Mazes find way to pop­u­lar­ity

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Britain -

IS it pos­si­ble for a sat­nav-cod­dled gen­er­a­tion to ap­pre­ci­ate the aes­thetic plea­sure of a hedge maze? Af­ter all, if there is one thing that never hap­pens in the­ory any more, it is peo­ple get­ting lost. Would many chil­dren even prop­erly un­der­stand the idea?

Ac­tu­ally, this is the ideal time for every­one to ex­plore an amus­ing tra­di­tion that dates back thou­sands of years. For in the grounds of count­less posh Bri­tish houses, mazes com­posed of ei­ther beau­ti­fully grown yew or lau­rel are un­der­go­ing a re­nais­sance.

The plea­sure is not purely a hor­ti­cul­tural one, though there is ob­vi­ously some­thing deeply pleas­ing about all th­ese elab­o­rate pat­tern­ings of green­ery. It is the cu­ri­ous pos­si­bil­i­ties thrown up by vol­un­tary dis­ori­en­ta­tion.

It was William III who in 1690 first saw the es­capist ap­peal of labyrinths. In hav­ing the Hamp­ton Court maze planted, just out­side that Thames-side palace, he gave a new di­men­sion to what was al­ready a cen­turies-old es­o­teric spir­i­tual pur­suit.

The Hamp­ton Court maze has mul­ti­ple path choices and dead ends, but there is only one path that can lead to the cen­tre. How­ever, the orig­i­nal mazes — the ones that can be traced back not only to Knos­sos and the leg­end of the Mino­taur but which form an­cient stone sites thou­sands of years old, as far afield as north­ern Rus­sia and Spain — had only one path (uni­cur­sal is the tech­ni­cal term).

The idea was that one would process along this sin­gle wind­ing path, back and forth, round and round, un­til one reached the cen­tre. The Chris­tian church nabbed this as a sym­bol for the jour­ney of life.

One of the finest me­dieval labyrinths is to be found at Chartres Cathe­dral: it’s a de­sign clas­sic now, as they say. There are many oth­ers to be found in the Gothic churches of France. And, in­deed, there are still a few in Eng­land, in­laid into those stone floors. In one sub­limely un­set­tling pas­sage in Peter Ack­royd’s novel Hawksmoor , an old empty church seems to come to life with chant­ing fig­ures mov­ing around a labyrinth.

It was when William of Or­ange saw the po­ten­tial in an even more per­plex­ing maze that the Bri­tish aris­toc­racy caught a sniff of a fab new pur­suit, and many were soon to fol­low.

There are beau­ti­ful yew mazes to be found across the world. A par­tic­u­larly fine 18th-cen­tury ex­am­ple, for in­stance, can be found at Villa Pisano, near Padua, north­ern Italy. But some­how, prob­a­bly be­cause of the uni­ver­sal fame of Hamp­ton Court, the form seems to be a Bri­tish one.

View them as a fam­ily dis­trac­tion, if you must. But while you are wend­ing your way through those hedges, take a mo­ment to ad­mire the breath­tak­ing artistry. The large Lon­gleat hedge maze in Wilt­shire, com­mis­sioned by the mar­quis of Bath and de­signed by the vi­sion­ary Greg Bright in 1978, is quite stun­ning.

Its paths swirl in hyp­notic vor­tices. Be warned, though: you will need about an hour to find your way through it. This maze has been joined at Lon­gleat in re­cent years by three oth­ers.

Maze plant­ing has been through a bit of a re­nais­sance in Bri­tain in the past few years. From Corn­wall to Perthshire, labyrinths have been ma­te­ri­al­is­ing. There is the Mur­ray Maze in the grounds of Scone Palace, Perth, which opened 10 years ago. This is hand­somely de­signed in the pat­tern of a five-pointed Mur­ray Star, and the maze hedges are com­posed of strik­ingly al­ter­nat­ing cop­per and beech.

There is the mag­nif­i­cent re­con­structed lau­rel hedge ex­am­ple at Glen­dur­gan House near Fal­mouth in Corn­wall, built on to the side of the gen­tle hill, the paths un­du­lat­ing ac­cord­ingly. Labyrinths are rich in sym­bol­ism. They are of­ten used by fic­tional lovers as a means of find­ing one an­other. Or they can be there to sig­nify a man’s fi­nal break­down, lost within the labyrinths of his own mind, as in the cli­max of the Stan­ley Kubrick film The Shin­ing , where an un­hinged Jack Ni­chol­son pur­sues his son through a si­lent, snowy hedge maze with an axe. This is not the sort of im­age the Na­tional Trust is keen to project.

For those on a rather qui­eter day out, the maze com­bines an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the best and most pa­tient in Bri­tish gar­den­ing with an agree­ment to pick up the gaunt­let thrown down by the maze de­signer.

Chil­dren are es­pe­cially keen, for this is one pur­suit in which they of­ten prove much bet­ter and more fleet­footed than par­ents, who are usu­ally not fully en­gaged. For any­one, though, to reach the cen­tre is one of those mo­ments of merely tran­si­tory sat­is­fac­tion: the jour­ney was the thing, and isn’t that just about true of life it­self? The Spec­ta­tor www.na­tion­al­trust.org.uk www.maze-world.com/bri­tain

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