The Turf Mazes of Britain

Mar 3, 2022 0 comments

Turf mazes are labyrinths made by cutting a convoluted path in an area of short grass or lawn, and were once a common feature of the English countryside. Hundreds of these were known to exist across northern Europe. Now fewer than twelve survive, including eight in Britain.

The mazes were created by cutting grooves in an area of turf to leave a continuous path of grass, like a very long rope, neatly arranged to fill the area. In some turf labyrinths, the groove cut in the turf is turned into a path to be walked marked with bricks or gravel. More commonly the turf itself forms the raised path which is marked out by shallow channels excavated between its twists and turns.

A turf labyrinth in Clitheroe Castle, Lancashire. Photo: Hilary O'Rourke/Flickr

Many mazes were found on village greens, often near churches, but sometimes on hilltops and at other remote locations. By nature, a maze would quickly become overgrown and lost if regular repair or re-cutting is not carried out. In many towns and villages this was performed at regular intervals, often in connection with fairs or religious festivals. Although one can see these mazes are very ancient, there seems to be no reliable way of accurately dating a turf maze, because the processes of re-cutting and re-shaping the design destroys any archaeological evidence it might have contained.

Historically, turf mazes were confined to Northern Europe, especially England, Germany and Denmark. Similar labyrinths still exist elsewhere in Scandinavia, Lappland, Iceland and the former Soviet Union, but their paths were normally marked out with stones, either on grass or on flat areas of bare rock. Stone labyrinths are easier to date. Those around the Baltic coast have been dated to between the 13th century and modern times, with a peak in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has been suggested that these labyrinths around the Baltic coast of Sweden were made by fishermen during rough weather to entrap evil spirits such as the “smågubbar” or “little people” who brought bad luck. The fishermen would walk to the center of the labyrinth, enticing the spirits to follow them, and then run out and put to sea.

Here are the eight historic mazes that survive in England.

Julian's Bower, Alkborough. Photo: Colin Frankland/Flickr

This turf maze called Julian's Bower is located at Alkborough in North Lincolnshire. According to folklore, the maze 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 only from the 1690s. The labyrinth is about 44 feet in diameter and sports the familiar eleven-circuit medieval design. Centuries of re-cutting and removal of soil from the trenches have lowered the paths, such that the maze now lies in a deeply sunk hollow.

Breamore Mizmaze. Photo: Jim Champion/Flickr 

The Breamore Mizmaze is set on a hill close to Breamore House on a remote hilltop surrounded by trees. It is the eleven-circuit medieval design, 84 feet in diameter, with a low central mound. Local tradition maintains that it was cut either by shepherds to while away the time or by monks from Breamore Priory (now destroyed) who would have traversed it on their knees to absolve their sins. However, more likely, the maze was created by a former owner of Breamore House, sometime in the late 16th century.

City of Troy. Photo: alh1/Flickr

Known as the “City of Troy”, this 26-feet-wide turf maze is located on a remote roadside verge high on the Howardian Hills between the villages of Brandsby and Dalby in North Yorkshire. The Dalby maze is relatively recent, having being made in the mid-19th century, 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.

Hilton labyrinth. Photo: roadscum/Flickr

The village of Hilton in Cambridgeshire, also contains a turf maze. It is 55 feet in diameter and is located in a sunken hollow—the result of many years of re-cutting. At the center of the maze is a sundial. The maze was originally cut in 1660 by William Sparrow, possibly to celebrate the restoration of the Monarchy, after the years of Puritan strictures against such activities.

Saffron Walden labyrinth. Photo: Jerzy Kociatkiewicz/Flickr

The largest surviving example in England is located in Saffron Walden, Essex. It is 132 feet across and has four bastions, with 17 circuits forming the path of this labyrinth, which is 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. The labyrinth was constructed in 1699, and is probably a copy of a former example nearby.

Troy Town. Photo: Mark Hows/Flickr 

This turf maze called the Troy Town is located in a private garden near Somerton, and is a fascinating example with a fifteen-circuit classical design. Such a design is unique in the British Isles, but widespread in Scandinavia. The maze was created possibly in the late 16th or early 17th century as part of a compartmented garden, typical of the late Tudor period.

Winchester Mizmaze. Photo: Jim Champion/Flickr 

The Winchester Mizmaze in St. Catherine's Hill is most unusual, being roughly square, although its paths curve gently and it has rounded corners. The hilltop is encircled by the ditches and ramparts of an Iron Age hill fort and on the summit are the foundations of St Catherine’s Chapel. The mizmaze dates to the latter half of the 17th century, when the hilltop was the traditional playground for pupils at the nearby Winchester colleges.

The Old Maze. Photo: shirokazan/Flickr

Known as The Old Maze, this turf labyrinth is located in Wing, Rutland. It is of the eleven-circuit medieval type with a diameter of 50 feet. There was formerly a bank surrounding the maze, from which it is claimed spectators watched the sport of running the labyrinth, and nearby stands a large flat-topped mound.

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