October 3, 2011

The Circle in the Square

He was either Austrian or Swiss, or possibly from southern Germany.  But it was certain that he was not in the mood to be asked. It was also clear that he and his wife were seriously lost, yet still determined not to ask the way. Each time you passed them they looked even more perplexed. 

Everyone else trapped in the Longleat Maze that bright autumn day looked happy, dashing along the paths, breathless and intrigued, calling out to one another. You could hear their voices drifting over the six-foot-high hedges-
"Where are you?"
"Over here!"
"Follow my voice ... "
"There's a hedge in the way."
But then none of these people had been in the maze as long as the couple in matching loden coats. The man looked cross and hot, lifting his trilby to wipe a brow glistening with the sweat of exasperation, while his wife stumbled along beside him, placatory and puzzled. They had lost, quite evidently, any semblance of a sense of humor. 

Of all things, a sense of humor is essential in a maze, that maddening, elusive pattern of close-clipped hedges and winding pathways that leads you around in circles before eventually setting you free. When you return for the fifth time to the same place in the space of twenty minutes-each time along a different route-you need something to sponge down your irritation. And a sense of humor, by this time, is all you will probably have left. Certainly any sense of direction will have vanished, once your concentration wavers. 

For thousands of years-long before the arrival of computer games-the puzzle of the maze amused and entertained mankind. Over the millennia it has provided protection from evil spirits, decoration for homes even symbolic form to the idea of a path from birth through life to death and beyond. It has been used for courting (a favorite place for Tudor trysts); for religious processions (the line of worshippers never once crossing); as a form of contemplation and penance (monks supposedly shuffling along the stony paths on their knees); and, even now, for fertility rites-a gamekeeper in Hampshire is always having to move couples on from one particular maze site. 

From the deserts of Arizona to the Baltic coastline of Sweden; from Italy to India; from Chile to Celtic Britain; from wavering Bronze Age rock carvings and medieval stone-and-turf designs to the more recent and the more formal garden variety built of evergreens such as yew and holly, the pattern of the maze has appeared throughout history with mystifying regularity in a score of unrelated cultures. Yet there exists no concrete consensus regarding its origin, its age, or the manner in which the design was disseminated so widely around the world. The various arguments and debates over the provenance and significance of the maze are as complex and convoluted as the narrow, twisting paths themselves. 

In the British Isles there are more than a hundred mazes open to the public and many more hidden away on private estates and in country gardens. (Indeed, only the Japanese can equal the British enthusiasm for this most arcane of garden ornamentation, more surprising still when you consider the premium attached to space in that crowded kingdom.) From Macbeth's Cawdor Castle in the northern reaches of Scotland to the rocky Scilly Isles in the far southwest, from formal hedge mazes to medieval patterns on village greens, from stained-glass windows to cathedral floors, the British have an enduring affection for the puzzle of the maze. There are even tiled maze patterns on the walls of the Warren Street Underground station in central London-a witty play on the word "warren." 

Hedge mazes are perhaps the best known form, and the granddaddy of them all is at Hampton Court Palace on the banks of the river Thames a few miles outside central London. Planted between 1689 and 1690 by William of Orange, it boasts a design that has been copied again and again in places as far apart as Australia and North America. Of course, if the celebrated eighteenth-century landscape gardener Lancelot "Capability" Brown, who tended to the maze, had had his way, this would never have happened. Well known for his love of "natural" rolling landscapes, Brown was responsible for the destruction of many fine mazes in his pursuit of a pure, classical perspective, and it was only on the strict instructions of George III that the Hampton Court Maze survived his attentions. 

