned land in the area. Whether true or not, it is certainly a well designed and historic landscape.
The Maze is set in a corner of the Green. It is cut in the Chartres design (based on the labyrinth on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France), very similar to another maze, now lost, in the nearby village of Comberton. Although it is only 16.5m in diameter the path to the centre is 209m (I measured it with my pedometer).
The central pillar was added in 1729. It has inscriptions in English and Latin, and is topped with a sundial. Adding the pillar may have removed an inner circle of the maze, and it seems that this is not the only change that has been made over the years. The path was originally laid with pebbles, which were replaced with raised turf in 1899. And there are references to the maze being recut at various times, at one point with a path leading directly to the centre (which, if true, would be very unusual for any type of maze or labyrinth). Like other ancient turf mazes, the Hilton Maze raises more questions than answers.