There’s no gateway to enter by; there’s no secret to discover at the end. You can see your goal when you start: a green mound rising in the centre of the maze. It looks easy to reach. In fact, within a few paces of starting, within four turns of the path doubling back on itself, you are already close to the middle. But then the path begins to lead you away from it: the journey has truly started.
Saffron Walden’s turf maze lies at the edge of a large green common, on the slope of a hill, in the centre of the town. The common is surrounded by handsome Georgian houses; at one corner is the ruin of the Norman castle. On a sunny afternoon, people are playing and picnicking on the grass and children dash freely over and around the maze. It is a sociable spot.
We’d visited the Saffron Walden maze before, ten years previously, one cold and gloomy winter’s afternoon when we were exploring the area. It was the third turf maze I’d seen and I wanted to walk it again. I wanted to get closer to what treading a maze means. What exactly is the nature of this guided walk that our ancestors laid down? This time it was spring, and our son, then eight, was with us.
We had done a few of the ‘maize mazes’ in summer holidays. These have brought about a real resurgence in maze popularity. Instead of planting yew hedges and waiting 50 years for them to grow, the maze-maker can map out his design on a farmer’s field in spring, the maize is sown leaving gaps for the paths, and by late July there are impenetrable walls corn, two metres high. Most of the maize mazes are so complex that participants are given a flag to wave if they need help. Every time we’ve tried them we’ve ended up waving the flag of surrender.
So when we walked across Saffron Walden common, my son was puzzled. Where was the maze? It was not what he was expecting. This one has no walls or hedges and has been created entirely by digging out the turf, to make a path between low grassy banks.
At one time, the path was dug down to the white chalk beneath. Now, bricks have been laid in single file to make a narrow, but clear and walkable, way. A helpful municipal sign states that the whole layout, roughly circular, is 35 metres in diameter. But within that, the path loops so many times that by the time you’ve finished, you’ve walked more or less a mile.
I’m impressed by that figure – a mile. It can’t be by chance that the path is a mile in length: someone must have calculated it. But who, how and why? And when? The maze was re-cut in 1699, the sign says, but there is no record of when it was originally cut.
You start on the path where the brick starts, and you carry on. You find yourself thinking of the paths of the maze, but of course there is only one path: a single groove like the groove of a vinyl record. The maze is divided into quadrants by four turf spokes, with the path cutting through the spokes at intervals. At the rim of each quadrant, it loops further out, creating four corner pieces, called the bastions. They look like ears. The true pattern can only be seen from above. When you are on the path, you cannot at first grasp the design and do not know where exactly it will take you next. You just have to keep walking.
The action of walking along a line and then making a U turn, is intriguing and you begin to realise the maze is more complex than it appears at the outset. You don’t complete each quadrant before moving on to the next. After the first four turns – when you seem promisingly near the centre – you are into the next quadrant, and moving away from the centre. You are walking, active, but you are also passive, being carried along. You cannot second guess this maze: you have to let the path lead you.
A turf maze is ‘unicursal’ – single path. Maze purists insist the unicursal construction is properly called a labyrinth. Like many things to do with mazes, this doesn’t quite make sense. Surely those who entered the Minotaur’s labyrinth at Knossos were not supposed to find their way out? Mazes in England have always been called mazes, from the same Old English root as ‘amaze’ – meaning to astonish or bewilder, which is exactly what they do.
After a while I was laughing at the cleverness of the maze. It was constantly confounding my expectations. I had thought I was making progress, when I found myself back in the first quadrant, without a clear idea of how I’d got there. I had not taken a wrong turning, because there is no such thing.
By accident, rather than design, the three of us had started the maze about a minute apart. So I kept looking at the others and wondering how they had got to where they were. Sometimes we would meet going in opposite directions; sometimes we would be walking side by side in the same direction. At one point, the three of us were walking abreast, on different loops of the path, in the same direction. Then we diverged, and within a few paces, each of us was in a different quadrant.
About half way through, in other words, after about half a mile, you start to do the corner loops. They feel special, like some kind of bonus.
The turf was very green, with fresh April growth. The late afternoon sun caught the maze perfectly, throwing all its contours into relief. The lines of bricks and the banks of grass looked beautifully regular, like a newly ploughed field, or the raked gravel of a Japanese garden. The mounds of the corner pieces were like miniature ancient earthworks, reminding me of aerial photos of Maiden Castle in Dorset.