If Hampton Court possesses the oldest hedge maze in the country, then Longleat House in Wiltshire-the stately home of the Marquess of Bath and a fine Elizabethan mansion that has been in the Thynne family for more than four hundred years-has the largest, indeed, the largest in the world. Planted in the mid-'70s, at a time when members of the British aristocracy were hard-pressed to raise sufficient funds to cover the enormous costs of running their estates, and opened to the public soon after, the maze comprises no fewer than sixteen thousand English yew trees enclosing a path more than a mile and a half long. Get lost at Longleat, and-even with the help of the discreetly concealed maze plans strategically placed along its length ("LIFT IF LOST") and the elevated bridges that offer at least some overview-you can stay lost for a very long time.
"We've had some in there for close to three hours," warned a gatekeeper at the entrance to the park.
"Had to send someone in to show them the way out. Even with the maze plans, it can be a devil of a job. Of course, there's some clever clogs done it in twenty minutes, but they're rare. Reckon on forty, forty-five minutes as an average."

Someone who came close to being a "clever clog" was Lindsay Heyes, who owns and runs the Jubilee Maze in Hereford and Worcester with his brother Edward, and whose enthusiasm for and knowledge of mazes-from construction to significance- knows no bounds. When he tried the Longleat Maze, he reckoned on having solved its puzzle in a little over six minutes but, distracted by his wife, spent two hours trying to get out. Back at his own maze, however, close to the winding river Wye at Symonds Yat West, you could send him in blindfolded and he'd probably still find his way out in a respectable amount of time.

Planted by the Heyes brothers in 1977 ("So you know who to blame if you get lost"), the Jubilee Maze is patterned on the Renaissance-style "labyrinth of love," a design that enjoyed huge popularity between 1560 and 1650. Although the word "labyrinth" technically means a single path with no dead ends, false pathways, choices, or puzzles, the Heyes version has every trick in the book to deceive and mislead those who set foot in it.
But it's not about getting lost, it's about having fun. After all, mazes are about playing games.  Which is exactly what happens inside the Heyes maze: Along any of its twenty-five pathways (thirteen are blind) you'll come across acrobats riding unicycles, or clowns on stilts taking the eight foot hedges in their stride.
Made of thick and aromatic emerald-colored Lawson's cypress, the Jubilee Maze is not only well managed-the Heyes brothers also oversee a maze museum and a well-stocked puzzle shop-but remarkably well kept for an attraction open to the public: Its pathways are wide enough for wheelchairs, its blind alleys and dead ends appropriately furnished with love seats, its hedges suitably tall, full, and healthy.

But it's no easy task maintaining the fabric of a maze. With tens of thousands of visitors passing through each year, paths and hedge walls are easy prey to thinning and wear after a long, dry summer the hedges at Hampton Court can look most forlorn; constant attention is the byword. Most of the oldest Anglo-Saxon stone-and-turf mazes, of which there were once approximately a hundred, have been lost forever, while many hedge mazes, particularly neglected during the World Wars, fell into disrepair, from which some never recovered.
Near Lowestoft, Somerleyton Hall, once owned by the man who built Nelson's Column, the yew hedges that make up this spacious, classically proportioned maze are the same that were planted in 1846 by the landscape gardener William Nesfield. That they have survived intact and in such good condition is due in part to a daring use of pruning shears. By the early 1970s, the hedges had grown so thick, narrowing the paths, that something had to be done. First, one side of the hedges was shorn back to the main stem, then allowed to grow back over a three-year period before the process was repeated on the other side. Within six years, the maze had been successfully renovated without losing any of the original yews. With the hedge cut back so drastically, it seemed a good idea to protect the maze from people trying to push through the hedges in desperation. So they took the opportunity to fit a wire mesh in the middle of each hedge.  While it successfully deters humans from breaking through from one path to another, it's a precaution that fails to stop the Jack Russell, from burrowing underneath from one path to the next whenever he tires of the eight-hundred-yard trek-or spots a squirrel.

