At the end of last year I wrote about the earliest turf mazes in Britain but I ran out of space to do justice to the subject, so here’s your chance to find out about the largest turf maze in the world, and discover several others including the smallest one in Europe.
The interest in all kinds of mazes, including those cut into turf, carried on well past the mediaeval period, and indeed, during the 16th and 17th centuries, as exemplified in the portrait of Lord Edward Russell [which I’ve written about earlier] they assume a symbolic importance far removed from the physical reality.
However, increasing urbanisation and the loss of rural roots, seems to have put paid to most maze creation after that until the late 19th and early 20thc. More recently interest has grown considerably with many more being designed and planted in the last 50 years or so. Although most new ones are hedge mazes there are some interesting new ones in turf too.
Let’s start by looking at the world’s largest turf maze which is in the beautiful Essex town of Saffron Walden. But Saffron Walden wasn’t content with just having one maze and actually boasts four of them. Two are modern and one Victorian but the one that I want to mention today is a roughly, circular labyrinth with 17 circuits. It is 132 feet across and enclosed by a bank and ditch with four bastion-like extensions, sometimes referred to as “bellows” at equal distances around the circumference. Normally the path around a turf maze is on the grass ridge but here it’s the reverse and path is in the cut section.
No-one knows when it was first created but many of you will, I’m sure, recognise a possible source for the design. I wrote way back in 2015 about Thomas Hill who wrote the first proper gardening books published in Britain. The Profitable Arte of Gardening,  includes two designs for mazes which Hill says could be “adornments upon pleasure to a garden”, one of these is a mirror image of the one in Saffron Walden. Of course Hill knew nothing about maze design and, since there was no sense of copyright, simply copied this from a French emblem book, Guillaume de la Perrière’s Le Théatre des bon engins, auquel sont contenuz cent Emblemes moraulx, published in Paris in 1539.
Rather like the portrait of Lord Edward Russell the labyrinth is intended as symbolic of moral choices. The figure in the middle has the option of paths which lead to idle pleasure or virtue. In Perrière’s original you can see the ‘bastions’ have simple symbols representing the four elements, earth, fire, air and water but unfortunately that subtlety was not copied by Hill’s artist.
The earliest documentary record of the Saffron Walden turf maze is not until 1699, when an entry in the Corporation’s account books refers to a payment of 15 shillings for it to be cut. This could be merely a maintenance job but it’s also perfectly possible that it was the date of its creation, as there were other “improvements” carried out at the same time on the common. It’s been plausibly suggested that the work was carried out by Dutch soldiers [for more on that idea see the articles referenced below]. Later there are descriptions and a sketch plan of the maze by antiquarian Richard Gough from 1768 and 1798 which indicate the structure was seriously decayed, but by 1816 it was back in decent order as a notebook and sketch in the local museum witnesses. In the maze’s centre was an ash tree but unfortunately this was burnt down on November 5th 1823 during Bonfire Night celebrations.
Restorations are recorded for 1826, 1841, 1859, 1887 and then in 1911, the pathway was laid with bricks. It was last recut in 1979 when the bricks were cemented in place.
Saffron Walden Town Council are extremely proud of their four mazes and not only have produced an informative on-line leaflet about them, but have also held Maze Festivals in 2011, 2013, and 2016.
For more detailed information about the maze, its history is recorded with discussion of the dating and maintenance in two articles by Jeff Saward. One in Caerdroia vol 41 2012 and the other, a slightly different version in the Saffron Walden Historical Journal No 23 Autumn 2012
From the largest to the smallest historic surviving turf maze at Dalby-cum-Skewsby in North Yorkshire. In fact, at only 26ft by 22 ft, its not just the smallest in Britain but in the whole of Europe although it still manages to pack in a classic seven-ring design.
