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English turf mazes

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The quaint mazes in the wanton green for lack of tread are undistinguishable. Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

What is a turf maze?

In several places in England you can find traditional turf mazes. Although their local communities are proud of them, they are not widely advertised. They are open to the sky, and there is no entrance fee. Perhaps there is a board near-by telling you about it, but that's it. Go and see one; they are amazing!

How old are they? Who knows? Some have a documented history, but even that may not tell the whole story. By their nature, you can't tell much about their history by looking at them. As Shakespeare points out (see the quote above), you need to constantly remake a turf maze or it disappears. We don't even necessarily know whether the design is original. The first mention of Saffron Walden in 1699 describes it as being recut, and this has happened several times since. Normally, a recut would redo the original design, but if you got bored with it, you could change the design. The earliest plan of the maze is from 1768. But all these dates do is tell us is that the maze is at least this old. The Hilton maze has a monument in the centre saying that that it was cut in 1660. But was it created then, or was this a recutting? The quotes from Shakespeare show that he knew about the mazes, which pushes the history back another century, but he seems to think of them as disappearing. It's tempting to think that these mazes may be much older, but no evidence, alas!

The traditional turf mazes don't have original designs; they use the Chartres or Cretan designs. It would be easy to get excited by the Cretan design, and assume that this is evidence for these mazes being very old indeed. But the Cretan design has been known for a long time, and people making a maze may have decided that it would be a good pattern to copy. The Chartres design seems to give a definite point; those mazes can't be older than 1235 AD, when Chartres cathedral was built. Well, the mazes in that form can't be older, but what if their original design were Cretan too? Then the local churches may have decided that these mazes were associated with dubious customs (see myths), and demanded that the mazes were recut in a more Christian pattern - the Chartres design, whose arms signify the cross of Christ. That would allow all the mazes to be very old indeed. I suspect not, though. But they are centuries old, which is good enough.

Traditional turf mazes have inspired several modern mazes. Some use traditional designs, but some have designed their own pattern, which is excellent! There are a few on this page, at the bottom.

The turf mazes are all unicursal, that is, they have no choices or branches. There is a single path wiggling its way to the centre. They are all flat. They are set in grass, and they are made by digging up a strip of turf revealing the ground beneath. Sometimes the cut bit is the path and the grass between the wiggles, the 'walls', and sometimes the grass turf is the path and the ground the 'walls'. You can see that such a maze would easily disappear if the grass starts growing back, which it would have a tendency to do. In modern times, the maintainers of turf mazes have very sensibly laid bricks or other material in the cut areas to make the mazes more durable. I find it quite strange that there isn't agreement whether the grass is the path or the walls. It seems so obvious that you don't want to walk on the grass, as this would wear it out. In fact, Shakespeare's quote (above) shows that "for want of tread" the maze is disappearing, which shows that people walking on the path wore the encroaching grass away to preserve the maze. A flat maze does seem odd. You expect a maze with real walls rather than just a pattern on the ground. But it has the advantage that when you've walked it, you can just walk out in a straight line, stepping over all the walls on the way out. It also means that you can see the pattern laid out before you. Hedge mazes are fun to get lost in, but they do look rather dull, as the hedge stop you from seeing anything.

Examples of turf mazes

Standard Chartres design

  • Traditional turf maze, Breamore, Hampshire
  • Traditional turf maze, Hilton, Cambridgeshire, UK. Said to be created in 1660
  • Traditional turf maze, Alkborough, South Humberside. Known as Julian's Bower
  • Traditional turf maze, Wing, Rutland, Leicestershire
  • Modern turf maze, Thetford, Norfolk

Super Chartres design

Mini Chartres design

Standard Cretan design

  • Traditional turf maze, Dalby, Yorkshire. Known as City of Troy

Double Cretan design

  • Traditional turf maze, Somerton, Oxfordshire. On private land belonging to Troy Farm.

