Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England

Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

 

 

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The historic labyrinths situated in English cathedrals, churches and chapels mostly date from the late 19th century, a period when renewed interest in labyrinths combined with a wave of church building and restoration during the Victorian era. Only two examples, the splendid gilded roof-boss in St.Mary Redcliffe Church and the tiny labyrinth on the Hereford Mappa Mundi are from the medieval period, when many labyrinths were created in the cathedrals of France and Italy.

Situated largely in the south and east of England, these labyrinths are always a pleasure to visit, located as they are in everything from simple chapels and churches to grand cathedrals. Their construction and design range from the relatively simple to some of the most fascinating examples from their period.

Historic Church Labyrinths in England
by Jeff Saward

St.Michael’s Church, Abingdon

Photo ©: The Labyrinth Builders

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Eastern England

 

Alkborough Church, N. Lincolnshire

Situated 300 metres northeast of the Julian's Bower turf labyrinth, the church in the village of Alkborough also contains several labyrinths well worth visiting. Set into the floor of the porch is a plan of the nearby turf labyrinth , 6 feet / 2 metres in diameter, created in 1887 by J. Goulton-Constable, the local squire and keen local historian, to preserve the plan should the turf labyrinth become overgrown.

Inside the church, a smaller version of the same design appears above the altar in a stained glass window, likewise donated by Goulton-Constable. Look out also for the labyrinth embroidered kneeling cushions in the church. The village cemetery, also has a memorial cross inset with a small labyrinth marking the grave of Mr. Goulton-Constable, who died in 1922.

Visiting details: while the small labyrinth in the porch of Alkborough Church is always visible, modern times dictate that the church is normally kept locked. However, the keyholder lives opposite, and if he is home, is always willing to show visitors round the church. Donations towards the upkeep of the church are always welcome to help keep the church and its labyrinths in good condition.

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

Situated beneath the west tower, just inside the main entrance doorway, this is the only pavement labyrinth to be found in an English cathedral. Created in 1870 by Sir George Gilbert Scott during his restoration of the cathedral, the labyrinth is 20 feet (6.1 metres) across and fits neatly within a decorative square frame. The unusual design was clearly inspired by the former labyrinth in Reims Cathedral and it is known that Scott visited Amiens Cathedral for inspiration prior to his work at Ely, although the labyrinth at Amiens would not have been visible at that time. It is possible to walk this labyrinth, but the constant traffic of visitors crossing the labyrinth as they enter the cathedral will call for a certain amount of patience or good timing!

Visiting details: Ely Cathedral is open to the public 7.00 am to 7.00 pm every day during the summer, 7.30 am to 6.00 pm (5.00 pm on Sunday) in winter, although admission to parts of the cathedral are restricted during services. An admission charge is payable and guided tours of the cathedral are also available - the lantern and rooftop tour is highly recommended!

For the benefit of visitors to England, and residents who wish to find them for themselves, the following information will hopefully prove useful to determine the whereabouts of these preserved ecclesiastic labyrinths and how to gain access to see them.

Clicking each of the named locations marked with a red square will take you to a detailed description further down this page.

Southwestern England

 

St.Mary Redcliffe, Bristol

A number of small decorative labyrinths occur in churches, cathedrals and abbeys across Western Europe, including one notable example in England: a beautiful gilded roof-boss in the form of a mediaeval labyrinth, 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter, in St.Mary Redcliffe Church in the city of Bristol. Dating from the 1390's, it is one of nearly 1200 bosses that decorate the roof of this fine Gothic church and is located on the ceiling of the fourth bay of the north aisle. This unique little labyrinth is just one of the remarkable collection of symbolic and mythological subjects depicted on the bosses - no two are the same.

Visiting details: St.Mary Redcliffe Church is open daily, 8.00 am to 8.oo pm (5.30 pm in winter) and 7.30 am - 8.00 pm on Sundays, although access is restricted during services. Situated in the heart of Bristol, overlooking the harbour area and Temple Meads, the church is on a busy main road and parking nearby can sometimes be difficult, although it is possible to park in surrounding streets on Sundays. Guide books and tours are available in the church - I recommend you take a pair of binoculars to study the roof bosses. There are restrictions on photography within the church.

The majority are relatively easy to find, although obviously some are subject to limited opening hours and others will require the finding of a key or caretaker to gain admission. And therein lies the joy of tracking them down. While several are in large towns and cities, a number are beyond the reach of regular public transport and will require some planning to visit.

Within the last few decades, several modern examples have been constructed, most notably at Batheaston (1985), Norwich Cathedral (2000), and the Church of St. Michael, Abingdon (2008)

 

Historic Church Labyrinths in England

Southern England

 

Watts Chapel, Compton, Surrey

The labyrinths to be found adorning the Watts Chapel are without doubt some of the most remarkable from the 19th century labyrinth revival. Built by Mary Watts, the wife of George Frederick Watts, the well-known artist and sculptor, between 1895 and 1898, with the help of local artisans, the chapel is situated on the edge of the small village of Compton, near Guildford in Surrey, where the Watts' lived and worked for many years.

For many years considered little more than an indulgent folly, it is now rightly recognized as one of the finest buildings of the Arts and Crafts movement. The exterior is sumptuously decorated with flamboyant terracotta panels, a mix of Celtic and Art Nouveau design elements. The interior is a riot of foliage, angels and cherubs, created in painted and gilded gesso. In the midst of all this are five separate labyrinths: four as shields held by a series of hand-carved terracotta angels, inscribed The Way, The Truth and The Life, that surround the outer walls, and another of richly gilded gesso on the triptych altarpiece. The designs of these labyrinths are clearly based on the labyrinth in Ravenna - those on the exterior are identical, the labyrinth on the altar has four additional pathways added to the design.

