What do a Greek myth, Hampton Court Palace and a farm outside the historical City of York have in common? Puzzled? That’s the general idea, as they all share a feature that has had something of a rebirth in recent years, a maze.
Although I was almost certainly taken to Hampton Court as a child, mazes (and other forms of topiary) first really caught my attention when I was somehow allowed to watch Peter Greenaway's 1982 slightly naughty period murder mystery, The Draughtsman's Contract. I’m not sure if the film included quite as much abandonment of period clothing on beautifully barbered yew trees as I remember but it clearly stuck in my mind and as an adult I visited Groombridge Place Garden to see the moated estate and its beautiful hedge maze where it was filmed.
Mazes, from myth to reality
While the hero may not have entered the labyrinth in the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur for fun, humans have willingly embraced the twists and turns, intricate loops designed to disorientate and frustrating blind alleys (although not so much the likelihood of being gored by a man/bull creature) that make up a maze for centuries.
While archaeologists have yet to find any physical remains to suggest there was ever a mighty labyrinth on Crete, it remains probably the most famous physical puzzle in literature, which Theseus managed to solve using a ball of string.
Like the famous Cretan Labyrinth, the earliest recorded mazes were made of stone. One of the first structures that could technically be called a maze was built in Egypt around 4,000 years ago but as this formed part of a tomb it is arguable whether its builders really intended anyone to solve this particular puzzle and get out.
Many people continue to see a spiritual dimension to mazes or labyrinths, and they certainly became a regular fixture in the early churches as Christianity spread across Europe. You can still see mazes on church walls or floors today. Although less common in Great Britain than the rest of Europe, you can walk around the St Mary Redcliff Maze in a Bristol park which is a replica of the maze on a roof boss of the historic church of the same name.
The first garden mazes
My interest in mazes really starts here. While historically Britain never really embraced church mazes as enthusiastically as its European neighbours, what did begin to crop up on our shores (sort of pun intended) were turf mazes.
Turf mazes, usually a puzzle cut into the ground to the depth of around six inches, can often be found in or just outside country villages, suggesting they were created for people to use recreationally. A spectacular turf maze known as Julian's Bower can be found at Alkborough, North Lincolnshire, on a hillside overlooking the confluence where the Rivers Ouse and Trent meet. Its origins are unclear and it was first referred to in any literature as late as 1697 but a reference by Roman solider and philosopher Pliny suggests countryside mazes like this one may well date back to the Roman Empire. Julian's Bower was clearly an important part of village life and local history records May Day games taking place there until the 19th Century.
Mazes at Stately Homes
Having grounds large enough to get lost in has long been a mark of great wealth and privilege. Factoring in a striking, physical puzzle must have been a demonstration of riches beyond belief and it became a fashion that spread from King Louis XIV's labyrinth in the gardens at Versailles.
Hampton Court Palace in Surrey, boasts the oldest surviving puzzle hedge maze, originally designed and built for King William in the late 17th century. Hampton Court's maze is formed by shrubs that are taller than the height of most of its visitors so its layout can only be seen from a raised platform. Some other hedge mazes are designed to be seen and admired, with the greenery kept lower than eye level for most people.
The tradition of commissioning grand scale hedge mazes on country estates still exists. Greg Bright designed a huge yew hedge maze for Lord Bath at Longleat Safari Park. Longleat's hedge maze is the longest in the world with 1.7 miles of pathways to lose yourself in and solve the puzzle.
Modern mazes – The growth of the "Maize Maze"
Mazes along the same lines as hedge mazes but grown from more temporary material such as corn or maize spring up yearly as tourist attractions in the UK. Like many "new traditions", this is thought to have come over from the United States where they are very popular especially during Autumn and around Halloween.
Believed to be the biggest in Europe, the York Maze is grown every year from more than a million maize plants. The short life of the plants means a new design can be created every year and once the season (from July to September) is finished, the plants are used as cattle food.
Grow your own – a grand tradition in your own back garden
From the historical splendour of the world's great hedge mazes to the more temporary tourist attractions that spring up from crops such as maize and corn, getting lost in your own backyard (so to speak) is clearly still very much a thing.
If you have the space, it is not as hard as you would imagine to make your own garden just "a-maze-ing" (had to be done) with the addition of your own personal labyrinth.
Visiting some of Britain's best mazes – historic or grown last month – should give you plenty of inspiration and then it’s a case of getting out the graph paper to create a scaled blueprint to site your maze in a suitable spot in the garden.
You don't need to have Versailles outside your patio doors or the budget of a stately home as your maze can be whatever size or complexity you choose. If you want to create a genuine puzzle then you will need shrubs that will grow taller than you or your small people if your aim is to enchant and entertain the children in your life. However, if it is a simple maze design you want to create then the planting options open to you are endless and you could consider dwarf flowering shrubs such as lavender or myrtle.
You could even mimic a fashion from years gone by and cut a maze out of your turf.
Whatever you choose, you will be walking a path – albeit a twisted one with a few surprises – that goes back centuries.
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