Other designs

Aerial photos of traditional English turf mazes

Photos from
Google maps
Alkborough Maze Dalby Maze Hilton Maze Somerton Wing Maze
OS Grid ref SE880217SE625718TL292662SP519278SK895028

BreamoreSaffron WaldenWinchester
Photos from
Google maps
Breamore Maze Saffron Walden Maze Winchester Maze
OS Grid ref OS Grid SU141202OS Grid TL542385OS Grid SU484276

Useful websites for finding traditional turf mazes

Specific mazes

Saffron Walden maze

Saffron Walden is a town in Essex. Its name comes from a crop which made it famous, the crocuses which make saffron. It has a large English turf maze on its town common, in the centre of the town. There is a mention in the town records that the maze was recut in 1699, so it's at least that old. Some years ago during a dry summer it was possible to see a 'shadow' of another maze of same design on another part of the Common. Possibly this was the site of the original maze mentioned in 1699 and it was moved at a later date to the edge of the Common for practical reasons. The grass is the 'walls' of the maze, and there is a brick path, which is nearly a mile in length although the diameter of the maze is less than 150 feet across.
Saffron Walden Maze
Saffron Walden Maze Saffron Walden Maze
Saffron Walden Maze Saffron Walden Maze

In 2011, Saffron Walden has a maze festival. There was a small exhibition in the library, which included this news clipping. The nineteenth century game is interesting. It is strange that the article thinks that there is only one other grass maze in England. As for the descriptions of origins, the 'shoemaker' seems to come from the known recutting of 1699, and the Dutch soldiers perhaps because William of Orange came to Britain in 1688, which is just before. But the date is definitely 're-cut', not cut for the first time. Dr. Stukely can be safely ignored, I think. He is great fun, but not reliable. Mr East's theory is probably the best, but unfortunately the church is not particularly close to the maze, and I would have thought that the Puritans would have disapproved of beer-fueled rustic games almost as much as religious use of the maze! The last sentence shows the the maze was in poor condition at the time of the article, which unfortunately wasn't dated. Now there are plenty of people who have walked the maze.

Riddles set by Walden's maze by Sue Lake
How do you get to Waterloo from Newmarket - without leaving Saffron Walden? Our great-grandparents, if they lived in the town, would probably have known the answer. The key to the riddle lies inSaffron Walden's maze, that curious series of concentric banks and paths cut into the Chaters Hill side of the common. Mr Frank East, of 9 Artisqans Dwellings, has been studying the history of the town for the last 8 years and has come up with some fascinating details of the maze's origins and history.
In Victorian times, and probably earlier centuries as well, the maze was used in connection with "rustic revels". A small handmade book in Saffron walden's museum gives the rules of one game played there. Each part of the maze was named. The central grass plot was known as Waterloo - a topical reference, Mr East believes, to the end of the Napoleonic wars, which helps to date the game. So that people would remember the names, the four quarters of the maze were given the names of the towns to which they point - Newmarket, Cambridge, Stortford and Chelmsford. The object of the game was to run a pretermined route through the maze, which is about a quarter of a mile in circumference, in a given time, with pots of ale being waged on the outcome. Severl other rules are given in the notebook. If the competitor "while turning to enter a freash track does not place his foot immediately opposite the turn" or in other words, cut the corner, he lost his bet, as he did if he fell, left the track or touched his foot against the end of one of the eart ridges. It sounds wasy, but a practical trial will prove how difficult it is to negoiate the maze at any speed - and the competitors no doubt found it even harder after a few pots of ale!
The maze-running game must have been a popular local diversion because the notebook adds: "To prevent confusion, and in order that all the spectators may have an equal share in observing the race, the Umpire will announce the beginning of the race, when every person must immediately clear the ground and arrange themselves along the Fortification (outer bank)." Said Mr East: "A man in Sheffield says that he remembers 'walking the maze' as a boy in Walden, which suggest that the use of the maze for games survived, at least among children, into the 1990's." The notebook containing the rules is unsigned, but Mr. East thinks that the handwriting is that of Joshua Clark, a prominent local antiquarian of the last century. Attached to the book is a plan of the maze with, pasted to the back, a page from the town's account book bearing the entry in faded brown ink: "March 27th 1699 for cutting the Maze at the end of the Common 15/-d."
What was the maze used for before 1699 and when was it first made? Saffron Walden is one of only two grass mazes in the country (the other is in Rutland) and there have been many theories about its origins. Probably the most popular is one advanced by an Oxford historian and supposedly supported by a document in the British Museum, that it was cut by a journeyman-shoemaker at a cost of fifteen shillings. But it has also been held that the maze was cut by Dutch soldiers who came over with William of Orange, while a Dr. Stukely, also from Oxford, has stated that it is a Roman "games field" used for playing a game of mock military manoeuvres called Troia Luden.
Mr East favours yet another theory. He believes that the maze, which is conveniently close to St. Mary's Church, is of religious origin. Starting in Italy in the Middle Ages, Christian teachers adapted an already ancient rustic sport to a moral purpose. The winding path through the maze, they said, denoted the errors of human life, and a way out could only be found through the guiding thread of salvation. The practise of maze-making spread through religious houses in Italy and France, and examples can be found at Chartres and St. Quentin. But in England, it is thought the paved labyrinth was replaced by a turf maze. "If this theory is correct", said Mr. East,"the religious use must have died out in Puritan times, but it continued to be used for rustic games and frolics. Although public expenditure is tight for such a purpose, perhaps the various societies interested in preservation might be able to come along with a scheme to re-cut the ancient paths and replace the picket fence which surrounded the maze in 1816."

