Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England

 Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos



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Labyrinth 2000

LABYRINTH 2000

The following report on the day by Jean Dark
photographs by Adam Warren


Last weekend Tim (my partner) and I motorbiked down to Saffron Walden in Essex to spend a jam-packed Saturday learning about and experiencing the lure of labyrinths.

There were seven lecturers scheduled to speak and I thought I'd be well and truly labyrinthed-out by the end of the day. However the wide range of approaches to the ancient single path labyrinths, modern puzzle mazes and current-day revival represented by the speakers was astounding and thoroughly compulsive listening.

We were welcomed to the conference by Jeff Saward, editor of Caerdroia magazine, who gave a useful wide overview of the subject. Largely concentrating on the discoveries and developments in labyrinth research over the past twenty years, he also prepared the ground for the more specific interests and research of the speakers to follow.

Jim Buchanan, a landscape architect, turned 3-D artist living and working out of Scotland, gave a wonderful slide presentation of some of his landscape installations based on labyrinthine designs. As he explained his motivations for each piece he presented, it became clear that his interests were firmly rooted in the local communities for whom his large scale public works were designed. His concerns were, as far as possible, environmentally non-intrusive, utilising local materials, some planted with native wildflowers. Many used biodegradable materials found in the locality, which soon were faded in, grown out or washed away, giving a beautiful, sad, ephemeral quality to the work. We were all rather delighted with his sound, holistic, but utterly modern approach to the ancient labyrinth designs. He is currently preparing a large design on a Scottish beach, which will fill with sea water as the high tide comes in and leave only the faintest trace of the curving paths in the sand on the following day.

International commercial puzzle-maze designer, Adrian Fisher, showed us many slides of his commissioned mazes, which have appeared around the world in parks, theme parks, shopping centres and corn fields. I was struck by the sheer number of mazes that there are out there, although very few of them employed the familiar unicursal (single path) labyrinth shapes, indeed many were bewilderingly complex in their solutions.

During the lunch break we hurried along to the common in Saffron Walden where we walked, danced and sang on the seventeenth century turf labyrinth which is etched on to the north eastern corner there. Tim and I chatted with Adam about his temporary labyrinths which he inscribes in sand or flour at open-air festivals around the country, we told him about Nigel Pennick's annual temporary labyrinth at Strawberry Fair in Cambridge (which is where we first encountered the symbol). We strolled back to the lectures in the Town Hall a happy, peaceful and cheerful crowd.

The after lunch session began with a lecture by Fiona Campbell of Göteberg University Sweden, whose archaeology PhD concentrates on the hundreds of stone labyrinths to be found in Scandinavia. She presented an detailed explanation of the criteria and classifications by which she is constructing a database of all the known labyrinths in Sweden, a formidable task as there are over 300 in existence. She encouraged debate, and acknowledged the support of John Kraft, the next speaker up.

John Kraft, a renowned archaeologist of Scandinavian stone labyrinths, gave a wide ranging lecture which consolidated his empirical archaeological data with speculative ideas on the origins and uses of the labyrinths, drawing attention to a number of names which paralleled the familiar "troy town" term used at a number of British turf labyrinths. He also explored the significance of both visible astronomical and ethereal dowsed alignments found in a number of the older surviving examples.

A moving and personal account of her experiences with the familiar Chartres Cathedral labyrinth design was given by Helen Raphael-Sands. In an attempt to "free the labyrinth" from the ecclesiastical confines of the cathedral she reproduced an almost full-size design on a portable canvas and toured the country with it, visiting the Isle of Iona and Glastonbury's Chalice Well, amongst other sacred sites. She documented the responses and feelings of those who took part in her tour, which is being written up as a book to be released by the publisher Gaia Books later this year. The canvas itself was laid out in the exhibition hall, available for us to experience for ourselves. I was thoroughly fascinated by this, as the experiential and spiritual approach to the labyrinth design closely fitted my own perceptions and interests. In fact, we spent so long with Helen's canvas labyrinth during the afternoon tea-break, that I forgot to browse the bookstalls, an unprecedented omission on my part!

The final speaker of the day was Helen Curry, president of the Labyrinth Society based in the USA. Helen's interest in Labyrinths had been initially aroused by the reproduction of the Chartres labyrinth in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Since then she has immersed herself in the subject, documenting and photographing the flourishing interest in Labyrinths in the USA. We were shown slides of the labyrinth designs used within church buildings as a Christian meditation device, and also in broader contexts, some labyrinth designs incorporating chakra colours along the paths. Helen showed us the labyrinth used as a sacred ritual/ceremonial space where weddings, christenings, memorials and even divorce ceremonies could be performed. The diversity of ways in which the labyrinth symbol is currently being used is quite awe-inspiring; from psychotherapy, where the therapist and client work the path together, to urban regeneration, where derelict inner-city land is being transformed into temporary community playgrounds.

After the lectures the fine summery evening was spent in the grounds of the Bridge End Gardens, where a largely vegetarian buffet was served from a marquee and we watched the premier performance of German opera singer Heidemarie Strauss' composition entitled "Labyrinth". Ben Smeeden, conservation officer at Uttlesford District Council then described the replanting of the 19th century yew hedge maze at the gardens, which had been started just before the first Caerdroia conference in 1986, and had now finally reached maturity.

As the evening twilight closed in we plunged into the candle-lit yew maze, circuitously arriving at the centre and the newly-restored viewing platform just as a beautiful almost-full moon rose from behind the Saffron Walden church spire.

On the following Sunday morning, we all met up again at the Hilton Turf labyrinth in Cambridgeshire, where dowsing, discussion and fond goodbyes hastened us all on our ways. Some on to the labyrinths at Ely Cathedral and Alkborough, Tim and I to Cambridge to drink tea with our old friends Pat McFadzean and Scott Hilliard and our new-found friends, Silke and Werner, labyrinth enthusiasts who had travelled from Darmstadt, Germany.

Jean Dark, Cambridge; July 2000

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Saffron Walden, England, 15th July 2000


This conference, hosted by Jeff and Kimberly Saward of Labyrinthos, was a day of mazes and labyrinths held in the historic town of Saffron Walden, Essex, home to the 17th century turf labyrinth and 19th century hedge maze.

The programme included lectures, slide shows, displays and demonstrations, publications and products. This was followed by an evening event in Bridge End Gardens with a lamp-light walk of the beautifully restored hedge maze.

The Town Hall at Saffron Walden
where the conference was held

Jim Buchanan

Heidemarie Strauss performing 'Labyrinth'

Helen Raphael-Sands on her canvas labyrinth

Jeff on the new platform at the centre of  Bridge End Gardens' maze

Turf labyrinth, Saffron Walden

Photo: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

Adrian Fisher

Dancing on the turf labyrinth

John Kraft