“You keep taking the first turning on the right. We’ll just walk around for ten minutes and then go and get some lunch.”
These are the words of Harris in Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat as he leads a group of tourists into Hampton Court Maze and promptly gets them lost for several hours. It’s a book I had a good giggle over as a kid, and when on family walks if we were in danger of getting lost, somebody would quote the ‘I’m sure we’ve passed this bun on the ground before’ remark that one of Harris’s disgruntled tourists makes.
Were garden mazes always intended to puzzle the visitor? Apparently not.
Hedge mazes evolved from knot gardens which were popular during the Renaissance and Italian architects created many garden labyrinths in the 1400s. Originally constructed using evergreen herbs, then dwarf box hedges, mazes were not designed to bewilder the ambler, but to create a unicursal walking path – a single path with a spiral shape that heads to the centre. Dead ends and extra paths became popular by the reign of William III and several hundred mazes were constructed in Europe between 16th and 18th Centuries.
Louis XIV built one at Versailles in 1677, but had it destroyed in 1778 because of the upkeep. This might have been due to the excessive elaboration. He had it adorned with thirty-nine hydraulic sculptures depicting Aesop’s Fables.
The oldest surviving puzzle hedge is at Hampton Court Palace. Commissioned in 1700 it covers a third of an acre and takes on average 20 minutes to complete. It was designed by George London and Henry Wise, both garden designers, and is trapezoid in shape. Originally planted using hornbeam, a hardy small size tree in the birch family, then replaced with yew. The location of the maze is in the Wilderness, which is part of the riverside gardens. Capability Brown, who was at the time in charge of the gardens at the palace, lived next door to the maze, but he was expressly forbidden to mess with it – he had a tendency to rip up formal gardens and replace them with his sweeping landscape scenery. In fact, Brown went out of his way to keep the formal gardens at Hampton and preserve their historical importance. So perhaps Hampton is something of an argument against him being a destroyer of gardens.
Hever Castle in Kent has two mazes! The traditional yew maze with eight foot hedges and a quarter of a mile of paths was built in Edwardian times by the Astor family. There is also a modern water maze with concentric stepping stones.
Traquair House maze was created in 1981 and the largest in Scotland. Originally planted with Leylandi Cyprus, it suffered badly from an exceptional cold winter in 1983 and the maze lost two-thirds of its trees. The trees were replaced with hardier beech trees which gives the maze a two tone colouration. Designed John Schofield, the maze doesn’t have dead ends, but the visitor must reach four sub centres before finally arriving at the centre.
Glendrugan garden maze is in Cornwall and its paths cover three-quarters of a mile in densely packed spirals. Planted in 1883 with cherry laurel that can withstand regular trimming, the four corners of the maze are marked by palm trees and the centre a thatched summerhouse. It is planted on the side of a hill.
Finally, can’t not mention Longleat Maze, which has two miles of paths, making it the longest in the world. It is the biggest in Britain and added to the extensive estate, which includes a zoo and a holiday village, in 1975. Planted with over 16,000 yew trees, a typical visitor can take up to 90 minutes to solve the puzzle. There are multiple dead ends and six raised bridges. There are also smaller mazes at Longleat for those less willing to walk all those miles.
So the craze for mazes continues, although these days you’re more likely to come across a temporary maize maze growing in a farm field than an ancient garden labyrinth.
Do you like to read about free chapters and short stories, or find out more about your favourite author including their work in progress?
Interested? Then sign up for my reader’s club newsletter: Rachel’s Readers and you’ll receive a complementary short story.