All the time you are walking, you can see the centre, which you trust you are going to reach, but the convolutions of the path mean there is nothing to say you are getting any closer, except the feeling that you have walked a long way. Towards the end, I felt no nearer the centre than I had been at the beginning. Then all of a sudden there it was: the brick path ended and the others were waiting for me on the mound. We all felt good. The eight year old went off to run the path all the way back to the beginning; the adults sat down for a rest.
Saffron Walden’s maze fits very well the description Shakespeare gives in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Titania speaks of the decay into which the world has fallen since she and Oberon quarrelled: “…the quaint mazes in the wanton green For lack of tread are indistinguishable.”
Saffron Walden’s turf maze is on the ‘wanton green’, where fairs and festivals were held and still are. It was used for a kind of courtship game as described by Lord Braybrooke, in The History of Audley End and Saffron Walden (1835): “The maze of Saffron Walden is the gathering place of the young men of the district… For a time it was used by the beaux and belles of the town, a young maiden standing in the centres known as home, while the boy tried to get to her in record time without stumbling.”
At one time the maze would have seemed even more magical, as an ash tree once stood at its centre, an Essex Yggdrasil. Treading the maze was supposed to work as a kind of fertility charm. It’s one of the reasons I came here, a decade ago.
Similar folklore is associated with other turf mazes around England. There are only eight left now, (and only three others in the world, all in Germany) although at one time they must have been a fairly common feature, as Titania’s speech implies. They were a place for exuberant, springtime sport. Several of the lost mazes were called ‘shepherds’ race’. Running the maze and negotiating the tight turns without falling would be quite a challenge. Was it to ‘capture’ the girl in the middle or just to impress her? Some of the turf mazes were called ‘Maiden’s Bower’. There’s a strange crossover here, where stories of turf mazes bleed into stories of much older creations in the landscape. It used to be believed that iron age hill forts were constructed as mazes, with labyrinthine ramparts to keep enemies out. Antiquarian William Stukeley, who toured the country in the 18th century, examining its ancient curiosities, concluded that the Maiden Bower hill camp, near Dunstable, had definitely been built as a maze.
Iron age earthworks are usually simply concentric circles. But the linking of the two suggests that people have always thought there was something ancient and mysterious about their turf mazes. They may have been used for games, but they had a deeper significance.
In Titania’s speech, mention of the mazes follows the image of another communal game, fallen into disuse: “The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud”.
This is all part of her vision of a world gone wrong – the green corn rotting in the field, the crimson rose blasted by frost – because of the strife between the ruling nature spirits, she and Oberon. The “mazed world”, she says, does not know which season is which and there are no games, hymns or carols.
I like this idea that play – treading the mazes, singing – is part of the natural order and even that people are supporting the natural order through their festivities. It feels like a medieval world view, even rather pagan with its insistence on the seasonal. No wonder the Puritans were so keen to put a stop to sports on the green. Today it’s even more of a radical idea: play is for children.
The clue to what happened to the mazes is there in Titania’s speech. If they are not used regularly and re-cut from time to time, they disappear. The way to maintain the pattern, and not end up ‘mazed’, confused, lost, is to tread the maze.
Why did Saffron Walden hold on to its maze? Perhaps because it is a particularly large and fine one and the town was proud of it. It was re-cut in 1828, 1841 and 1859. In 1911 the path was laid with bricks for the first time.
The town also has a hedge maze at Bridge End Garden, constructed in 1839. A hedge maze is what people think of as a ‘real’ maze: one you get lost in, with numerous paths, false trails and dead ends.
A hedge maze is out to trick you. You cannot see where you are going, all the paths look similar. For some hedge mazes, there is reputed to be a method of reaching the centre. As the narrator is told in Borges’ story, The Garden of Forking Paths: “you won’t get lost if you take this road to the left and at every crossroads turn again to your left.” The narrator comments: “The instructions to turn always to the left reminded me that such was the common procedure for discovering the central points of certain labyrinths.”
It’s a method reputed to work for Hampton Court maze, the most famous hedge maze in Britain. The heroes of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat try it and get hopelessly stuck.
Of course, getting lost is the point of doing a maze. A maze is one of the few places where adults can abandon themselves to getting lost, hence the popularity of maize mazes.