As I explained in the earlier post about turf mazes many of them had names associated with Troy perhaps because the walls of the city of the legendary ancient city were imagined to be so complex that once inside strangers would find it difficult to find their way out. The one at Dalby is just one such. Known as The City of Troy its history is unknown, with some stories dating it to the mid-19th century and the layout based on a design found on a nearby barn door while another has it copied from a picture in a newspaper. Of course, its always possible that it was simply a re-cutting of an earlier maze. What is known for certain is that it hasn’t been listed by Historic England, and that it was recut (and possibly even relocated) after being damaged by horses and wagons early in the 20th century.
Our next turf maze is at at Troy Farm at Somerton in Oxfordshire. Since there are also other nearby garden features like a circular pond which cuts across an area of ridge and furrow farming it’s thought likely to be post-medieval in origin perhaps from somewhere between the late 15th and 17th centuries – thats how vague dating can be. The name first appears on a 1797 map as Troy House which probably implies that a maze was in existence before then. It’s a scheduled ancient monument and may have been a part of a garden design for a late mediaeval manor house that was pulled down in 1642.
Whatever the case its not a typical turf-maze. The design is extremely elaborate with 15 circuits rather than the more usual eleven, altogether stretching for 400 yards, and its “centre” is not just off-centre its very close to the entrance. Nor is it quite the normal circular shape, since it measures over 18 metres east-west and but only nearly 16 north-south. It is the only one of this type in Britain but there are several similar in Scandinavia. A previous owner said in 1936 that “until recent years the children came on May Day to tread the maze”. Nowadays it is well maintained and preserved but in a private garden and surrounded by dense trees.
An even more unusual design can be seen on St Catherine’s Hill overlooking Winchester. The hilltop was the site of an Iron Age settlement dated to around 500BC, and then it was fortified around 250BC. Large areas of the site remain to be excavated but it was in use through the Roman period and there are the remains of a Norman chapel too. The maze – known here as a mizmaze- is inside the fort’s boundary and is thought to have been cut between 1647 when there’s a description of the hill that doesn’t mention a maze, and 1710 when its first recorded. Local legend has it that it was dug during a long vacation by a single melancholic student from Winchester College, who died afterwards of the effort. It’s unusual in that the design has been reconfigured into a roughly square shape, probably between 1830 and 1840.
Another one from the same era is on the village green at Hilton in Cambridgeshire, which was first cut, or possibly re-cut in 1660 by 19 yr old William Sparrow who lived at Park Farm overlooking the green. The family were apparently well known royalists so was this to celebrate the restoration of Charles II that year? Was it a new maze or merely revival of an earlier one which fallen into disuse during the Commonwealth period when such things were supposedly suppressed?
It’s been suggested that it was a copy of one at nearby Comberton which is now lost. That had been visited and photographed in 1921 by William Matthews who wrote the first serious account of maze history published the following year. Known as the “Mazles” it was apparently used for a village feast every three years when it was recut. However when the new village school was built the maze “occupied an inconvenient position just outside the scholars’ entrance” and so was moved a few yards away. This did not stop it still being used as a playground by the children so “the paths are nearly denuded of grass.”
In another twist of fate the local lord of the manor at Hilton was Capability Brown of neighbouring Fenstanton. He commissioned a map from John Spyers drawn in 1788 which records a well-laid-out village green at Hilton and local tradition claims without, of course, any documentary back-up, that this is because it was designed by Brown himself. A central stone pier with cornice and ball sundial is inscribed in memory of Sparrow, who “departed this life on the 25th of August anno Domini 1729, aged 88 years”.
Sparrow’s maze was the inspiration for a much more recent one – the pavement maze at the wonderful garden at York Gate, now owned by Perennial.
Their archives sh0w that Robin Spencer, the former owner, visited Hilton in the late 1970s and took photos, then planned his own version in brick.
All of the mazes I’ve mentioned [except City of Troy] so far can be found on the Historic England register, and there is another on Coflein, the online heritage catalogue for Wales. This is in the fields behind Llwydiarth Hall at Llanfihangel in Powys and was only rediscovered in 1997 from aerial photos, although it is apparently recorded on the 1901 25″ OS map [which I can’t verify because that’s one one of the few OS maps the National Library of Scotland doesn’t have in its digital collection!]