Most hedge mazes-like Somerleyton, Longleat, and Hampton Court-are built on level ground. The odd man out is the Glendurgan Maze in Cornwall, planted some thirteen years earlier than the Somerleyton Maze. It stands in the middle of a twenty-five-acre garden, now owned by the National Trust, hat leads down through a steep valley to the old fishing hamlet of Durgan on the river Helford. Lushly subtropical, with palms and rare conifers, bamboos and tree ferns, and a riot of magnolias, rhododendrons, and camellias, the gardens are a delight to walk through, the higher paths offering a fine overview of the intestinal meandering of the maze that climbs the side of the valley. Though its free-flowing cherry laurel hedges are low enough to see over, that advantage is negated by the sloping paths that can soon exhaust, and infuriate, visitors, should they take too long to find the way out.

As deceptive as the paths they weave is the impression that all mazes are as old as, if not older than, the one at Hampton Court. For instance at Hever Castle, the ancestral home of the Boleyn family, the maze which is planted between the castle's twin moats-is so in keeping with the late-medieval battlements that shadow it and the prevailing Tudor atmosphere that it's easy to imagine Henry VIII courting Anne Boleyn along its narrow pathways. In fact, the maze was planted only at the beginning of the twentieth-century, when the whole estate was sold to the American millionaire and philanthropist William Waldorf Astor.

In the case of stone-and-turf mazes-those winding, circular patterns cut out of the ground-the impression that they are magical sites used in ancient rituals and dating from time immemorial is, in most cases, quite accurate. Among the most notable are the seventeenth-century turf mazes at Saffron Walden in Essex, Hilton in Cambridgeshire, and Breamore in Hampshire.

Occupying the eastern corner of the town's common, Saffron Walden's maze is the world's largest surviving turf labyrinth, an impressive seventeen-ring medieval Christian design with a total diameter of 132 feet and a pathway paved with a single track of 6,400 bricks laid end to end. With its grass-covered banks, mounds, and ditches, it has a distinctly prehistoric air, reminiscent of ancient dolmens, and it could easily have stood here in one form or another for much longer than the town records suggest. The earliest official mention of the maze was made in 1699, when the local guild agreed to pay "15s.0d [15 shillings and no pennies] ... for cutting ye maze at ye end of ye common." Whatever its provenance, the maze has always been popular with the townspeople, especially during the eighteenth century, when it became a gathering place of the young men of the district who have a system of rules connected with walking the maze, and wagers in gallons of beer are frequently won and lost.

Equally popular was the Hilton turf maze, farther north in Cambridgeshire, also dating from the seventeenth century and one of the most striking examples of its kind: a deeply trenched nine-ring pattern of loops and spirals, decorated at its center with a stone plinth that honors-in Latin-its creator, William Sparrow, "born 1641, died at the age of 88, formed these circuits in 1660." Like Saffron Walden, the maze Sparrow cut could easily have been predated by an earlier form, but again official records fail to support the hypothesis.
Despite their excellent condition and historical associations, neither of these mazes quite compares in age or atmosphere to the Breamore maze in Hampshire, nine miles south of Salisbury. Said to be more than a thousand years old, the Breamore maze is on the grounds of the Breamore House, an Elizabethan mansion of red brick and jutting gables that has been in the Hulse family for ten generations. To reach the maze, you must hike through oak and beech woods that echo with the honking calls of pheasants, the scurry of squirrels, and, according to legend, the occasional ghostly rattle of a phantom carriage (the path was once a highway for mail and passenger coaches). The Breamore maze recalls a time when the passage of the moon and the rites of the seasons dictated certain arcane religious practices played out on it’s tightly wound circuit. Interestingly, the distance from house to maze, approximately one mile, is also the length of the maze itself half a mile in and half a mile out-which comes as something of a surprise when you consider its modest eighty-seven-foot diameter. Pity the poor monks from a nearby monastery, now long gone, who were said to have won absolution for their sins by shuffling along its length on their knees.