“Never to get lost is not to live,” says Rebecca Solnit in her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She argues that in the modern world, people don’t get lost enough: they stay too much within the bounds of their knowledge.
In a hedge maze, you certainly feel that panic-inducing loss of control when you realise that, not only do you not know which path to take, you cannot even recognise the path you came by. The maze of metaphor is a hedge maze. So what is a turf maze, where you cannot get lost, in the sense that you don’t know where to go next?
Walking Saffron Walden’s maze, I found that you can get lost, in the rhythmic treading of its coils. To lose yourself can mean being “utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away,” Solnit says. Losing oneself can be “a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.” Losing yourself, in a city as much as in a forest, allows you to find something: “That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.”
I felt there was something to be found in the maze, though not at its centre. The something is in the play of its paths. But getting to the heart of this mystery is not easy.
As a child, on holiday in the Scilly Isles in the 1970s, I found a small maze cut into the grass of a cliff top near where we were staying on the island of St Agnes. As I remember, it was only about six foot in diameter and marked with stones as well as indentations. My brothers and I were amazed, and we spent hours playing in it. There was a signpost to it saying ‘Troytown’, but no explanation as to why it was there or who made it.
Looking up the St Agnes maze, after our visit to Saffron Walden, I find it is reputed to have been made by a lighthouse keeper in the 18th century. This is disappointing. I remember something ancient and magical. But even if the account is true, it still raises the question: why did the lighthouse keeper do it? What gave him the idea? Where did he get the design from? I then wonder, who devised the much more sophisticated pattern at Saffron Walden?
Maze designs appear all over the world, particularly in India and North America as well as Europe. The simplest, unicursal design is called Cretan, because it appears on coins found in Crete, but there are maze designs on Greek artefacts dating as far back as 1200 BC.
The Romans made mosaic mazes and in the mediaeval period, the design spread as a feature in churches. The largest and most famous is the pavement labyrinth in Chartres cathedral, laid out in the 13th century. This is a much more sophisticated design than the Classical era mazes, and the similarities between this and the Saffron Walden design are evident. One possibility is that the citizens of Saffron Walden got their design from a Thomas Hyll’s popular books on garden design, published in the 1560s. Hyll included the Chartres design, as a template.
I feel this can’t be the whole story. Shakespeare refers to the mazes as if they are an old, familiar feature, not the latest garden novelty. The maze idea might have been around in Britain before Chartres was built and the nearest relatives to turf mazes might not be the French and Italian church designs, but stone mazes found in Scandinavian countries. Some of these even have similar names, such as the Jungfrudans (‘maiden’s dance’) maze in Finland.
To add to the mystery, the legends of turf mazes, if they don’t involve maidens in the centre, are all about Trojans. Sometimes there are both maidens and Trojans.
A number of mazes were called Troytown, like the one on St Agnes; in some places the name has survived but not the maze. The small, roadside turf maze at Dalby in Yorkshire is grandly called ‘the City of Troy’ and the one to be seen at Somerton, in Oxfordshire, is on Troy Farm.
One explanation offered is that ‘troy’ comes from the Welsh ‘droia’, meaning turning. In Wales, nineteenth century antiquarians noted that shepherd boys sometimes cut a labyrinth pattern into the turf when they were out on the mountains. They called these figures caerdroia - meaning either ‘City of Troy’ or ‘City of Turnings’ - and said that it represented a plan of the city of Troy, defended by seven walls. This is another explanation which only adds to the enigma, because the City of Turnings is a figure from Celtic mythology (also called Caer Sidi, the spiral castle). It is unusual to have Celtic terms surviving within English place names. Furthermore, stories link the mazes explicitly with the Troy of classical myth. The maze story gets more bizarre.
It was Geoffrey of Monmouth, in The History of the Kings of Britain (1136) who gave the British a heroic link with Troy. His mythical first king of Britain was Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, who fled defeated Troy to found Rome, in Virgil’s Aeneid. Brutus was banished from Rome and his ship wandered the seas, eventually arriving on British shores.
The Trojan connection led into Geoffrey’s story of King Arthur, and though Arthurian romance is very much alive and well, the Trojans have faded from the national consciousness. But, at least up to Shakespeare’s time, they seem to have figured clearly in folk legends, especially to do with mazes.