Visiting details: the Watts Chapel is open daily until dusk - limited parking is available beside the road in front of the chapel. Visitors to the chapel should also take the time to visit the nearby Watts Gallery (open afternoons, every day except Thursdays, Good Friday and Christmas) where many pieces of the the Watts' work is on display and guide books to the chapel may be purchased. The tearoom adjacent to the Gallery usually open around lunchtime and serve excellent lunches and the best cakes for miles around!

Hadlow Down, East Sussex

Set in the graveyard behind the village church, this curious labyrinth-decorated memorial stone in the form of a large cross, lying prone in a small enclosure, commemorates Lt.Colonel Wheeler, the 4th Viscount Hood, who died in 1911. The labyrinth design employed is a unique five path design with no obvious source, neither is it clear why the labyrinth was chosen for his memorial. As this occurrence of the labyrinth has only recently been 'discovered,' more research is required to establish the origins and meaning of this example.

Visiting details: while Hadlow Down church is usually kept locked, the memorial stone is in the churchyard and can be seen at any time. Parking outside the church, on the busy A272 main road, is difficult.

Itchen Stoke, Hampshire

Built in 1866 at the expense of its vicar, the Revd. Charles Conybeare, and designed by his brother, the architect Henry Conybeare, the church of St.Mary in the small village of Itchen Stoke was modelled on the then recently restored Sainte Chapelle in Paris. This striking example of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture is lit inside by richly coloured stained glass and has a unique labyrinth filling the floor of its apse, 16.7 feet (5.1 m) in diameter, but partly obscured by a wooden altar. Formed from brown and green tiles, clearly moulded specifically for this installation, the labyrinth is a scale replica of the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, although some of the details are simplified. Although too small to walk, and clearly created for decorative purposes, this little labyrinth is none the less one of the gems of the 19th century labyrinth revival.

Visiting details: Itchen Stoke Church is now in the care of the Redundant Churches Fund and is no longer used for regular services. Usually kept locked, the key is available from a nearby house, details are posted on the church door. Maintenance and cleaning of the building relies on local volunteers, so donations are always welcome to help with the upkeep. The churchyard is deliberately maintained as a wild flower meadow and is quite beautiful in late spring and high summer.

For further details see The Churches Conservation Trust website.

Please note: if you have visited any of these labyrinths recently and find conditions have changed, please send me an e-mail with your findings and I will update the information above.

Every summer we lead guided tours to these historic church labyrinths. Visit our tours page for further details. We are also available as guides for individuals and groups wishing to visit some, or all, of these labyrinths as part of more varied tours.

Photos of church labyrinths above are all  ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

Bourn, Cambridgeshire

Set into the floor of the parish church of St.Helena & St.Mary in the small village of Bourn, this unusual example is formed of red and black floor tiles. Constructed in 1875, shortly after the labyrinth was laid in nearby Ely Cathedral, and likewise situated beneath the west tower, the design is not as one might expect, a copy of the Ely labyrinth, but a squared-up version of the Hampton Court hedge maze design. The font which now stands at the centre of the design obscures the path that circles the goal, and was obviously placed here as an after thought. While not the most exciting example, this curious little pavement maze is none the less an interesting historic record of the enthusiasm for labyrinths and mazes during the late 19th century. A similar pavement maze still survives in the St.Martinuskerk church in Oud-Zevenaar in the Netherlands.

Visiting details: as with many parish churches, opening times are dependent on volunteer arrangements. On several visits during the summer months in recent years I have always found this church open, but this is no guarantee. Sundays are always the most likely day to find the church unlocked, but nearby keyholders can usually be found.

Western England

 

Hereford Cathedral, Herefordshire

Without doubt, one of the smallest of the historic labyrinths on general public view in England, the tiny labyrinth labelled "Laborintus id est domus dedali" (Labyrinth, the house of Daedalus) that occupies the island of Crete on the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral is only a few inches across. Created c.1280 AD by Richard de Bello, probably in his home city of Lincoln, it was taken to Hereford Cathedral in 1305 and has been kept there ever since. 5.5 x 4.5 feet (1.65 x 1.34 m) across, this map of the then known world is centred on Jerusalem and depicts a plan of the world that seems strange to modern eyes. The major cities and rivers of Europe are faithfully depicted, but strange beasts and monsters inhabit the far reaches of Africa and Asia. This masterpiece of mediaeval geography shows clearly the enduring knowledge of the labyrinth myth throughout the mediaeval world; indeed a number of similar labyrinths are found in historical and geographical texts, usually in connection with discussion of Daedalus's labyrinth on Crete.

Visiting details: the Mappa Mundi and Chained Library Exhibition is housed within Hereford Cathedral's 15th century south west cloister and the New Library Building. Visitors can also see the world's largest surviving Chained Library containing over 1,500 rare books dating from the 8th to the 19th centuries. Open throughout the year the Mappa Mundi and Chained Library Exhibition provides full wheelchair access and interpretative facilities for the blind and partially sighted, as well as visitors from overseas. An admission fee applies, and opening hours are variable, according to the season. The exhibition is usually closed during part of January for essential cleaning and conservation work. You are advised to check opening times before your visit.

AlkboroughChurch
Ely
Bourn
Hereford
Redcliffe
Itchen
Hadlow
Watts