Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England

Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

 

 

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Turf labyrinths, or 'turf mazes' as they are popularly known in Britain, were once found throughout the British Isles, the old Germanic Empire (including the modern Poland and Czech Republic), Denmark (if the frequently encountered Trojaborg place-names are a reliable indicator) and southern Sweden. They are formed by cutting away the ground surface to leave turf ridges and shallow trenches, the convoluted pattern of which produces a single pathway, which leads to the centre of the design. Most were between 30 and 60 feet (9-18 metres) in diameter and were usually circular, although square and other polygonal examples are known. The designs employed are a curious mixture of ancient classical types, found throughout the region, and the mediaeval types, found principally in England.

Historic Turf Labyrinths in England
by Jeff Saward

Modern turf labyrinth, Comberton, Cambridgeshire, England.

A replica of the former Comberton Mazles, destroyed c.1929, it is situated in the grounds of the Meridian School in the village.

Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

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Northern England

 

Dalby, North Yorkshire

Only 26 feet wide (7.9 m), the charming "City of Troy" is located on a remote roadside verge high on the Howardian Hills between the villages of Brandsby and Dalby, and is notoriously difficult to find. Of classical design, the seven paths that encircle the central goal are banked towards the centre to allow easy running, although the total exercise takes less than a minute. The location of this labyrinth was moved c. 1900, when the original was destroyed by wagons, and its exact age remains a mystery. Despite suggestions of an ancient origin, the Dalby labyrinth may date to only 1860, when it was supposedly cut by workmen repairing the adjacent road. Apparently the design was copied from a drawing in a newspaper, but another version of the story states that it was modelled on a carving on a local barn door. Either way, its atmospheric situation makes it an essential labyrinth to visit, an especial joy in mid or late summer, when the adjacent fields and hedgerows are ablaze with wildflowers. Visiting possible at all times

Current condition: despite its remote location, the City of Troy receives regular maintenance and is usually to be found in good condition. The low wooden railing that protects the labyrinth has been replaced and a new sign board and seat have been recently installed.

Alkborough, Lincolnshire

The "Julian's Bower" at Alkborough is situated a short distance southwest of the village church, where several representations of the labyrinth are also to be found. Of the familiar eleven-circuit medieval design, it is set on high ground overlooking the confluence of the River Trent and the Humber. A local tradition asserts that it was cut as a penance by a knight involved in the murder of Thomas a Becket in 1170, however, the earliest record of this labyrinth is from the 1690's. The labyrinth, 44 feet (13.4 m) in diameter, is deeply sunk into a hollow, the result of years of weed-pulling and removal of soil from the trenches gradually lowering the paths. A precise dating is impossible, especially as regular re-cutting is likely to have removed an evidence that might provide an answer. The labyrinth can be visited at all reasonable times, but please do not disturb adjacent residents.

Current condition: the Julian's Bower is always well maintained by local volunteers and has recently been re-turfed. The new plaque pointing out landmarks in the distance is worth studying on a clear day - the views from this labyrinth are quite wonderful.

The eight surviving historic turf labyrinths in England are always a pleasure to visit, although some are more difficult to find than others. Few are "signposted" and several are situated in remote locations, away from main roads or on hilltops, approachable only by footpaths. And therein lies the joy of tracking them down. They are to be found from Hampshire in the south to Yorkshire in the north, and almost without exception, are beyond the reach of regular public transport and will require some planning to visit.

For the benefit of visitors to England, and even residents who wish to find them for themselves, the following information will hopefully prove useful to determine which of these splendid preserved turf labyrinths are possible to reach.

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

Central England

 

Wing, Rutland

Known simply as "The Old Maze", the turf labyrinth on the edge of the village green in Wing is of the eleven-circuit medieval type, with the innermost circuits straightened out to flank the central goal. Nineteenth-century plans show a curious loop at the centre, presumably to return the runner to the outside again. If this ever existed it has now been restored to a more familiar layout. Nearby stands a large flat-topped mound (now surrounded by bushes) from which it is claimed spectators watched the sport of running the labyrinth. This is in fact a post-medieval windmill mound, first mentioned in 1634, and it is not difficult to see a connection between the siting and origin of these two earthworks. The labyrinth is regularly tended and is open at all times - always a pleasure to visit.

Current condition: surrounded by a wooden fence for protection, in recent years the Wing maze has been very well maintained.

Folklore and the scant contemporary records that survive suggest that they were once a popular feature of village fairs and other festivities. Many are found on village greens or commons, often near churches, but sometimes they are sited on hilltops and at other remote locations. Turf labyrinths, by nature of their living medium, are soon overgrown and lost if regular repair and re-cutting is not carried out. In many villages this was performed at regular intervals, often in connection with fairs or religious festivals. 50 or so examples are documented, and several hundred sites have been postulated from place-name evidence, but only eleven historic examples survive - eight in England and three in Germany, although recent replicas of former examples, at nearby locations, have been created at Kaufbeuren in Germany (2002) and Comberton in England (2007).

Inherently difficult to date, as most are poorly documented, there is little evidence for them existing prior to the late mediaeval period, the 13th/14th centuries onwards. Indeed, while a number of examples can be confidently dated to the 16th and 17th centuries, a few are as recent as the 19th century. The current popularity of labyrinths has seen a number of modern examples and replicas constructed in parks and playgrounds, on hilltops and headlands. Some of these will certainly survive the test of time to join the historic examples and become the "ancient" turf labyrinths of the future, and a puzzle for future historians!

