The Maze at Longleat House, England

The Maze at Longleat House, England

I must admit I’m a bit of a fan of labyrinths and mazes.

As a play landscape designer I’ve tried to find ways of incorporating them in my designs as they are especially attractive to children. Usually they are one of the first design ideas to be dropped, generally on grounds of maintenance requirements. I’ve tried to suggest simple materials like grasses to mark out a pattern, rather like the one in the Cambridge Botanic Garden, but again they do take some looking after. The best I’ve managed is a wooden stepping stone and daffodil spiral. One day I’ll find a client with the imagination and deep(ish) pockets to give a bigger one a real go.

Labyrinths and mazes – what’s the difference between them?

Well, the answer is  ‘it rather depends…’.  There is one school of thought that sees labyrinths as different to mazes and another that sees labyrinths as one type of maze. Labyrinths have just one route– so there’s no danger of getting lost – whereas mazes are rather more cunning in that they have dead ends, twists and turns which are set out to puzzle and confuse. Sir Walter Scott’s ‘O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!’ comes to mind.

Labyrinths (remember the single route or ‘unicursal’ one) are found in many cultures, some as old as 3,500 years. They all have an entrance or mouth, one route to follow and a central destination, sometimes marked with some sort of stone/statue/ feature. A further detail is how many concentric circuits or paths they contain and they can vary from the small to the huge – several hundred feet across. They have traditionally been seen as spiritually symbolic, meditative paths as well as just entertaining and can be found in many religious buildings such as Chartres and Ely cathedrals.

The Labyrinth pattern in Chartres Cathedral

The Labyrinth pattern in Chartres Cathedral

Humankind has been fascinated by patterns in the land for millennia and some of the earliest were forms of spiral (some multiple spirals). These later developed into the sorts of maze-like patterns we’re more familiar with, including the Cretan maze (or labyrinth as its usually called!). Of course the famous one was that in classical mythology where Theseus found his way to the centre and killed the Minotaur to ensure he freed his fellow Athenians. He used a length of thread to trace his way in and so find his way out. Which rather suggests that this ‘labyrinth was in  fact a more complicated maze as it would have been easy to retrace his steps in a one-route labyrinth! This all goes to support the case that the words labyrinth and maze are interchangeable, and certainly common usage suggests this- e.g the turf ‘mazes’ in some English gardens are in fact labyrinths (i.e. one routers).

A-maz-ing Gardens

Mazes as multi – choice routes really developed in gardens out of the parterre and knot gardens which used lines of plants (usually Box) to create patterns within which other plants, gravel, grass or sometimes coloured powders created a contrast in colour and level. You can wander around these hedges in some gardens and it isn’t difficult to imagine how (either deliberately or perhaps through lack of maintenance!) these hedges grew taller. This both made it difficult to grow anything successfully within them and also added a touch of mystery to the experience of walking round the garden. A book by Daniel Loris –  ‘Le Thresor des Parterres de l’univers‘ – written in 1629, seems to capture the developing fashion for such mazes (though most of it is concerned with the traditional parterre).

Hampton Court Maze, England

Hampton Court Maze, England

Britain’s oldest surviving hedge maze is at Hampton Court – created by George London and Henry Wise in 1690 and also thought to be the oldest hedge maze in the world in continuous use. Originally planted with Hornbeam and having two trees at the centre the hedging is now Yew, the hedging used in many traditional hedge mazes.

Labyrinth of Horta, Barcelona

Labyrinth of Horta, Barcelona

The Labyrinth Park of Horta in Barcelona, Spain, was created around 1794 as part of a neoclassical ‘makeover’ of the garden by its Marquis owner. In recent years the garden and maze have been restored and I have had the good fortune to almost stumble across it.

A simple bulb labyrinth at Cornell University, USA

A simple bulb labyrinth at Cornell University, USA

Today there are many different types of maze to be found in gardens, parks and estates around the world, some using hedges or walls (for your truly ‘puzzling maze’), others using turf, other grasses, low-growing plants or materials to mark out the (usually labyrinthine) route. In Britain temporary  ‘Maize mazes’ created in agricultural fields have become a popular summer visitor attraction.

There is something magical about these labyrinth and maze ‘puzzles on the land’ and I hope that one day I can create one in a park or garden…maybe you have scope for one in your garden?

Sources and further information:

Garden Mazes

Mazes and labyrinths

Design your own maze

History

Wikipedia- labyrinths

Wikipedia- mazes

Labyrynthos- resource centre

Labyrinth.org

Maze photos

Quizzicals (thanks to Les Palmer for these):

answers to the last two-

  • Has had too much already Sycamore
  • A country full of automobiles – Carnation

and a couple of gardening ditties

Big in Japonica’

‘You picked a fine time to leave me lucerne’

Old School Gardener

If you’ve enjoyed reading this post and others on this blog, why not comment and also join some other people and sign up for automatic updates via email (see side bar, above right ) or through an RSS feed (see top of page)?

Advertisements