Amazing maze or labyrinth

SIGNS IN SAFFRON WALDEN, a town in Essex, pointed to ‘The Turf Maze’. We followed these from the centre of the town’s attractive market square and across The Common, a large grassy expanse, to its eastern edge, where we came across the Turf Maze. I was expecting to see a maze with paths separated by hedges, but what we found is quite different, and might not be a maze at all.

The maze was cut unto the ground in the form of grooves separated from each other by low mounds of earth on which grass grows. A reliable website, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000741#:~:text=A%20turf%20maze%2C%20thought%20to,%2Dcut%20(Matthews%201922), describes it as follows:

“The maze … consists of a series of concentric circles cut into turf, surrounded by a low bank. It measures c 43m from corner to corner, the main areas of circular paths being c 29m in diameter. It is laid in a unicursal pattern formed of seventeen linked circles, and has four linked outer horseshoe-shaped bastions or ‘bellows’ which are, like the centre of the maze, raised slightly above the main circular paths. The narrow shallow grooves which form the paths are marked by bricks and begin on the north or south sides of the maze.”

The word ‘unicursal’ means that the pathway through the ‘maze’ forms a single route without branching, typical of a labyrinth. This is in contrast with a true maze in which the path is ‘multicursal’, meaning that the pathway has branches. An elderly lady whom we met walking on The Common told us that once she walked from the beginning of the ‘maze’ to its centre, following its path and confirmed to us that although the path is long and winding, it never branches.

The Turf Maze at Saffron Walden, which is really a labyrinth, was already in existence by 1699, but is believed to have first been created in mediaeval times. If it had a purpose, this has been long forgotten. Since then, it has been re-cut numerous times. When this was done in 1911, bricks were laid along the path of the labyrinth to help preserve its form. These have been replaced from time to time and more recently cemented together. In 2000, the so-called maze was put into the ownership of the Town Council of Saffron Walden.

Jeff Saward, writing in “The Saffron Walden Historical Journal” in Autumn 2012 (https://saffronwaldenhistoricalsociety.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/saffron-walden-turf-maze.pdf), notes that the labyrinth in Saffron Walden differs from other such labyrinths in the British Isles in that its path runs between the turf ridges and not along them as is the case in most others. He also discusses the age of the labyrinth, suggesting it may have been created later than the mediaeval era, possibly in the 16th century. It might have been designed from a labyrinth, almost identical to that in Saffron Walden, illustrated in “The Profitable Art of Gardening”, by Thomas Hill, published in about 1563. Hill’s design was not original as it can be found illustrated in “Le Théatre des bon engins, auquel sont contenuz cent Emblemes moraulx” by Guillaume de la Perrière, published in 1539. Whatever its date of construction, the labyrinth is a fine thing to see in the small Essex town.

Talking to some ladies who were feeding the ducks at a pond near one of the town’s car parks, we learned that Saffron Walden has three other mazes (or labyrinths) apart from the ill-named Turf Maze. We hope to explore these on a subsequent visit to the town. While trying to find the entrance to the car park of the local Waitrose supermarket, we discovered yet another maze, namely the one-way road system of Saffron Walden.

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