Anothe new clipping was by P. G. M. Dickinson. He starts by describing the Saffron Walden maze, and goes on to say:

When Mazes were made, why and by whom, are questions at present unanswered for there is no adequate literature on the subject and an exhaustive archaeological investigation has yet to be made. Mazes rarely appear in local records before the 17th century and then only when some of other re-cutting is mentioned. That they were in being long before is certain and it has ben surmised that they may go back to before the Chritstian era and were connected in some way with fertility rites. This supposition seems to be borne out to a certain extent by the fact that as late as the 18th century they were often the scene of bethrothals. The young maiden stood on the central island and if her suitor could reach her without stumbling once, then he would be accepted; otherwise he would have to try again or give up the contest.

Hilton Maze

Hilton maze is on the common of the village of Hilton, north of Cambridge. There is a stone monument in the middle, and a notice describing the maze. Unlike Saffron Walden's maze (above), the grass is the path, with a sunken gravelled area as 'walls'.

Hilton Maze Hilton Maze

Hilton Maze

Click on the photo of the notice for a larger (readable) version. Below are the parts of the notice about the maze.

Hilton Maze is one of the eighth surviving turf mazes in England. According to the Latin inscription on the monument in the centre, it was cut in 1660 by the nineteen year old William Sparrow to commemorate the restoration of Charles II to the throne.

"William Sparrow, Gentleman, born in the year 1641, aged 88 when he died, fashioned these circles in the year 1660."

He probably copied the pattern of the Maze from a maze, now destroyed, at Comberton, where his brother-in-law, Barron Brittaine, lived. The Maze, like all turf mazes, is unicursal. That is to say that it has one single path, with no wrong turnings, coiled into an endless labyrinth. This particular pattern is often found in medieval art, most notably on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France.
The origin of mazes is uncertain, but it has been suggested that they were used as a sort of mini-pilgrimage, to be traversed on one's knees as a penance - alternatively that they were used in a rite to cast out the Devil, who could only travel in straight lines.
Turf mazes were once common on village greens, but they disappear if they are neglected, as Shakespeare suggests in A Midsummer Night's Dream:
The quaint mazes in the wanton green,
for lack of tread are undistinguishable.

I should point out that the monument itself must have been put up considerably after the maze was made, unless they could predict that the man was going to die more nearly 70 years later! In fact, the monument has wiped out part of the centre of the maze. You can see from the photo that there are at most 9 circuits, while a Chartres maze should have 11. Now, assuming that the monument was put up as a monument to William Sparrow, Gentleman, 70 years is a very long time to remember the details of what happened. Did he really make the maze, or did he merely recut an older maze? You would expect that 'the wanton green' would be extremely unpopular during Puritan times, and the Restoration would be a good opportunity to bring back the old times. Would people remember this 70 years later, or would they exaggerate the feat on his monument? Since they destroyed part of the centre of the maze, it suggests that they didn't have much feeling for it, or possibly that it was falling into decline again, and the centre had already been lost.