Of course there were plenty more which have been lost and the the best source to find out about them is undoubtedly Mazes and Labyrinths, by W. H. Matthews, published just over a century ago in 1922. Some were merely supposition based on their names, others were merely mentioned in passing in written accounts but a few were well recorded before they were allowed to decline beyond recognition or deliberately destroyed.
An early example of destruction was at Pimperne, not far from Blandford in Dorset. It was an extraordinary design, unlike any other I’ve seen and was first noted in 1686 by John Aubrey, the 17thc antiquarian as being “much used by the young people on Holydaies and by ye School-boies.” It was ploughed up in 1730.
According to Matthews a similar fate awaited another maze on Ripon Common in 1827, and an elaborate one, rather like the Saffron Walden maze, at Sneinton Common near Nottingham. Known as the Shepherd’s Race or Robin Hood’s Race its origins are unknown but when the common was enclosed in 1797 the new owners wasted no time ploughing it all up, including the maze, and planting the site with potatoes! For more on the Sneinton maze see the blog of Nottingham Hidden History Team
A later bit of vandalism occurred at Boughton Green in Northants. It was another known as the “Shepherd Race” or the”Shepherd’s Ring”, and was unusual in that its innermost core was a spiral.
A local guidebook called it neglected in 1849, but it was still there, up until the First World war when some soldiers in training used it for practicing trench digging and it was obliterated.
But neglect was the usual reason for disappearance, and this could happen quite quickly through erosion and getting overgrown. One – The Walls of Troy -was cut into the turf of the salt marshes near Rockliffe in Cumberland near the Solway Firth. It was, of course, undateable but local tradition claimed it had been cut by a sailor, who was subsequently drowned at sea. Others thought it was cut by shepherds and Captain Mounsey a local antiquarian writing in 1852 said that “the herdsmen at the present day are in the habit of cutting labyrinthine figures, which they also call the walls of Troy.” He went with a colleague to find it but needed the help of “a friendly herd” because it “would be very difficult to find without a guide, for the paths have not been cleared out for some ten years.” They could just make out its design and so sketched it. Like the one at Dalby it was “of small size, covering a space of 26ft. by 24ft. The path is nine inches wide, and the interval between its coils eight inches.” By 1883 It was said to be much overgrown but had disappeared completely by the time Matthews went looking for it in 1922. In the same article Mounsey also noted that there were reports of two similar small mazes within a short, one said to date from 1815 which was a copy of a second earlier one nearby, but both had already vanished.
My final example comes from Asenby, near Thirsk which is mentioned by the Victoria County History for Yorkshire, published in 1923, as being”obliterated during the last few years”. However, Arthur Allcroft in Earthwork of England published in 1908 had noted it was an elaborate design cut into the turf sunk in a hollow at the top of a hillock called “The Fairies’ Hill”. However even then it was “in a ruinous condition, being quite unknown to most of the villagers, although persons still living relate that they have often trodden it on a summer’s evening and knelt at the centre “to hear the fairies singing.”
There seems to be a lot of confusion about its actual whereabouts. Internet searches are contradictory [nothing unusual in that] most suggest that it lies on the hill immediately behind the village pub, a location perhaps confirmed by a dotted line on the 1856 Ordnance Survey map.
However others seem convinced that it is on another hilltop across the river. Known as the Maidens Bower this is actually the remains of a Norman motte and Bailey castle, although looking at the aerial view the three rings of terracing it’s possible to see why some might think this is the outline of a maze.
Allcroft doesn’t make it clear which place he was talking about but what he does do is sum up the surprising disappearance of what had clearly been a prominent feature of village life, and his comment applies not to just Asenby’s turf maze but to many others there must have been all over the country: “It is marvellous that the memory of such things, once prominent features of rural life, can die out so rapidly as it does.” His comments led Matthews to add “who can deny that they are worthy of at least as much care and interest as many of the obvious and commonplace antiquities upon which the guide-books lavish their encomiums.”
Luckily although so many have disappeared without trace there has been a great revival of interest in recent decades, epitomised by the one at York Gate, and these new ones will be the subject of a future post.
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