I was on a quest to visit all of the ancient English turf mazes, and I had just one left: Troy Town, at Somerton in Oxfordshire. Uniquely among the surviving English labyrinths, the Somerton turf maze is privately owned, in the garden of the Troy Farm Bed and Breakfast. So I booked myself into the B&B, and went to have a look.
Origins of the Somerton Turf Maze
As with all historic labyrinths, the origins of the Somerton Turf Maze are obscure. The existence of nearby Roman roads has led to speculation that it dates from Roman times. However, although it is true that the Romans used mazes for the playing of sports and games, it would be unusual for a turf maze to survive for so long. It is more likely that it was built in the Middle Ages: mazes were common in the medieval period, and several were recorded in the Domesday Book.
The land on which the maze stands was at one time owned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux. The existence of a pavement maze inside Bayeux Cathedral might have inspired him to create a labyrinth on his own ground. Or perhaps it was the work of the Aston family who lived here until the establishment of Troy Farm in the 16th century.
If Bishop Odo built Troy Town then its purpose could have been religious, to be used for prayer or penance. Alternatively, as it was on private land, it could have been part of the garden design (formal gardens had started to incorporate mazes by the time of the Astons). What we do know is that in later times Mayday dancing and celebrations took place here, a practice that continued into the 20th century.
Design of the Troy Town Labyrinth
Troy Town has an atmospheric setting, hidden among trees and close to the Portway track (an ancient pre-Roman road). It is one of the largest of the remaining turf mazes, measuring 60 ft by 50 ft, and the path is around a quarter of a mile long. The labyrinth is of the classical design, with fifteen concentric rings, and resembles the 12th century floor maze at Toussaints Abbey in France.
Troy Town, or Walls of Troy, was a popular name for medieval labyrinths. It may be a reference to the ancient city of Troy, whose walls were supposedly so confusing that enemy invaders would never find their way out. Or it might just be derived from the Celtic word troian (Anglo Saxon thrawen), meaning “to turn”.
Visiting the Somerton Turf Maze
Troy Town is about 16 miles from Oxford. Guests at the B&B have access to the maze and other visitors may view it by appointment (contact Mrs R Power at Troy Farm). Donations for the upkeep of the maze are welcome.