 

Historic Turf Labyrinths in England

Somerton, Oxfordshire

Situated in a private garden near Somerton, the "Troy-Town" is a fascinating example with a fifteen-circuit classical design, unique in the British Isles, but widespread in Scandinavia. Little is known of its history, but it possibly dates from the late 16th or early 17th century. Turf labyrinths were a popular decorative garden feature at this time and the location of this labyrinth suggest that is was originally created as part of a compartmented garden, typical of the period.

Please note: the Somerton Troy-Town is on private property, however, polite requests to view the labyrinth are usually granted and a donation towards the upkeep of the labyrinth is always welcomed.

Current condition: despite a complete restoration in 1999, the Somerton Troy-Town has proved difficult for the current owner to keep in good condition. Further work in 2007 has reduced the  shading by surrounding hedges, but the problem of watering the labyrinth in high summer remains. Visitor donations towards its upkeep are essential for its long-term survival - please give generously!

Eastern England

 

Hilton, Cambridgeshire

Charmingly situated on the green in the centre of the village (park at the village hall and cross the road), this has to be one of the most quintessential of all the turf labyrinths in England. 55 feet (16.8 m) in diameter and sunk in a hollow - the result of many years of re-cutting - the labyrinth was cut in 1660 by William Sparrow, possibly to celebrate the restoration of the Monarchy, after the years of Puritan strictures against such activities. The pillar, surmounted by a sundail, standing at the centre records its construction. The "Maze," as it is known locally, is open at all times.

Current condition: this labyrinth is always kept in pristine condition by local volunteers - so please help them keep it that way and pull up any weeds you see growing between the paths and pick up any litter.  

Saffron Walden, Essex

The largest surviving turf labyrinth in England, the "Maze" is located on the eastern side of the Town Common, a short walk from the town centre. 132 feet (40.2 m) from corner to corner, the 17 circuits that form the path of this labyrinth are inlaid with bricks. The path itself visits each of the four mounds surrounding the body of the labyrinth before reaching the central mound, formerly occupied by an Ash tree. It seems certain that this labyrinth was constructed in 1699, but a local tradition records that this is only a copy of a former example nearby. The remarkable design was probably copied from Thomas Hill's book The Proffitable Arte of Gardening, first published in the 1560's. The labyrinth is open at all times. There is also a splendid early 19th century hedge maze in Bridge End Gardens, a short walk from the Common - visit the Tourist Information Office on Market Square for details.

Current condition: the Saffron Walden turf maze is always well maintained by the Town Council, however, it is prone to litter, so take a moment to pick up the sweetie wrappers and place them in the nearby waste bin before you walk it!

Southern England

 

Winchester, Hampshire

Situated on the crown of St.Catherine's Hill, on the south edge of the city, the "Mizmaze" has an unusual nine-circuit rectangular design, 90 x 86 feet (27.4 x 26.2 m) wide. The hilltop is encircled by the ditches and ramparts of an Iron Age hill fort and the summit is crowned by a clump of trees concealing the foundations of St Catherine's Chapel, which stood here from c.1080 until it was destroyed c. 1539. Despite these impeccable credentials for a seemingly 'ancient' origin, it would seem to date to the late 17th century, when the hilltop was the traditional playground for the pupils at the nearby Winchester colleges. While it might seem unlikely that college boys should be responsible for the creation of the Mizmaze, their privileged access to books containing designs for garden labyrinths would certainly have provided them with inspiration, and this example is not without parallels. Open at all times, the climb to the top of the hill can be strenuous, and the footpaths slippery when wet, but the views of Winchester from the summit are worth it on a clear day.

Current condition: in recent years the Mizmaze has been well maintained, but watch out for the grazing sheep and electric fences!

Breamore, Hampshire

The splendid "Mizmaze" on Breamore Down is set on a remote hilltop surrounded by trees. The turf pathway and trenches, cut to reveal the underlying chalk, is of the eleven-circuit medieval design, 84 feet (25.3 m) in diameter, with a low central mound. The earliest record of it is an order to restore it in 1783 and folklore has filled the gaps in historical knowledge. Local tradition records that it was cut either by shepherds to while away the time or by monks from Breamore Priory (now destroyed) who would traverse it on their knees to absolve their sins. The suspicion that this turf labyrinth is of truly medieval origin is considerably boosted by the discovery of a quantity of 12th-14th century pottery amongst trees adjacent to the labyrinth. Perhaps villagers gathered here on feast days or holidays. Finding this labyrinth can be a challenge; it is marked on Ordnance Survey maps, but the best approach is through the grounds of Breamore House (a leaflet with directions is available at the visitor shop, when open), a walk of over a mile from the House up through the woods and out across the fields to the Mizmaze, but so worth it.

Current condition: recent reports suggest that the Mizmaze has become rather overgrown in the last year or so. Maintaining this labyrinth is difficult, so please do all you can to encourage the Breamore Estate manager and staff who care for this remarkable labyrinth to keep up their good work.

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 turf 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 turf labyrinths above are all  ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

Dalby
Wing
Alkborough
Hilton
Saffron
Somerton
Winchester
Breamore