One the best turf mazes, smaller than Saffron Walden’s but still satisfyingly complex, is Julian’s Bower at Alkborough, north Lincolnshire. This is both a Maiden’s Bower and a Troytown. In 1697, Lincolnshire antiquarian Abraham de la Pryme wrote that at Alkborough they have: “two Roman games, the one called Gillian’s (for Julian’s) Bore and the other Troy’s Walls. They are nothing but great labyrinths cut into the ground with a hill cast up around them for the spectators to sit round about to behold the sport.”
The Troy’s Walls maze has disappeared but the stories behind two names have been conflated and Julian, rather than being a maiden, is said to be Julius, another grandson of Aeneas.
Further explanations for the Troytown name are either that ancient Troy was protected by labyrinthine walls or that the term comes from a passage in the Aeneid, describing the ‘Troy game’, in which young horsemen have to negotiate a maze. “And, as the Cretan labyrinth of old, With wand'ring ways and many a winding fold, Involv'd the weary feet, without redress, In a round error, which denied recess; So fought the Trojan boys in warlike play, Turn'd and return'd, and still a diff'rent way. … From these imperial Rome receiv'd the game, Which Troy, the youths the Trojan troop, they name.”
These explanations are fascinating but they seem, to me, attempts to rationalise an already-existing name. Few Welsh shepherds could have read the Aeneid. But the obsession with Troy is intriguing. I see Brutus (or Julius) and his exhausted Trojans making landfall in the Scilly Isles, as so many from the Mediterranean had done before them. The homesick sailors carve into the turf one of their sacred images: the maze. The image spreads through western England and beyond…
As history it is ridiculous. But the legends do suggest how much figures from the classical world were prominent in the national imagination. Some elements in English identity have always come from far afield, just like the Arabic saffron brought back from the crusades which made Saffron Walden famous.
The church mazes in France and Italy are equipped with a full Christian explanation: they represent the soul’s wandering path to God. The maze in Chartres cathedral is explicitly a pilgrimage in miniature: a substitute for the real thing, for those unable to make the trip to the Holy Land. The centre of the Chartres maze is called Jerusalem and the most devout, or most penitent, reached it on their knees.
The turf mazes in England seem to have been used only for secular purposes. Yet treading the maze feels like a ritual process.
Fifteen years ago, we found ourselves at Julian’s Bower. It was two days after my brother-in-law had been killed on his motorbike. We felt impelled to see the spot where it had happened: an ordinary stretch of country road, leading north out of Scunthorpe.
The police accident sign still stood at the bend where he had made a simple, fatal error of judgement. We stopped the car and got out and looked at the broken glass swept to the side of the road. It was a fine afternoon in early summer, just as it had been two days before. Robert had taken out his bike, as he often did, for pleasure, to relax after his shift.
We got back in the car and followed the road north for no particular reason except that we didn’t want to go back. We stopped at Alkborough because we saw the brown heritage sign. Everything was strange that day and coming across a maze was no more strange than anything else. It is on a hill, from which you can see north, east and west, for miles. Below us we saw the astonishing, shining confluence of the Trent and the Ouse, flowing into the huge river Humber. We saw York Minster in the distance, the Humber Bridge and the cooling towers of power stations.
So we trod the maze.
You walk round, thinking you will reach your goal; you loop back, away from it. You are walking God’s mysterious path, fate’s unaccountable way. Just when you think you are getting somewhere, life stops you dead, forces you to double back, try again. When you think you will never get anywhere, the path blessedly rushes you forward.
Somehow it helped. On that day when grief was still a physical blow, something our bodies had not yet been able to accommodate, let alone our minds accept, it helped to be in that huge landscape, where our lives were small, and to be treading a path laid down centuries ago. The people who cut the maze were long dead. The grass still grew, the rivers still flowed.
Remembering this, I trod the Saffron Walden maze as a meditation. We don’t need to go out of our way to get lost: the path is always unknowable.
In both a hedge maze and a turf maze you’re in the hands of a higher power. Someone cleverer than you has devised this. The hedge maze came into its own in the 17th century and it offers an Enlightenment experience. You have to find your way though your own choices, through trial and error, and you are rewarded by discovering the centre, which perhaps harbours a surprise – a fountain or a statue. You have the satisfaction of knowing you got there through your own efforts.
The turf maze gives you no choices. It abides by an older world view: that you are following a path that is laid down, the twists and turns of which you cannot avoid or know in advance. But if you submit to the path, it will give you something – consolation, frustration, a laugh, a wife, a child?