In 2011, Saffron Walden held a maze festival. There was a small exhibition in the library which had a news clipping. Unfortunately it wasn't dated, but the mention of television shows that it is second haf of the twentieth century. There is a hole near the top which obliterates some of the archivist's name. The following extracts from this clipping have the interesting information that what we see now is a recut version of the Hilton maze.

Mr P. G. M. Dickinson the Huntingdon and Peterborough Archivist has spoken on television aboutit, and not so long ago he was interviewed for the Today programme, when he conjected a very ancient ancestry to the maze. In the interval he has supervised some recutting of the turf which has again provoked controversy. Until now the entry point has led one straight to the centre. It is doubted if this was always this way. Certainly it was a unique form. One wonders did the youthful 19-year-old William Sparrow really pay out this maze. If so, was it just for rustic sport?
... (discussion of other mazes) ...
Just over the border of Cambridgeshire in Essex at Saffron Walden is rather a large maze. Hidden by a bank from the road it has four bastions at the corners and a raised centre. There are ancient accounts of its recutting. There is, too, a tradition here that this is only a copy of a uch larger maze which once existed to the east. It is recorded that here in the 18th century young bloods of the town congragated and enjoyed a complicated system of rules and wagers (in gallons of beer) for walking the maze). Were they, still, coarsely perpetuating some ancient ceremonial rite. One which, it suggests, went with fertility rites for the tribal communicyt and maidens staked at the centre. If so, we have a close connection with the Cretan myth of the Minotaur to whom were sacrificed Athenian youths and maidens until Theseus slew the beast. So we return to the Sparrow maze at Hilton. Perhaps the young Sparrow, related we are told to the more famous Sparrow family of Ipswich, bowed to the Puritans and erected his pillar to proclaim the maze newly cut - although he well knew the rustic lore of a more ancient maze on this same point.

Quotes from Shakespeare

William Shakespeare mentions mazes several times in his plays and other writings.

The quaint mazes in the wanton green, for lack of tread are undistinguishable. Titania in Midsummer Night's Dream Act II Sc 1

Here's a maze trod indeed, through forth-rights and meanders! Gonzalo in The Tempest Act III Sc 3

These quotes by Shakespeare (1564-1616) give a vivid glimpse of turf mazes. He insists that you 'tread' a maze; nowadays, we would say 'walk' a maze instead, perhaps. The Chartres design is notable for right-angled bends (forth-rights) and slow curves (meanders). The paths of turf mazes disappear unless people tread them (walk along the paths). Several turf mazes are indeed on village greens (although perhaps not quite so 'wanton' in modern times!) The notice board on the Hilton maze mentions this quote.

Shakespeare mentions labyrinths as well, as places to get lost rather than somewhere you walk.

Thou mayst not wander in that labyrinth; there Minotaurs and ugly treasons lurk. Suffolk in Henry VI, Part i, Act 5, Scene 3

What, lost in the labyrinth of thy fury! Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, Act 2, Scene 3

And when thou hast on foot the purblind hare,
Mark the poor wretch, to overshoot his troubles
How he outruns the wind and with what care
He cranks and crosses with a thousand doubles:
The many musets through the which he goes
Are like a labyrinth to amaze his foes.
Venus and Adonis, Stanza 112

Again, the doubling back of the hare is very like the doubling back of the path of a maze.

A Quote from Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) lived at roughly the same time as Shakespeare. Here is a song from his masque "Pleasure reconciled to Virtue":

Come on, come on! and where you go,
So interweave the curious knot,
As ev'n the observer scarce may know
Which lines are Pleasure's and which not.

First figure out the doubtful way,
At which a while all youth should stay,
Where she and Virtue did contend,
Which should have Hercules to friend.

Then as all actions of mankind
Are but a labyrinth or maze:
So let your dances be entwin'd,
Yet not perplex men unto gaze:

But measur'd and so numerous too,
As men may read each act they do;
And when they see the graces meet,
Admire the wisdom of your feet.

For dancing is an exercise,
Not only shows the mover's wit,
But makes the beholder wise
As he hath power to rise to it.