Not all stone-and-turf mazes are necessarily old. Like Hever Castle, Chenies Manor in Buckinghamshire dates from the thirteenth century, though the central portions of the house were built around 1460, with various sixteenth-century additions. It would be reasonable, therefore, to assume that the Chenies turf maze-in a corner of the kitchen gardens shadow led by the village church-is of comparable age. Not so: The maze was actually laid out in 1983. According to the current owners of the house the pattern for their late-twentieth-century maze was taken from a sixteenth-century portrait (now hanging in nearby Woburn Abbey) of Edward, Lord Russell, grandson of the first Earl of Bedford, whose family owned Chenies for more than four hundred years. In the background, over Russell's right shoulder, a maze can clearly be seen with the apt Latin inscription, "FATA VIAM INVENIENT" the fates will find a way.

In addition to stately home hedge mazes and numerous stone-and-turf designs cut into village greens, there are a number of other maze forms around England, ranging from the twin rock carvings near Tintagel in north Cornwall-plate-size spirals said to date from 1800 B.c.

-to the mosaic wall maze in the Church of St. Laurence in the Cotswolds village of Wyck Rissington. It was in the latter, incidentally, that the composer Gustav Holst worked as choirmaster and organist-his first professional engagement-for the sum of £4 ($8) a year.

Churches may seem, at first, a strange home for mazes-symbols of early pagan rather than medieval Christian beliefs- but some churches have incorporated the designs into their structures, since the maze so fittingly reflects the Christian messages of pilgrimage and redemption.
The maze has a built-in dynamism the pattern may be static, but it demands movement, progression, even though the path is only four inches wide and you need agile ankles to get around. It is also a marvelous peg on which to hang preachings, a productive and creative means of conveying the Christian message.
At Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, its towers rising dramatically above the flat lands that surround it, an even larger maze pattern, designed by Sir Gilbert Scott and laid during restoration work in 1870, is set inside the west door.  Here, as at Breamore, the maze's proportions are significant: The length of its path-215 feet-is exactly the height of the tower that soars above it.

There's a theory that the maze was laid at the entrance to confuse the Devil and stop him from entering. Apparently the Devil can't resist the challenge of a maze, so the idea is that he follows the path to the center and then follows it out again, leading him back to the cathedral door. In other words, he can never get into the church.  A similar practice was once common in Sweden, where fishermen believed in evil little people who tried to cut holes in their fishing nets; the fishermen would lead these foes into the center of a stone labyrinth, then turn and run out as fast as they could, trapping the little people inside. The Swedes believed that this would ensure calm waters and safe fishing.

Tile mazes like Ely and Batheaston are usually classic patterns copied from other mazes around the world-the Batheaston maze, for instance, is based on a maze in France, at the Abbey of St. Bertin at St.-Orner (destroyed in the eighteenth century).

One totally original pavement conception, however, is the Tudor rose maze at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk. The previous courtyard, enclosed by three sides of the house, was made up of hogging [a loose mixture of clay and light stone].  It is probably the largest pavement maze in the world.

Appropriately, the design chosen was a giant seventy-foot Tudor rose to celebrate, in 1985, the five-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. Incorporated within this formal rose pattern are many Tudor references-facsimile signatures of each Tudor monarch, mythical beasts (a dragon, for example), and suitable symbols (a galleon) are etched into the fifteen diamonds that form a circle of thorns.  Unlike other maze patterns, the object of the rose is not necessarily to reach the center but to find your way from the house to the garden on paths that include regular junctions, or brick-patterned bridges and underpasses. It is a fiendishly complicated maze that invigorates and depresses in about equal measures, without the protection of hedges to conceal your humiliation and irritation. The only good thing to say for this hellish brainteaser is that when you've had enough, you can admit defeat by simply walking off it.
Which is more than you can say for Longleat. By now its late afternoon, and the couple from Salzburg, Zurich, or Munich have taken approximately two and a half hours to get out of the maze. There is a look of relief on their faces, even the shadow of a smile, which quickly vanishes when they discover that the Longleat Safari Park, which they had also intended to visit, closed twenty minutes before their release.