A song by Daedalus in the masque "Pleasure reconciled to Virtue" (1618)

Daedalus was supposed to have created the famous labyrinth in Crete that contained the Minotaur. You may notice that Ben Jonson mentions "labyrinth or maze" as meaning the same thing. He is comparing a dance to a maze, which suggests a unicursal maze rather than a branching maze. Not surprising, perhaps, as this is 1618, and Hampton Court maze, one of the earliest branching mazes in Britain, was not until 1690. A flat maze like a turf maze would be suitable to dance through, if you wanted, and people walking the maze look a bit as if they are dancing.

You may have noticed that I have scattered other people's quotes throughout this website, under the headings.

Modern turf mazes

Please note that modern designs are copyright, and if you wish to use them, you should contact their creator.

Bispham Drive Junior School

Building the maze Bispham Drive Junior School (near Nottingham) built a turf maze in their school grounds of a baby Chartres design. They built it as a millennium project using muscle power from 65 pupils aged 10-11 years old. They made the paths with 3 tonnes of crushed Derbyshire gritstone. It only took 1 day of intensive work and has proved very popular with the other pupils. It's 12 m across and takes 97m, or one minute forty seconds of normal walking, to reach the centre.
As this is a school, it's a private maze.
Completed maze

Maze at Thetford

John Davies has made a turf labyrinth in his garden on the site of a hard tennis court no longer used. It is surrounded by oaks and beech with a few Scots pine. It is a copy of the design of the one at Chartres although slightly larger. It's in deep country in rural Norfolk near Thetford and is a place of peace and tranquillity.

It is open to the public by appointment and when the garden is open for the National Gardens Scheme or other local charities.  He does not encourage casual callers!

If you're interested in visiting: ring John Davies at +44(0)1953 885900

Labyrinth at Thetford

Labyrinth at Thetford Labyrinth at Thetford

Tom Baxter's maze

Tom Baxter's maze

His webpage gives an account of its design and construction, with photos and hints for other maze-makers

Tom Baxter visited the maze at Saffron Walden, and was inspired to design and build a maze of his own in his yard (garden). These were his criteria and this is his design:
* It must fit in his yard (so, a maximum of eight rings)
* It should be a unicursal pattern
* It should be interesting to walk (like the Chartres maze, not predictable like the Roman or Hanover)
* It should be cruciform and reasonably symmetrical (like the Chartres maze)
* It should look good
* Most important! The spaces between the lines of the path should form a mystery maze (the get-lost variety) of moderate interest difficulty.

After some snow, the brick path melted before the grass, giving this wonderful ghost maze.

Tom Baxter's maze

Dave Johnson's maze

Dave Johnson and his wife designed and built this maze to use some leftover bricks. He describes it as "A sort of mini-Chartres with 3 arms instead of 4. Only one little asymmetrical jog, near the center. We planted it in chamomile, for fragrant treading. It will take a while to grow in, but will be glorious when it does. The maze is, as you can see, very small (about 10 feet in diameter) so actually walking the path requires narrow feet and fine balance. But even paddle-footed me can straddle the path on the bricks, and have a satisfying journey that way." Dave Johnson's maze

Whitchurch maze

Nick Brazil has designed this maze which has been built in Whitchurch-on-Thames village, in Oxfordshire. See their webpage for details. The maze opened on Jun 27 2004, and here is a splendid photo of the opening.

Whitchurch maze Whitchurch maze

Doddington Hall maze

Doddington Hall is a late Elizabethan mansion. In the gardens, there is a turf maze, made in the 1980s. It is a branching maze. The solution is given below, in blue.

Doddington Hall maze Doddington Hall maze solution Doddington Hall maze

My own designs

If you look carefully at a Chartres maze, you will see that three of the arms have very similar (but not identical) patterns, made up of path straight through followed by paths looping back. The bottom arm is quite different, and much more complicated. Standard Chartres path
Chartres return design 1 It occurred to me to try to design a maze with just simple arms. After some experimentation, I found that you could produce a maze in the Chartres pattern with three arms, each starting at a different point in the pattern.

If you are prepared to change the design slightly, you can produce a four armed maze with a slightly different pattern, with two paths straight through, followed by paths looping back.

Both these mazes produce a path to the centre, with a different path coming out again.

Chartres return design 2

I don't think that anyone has used either of these for a turf maze, but feel free to use them yourself, if you wish!