‘Maze-mak­ing re­quires a cer­tain type of mind —in­ven­tive, witty, learned, deep’

Clive Aslet un­rav­els the re­mark­able story of Ran­doll Coate, maker of ex­tra­or­di­nary mazes for a range of dis­tin­guished clients

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Last year, Blen­heim Palace cel­e­brated the 25th anniversary of the open­ing of the Marl­bor­ough Hedge Maze, a thing of in­ge­nious sym­bol­ism and dense yew hedges, made of 3,000 trees, whose thick­ness means that it is bet­ter now than when it was planted in 1987.

a place of won­der, if also (en­joy­able) frus­tra­tion to vis­i­tors at­tempt­ing to ‘solve’ it, the maze takes on a dif­fer­ent as­pect when one of the two view­ing plat­forms is climbed. then, it re­veals the beauty of its de­sign, in­spired by the tro­phies of war on the sky­line of the house. ‘My de­sign in­cor­po­rated flags flying, trum­pets blar­ing, lances thrust­ing and pyra­mids of can­non balls for fir­ing,’ wrote the de­signer Ran­doll Coate, who died in 2005 at the age of 96.

Coate, who of­ten worked, as at Blen­heim, with adrian Fisher, de­serves to be called the fa­ther of the mod­ern maze, even though he only turned to ‘labyrinthol­ogy’ (his word) af­ter his re­tire­ment from a diplo­matic ca­reer.

Maze-mak­ing re­quires a cer­tain type of mind—in­ven­tive, witty, learned, deep. those at least were some of Coate’s qual­i­ties. From an English fam­ily liv­ing in switzer­land who ran a shop in Geneva called Old Eng­land, he grew up in Lau­sanne. a god­mother sup­ported his time at Oriel Col­lege, Ox­ford, to which he won a schol­ar­ship. at the out­break of the sec­ond World War, he at­tempted to put his flu­ent French and Ger­man to use, only to find that he was of­fered a job liv­ing un­der­cover in Ro­ma­nia. as Ro­ma­nian was not one of his lan­guages, he joined the In­tel­li­gence Corps.

In 1941, he vol­un­teered for the Op­er­a­tion archery Com­mando raid in Nor­way, notic­ing, as he dashed back to the land­ing craft af­ter a hair-rais­ing but suc­cess­ful mis­sion, a lit­tle wooden Madonna and child from a Christ­mas crèche, dropped by a Ger­man sol­dier. It still dec­o­rates the top of the fam­ily Christ­mas tree.

Later, he was parachuted into Greece and only avoided be­ing shot by par­ti­sans (he’d en­coun­tered a group that wasn’t ex­pect­ing him) by show­ing them a cross he wore around his neck. It was in­scribed with the Lord’s Prayer in tiny Greek letters, hav­ing

been given to him by a Greek girl­friend in Ox­ford. He re­mained with the par­ti­sans, help­ing to lib­er­ate Kala­mata on the south­ern Pelo­pon­nese.

On de­mo­bil­i­sa­tion, Coate joined the For­eign Of­fice, with which he served in Salonika, Brus­sels, Leopoldville, Rome, The Hague, Buenos Aires and Stock­holm, ac­com­pa­nied, from 1955, by his wife, Pamela. His fi­nal post­ing was as First Sec­re­tary in the em­bassy in Oslo.

When he took early re­tire­ment in 1967, there was no thought of de­sign­ing mazes. That pas­sion, which would ab­sorb the last 30 years of his life, was sparked by a chance com­ment made by the chate­laine of a house in Flan­ders, who re­marked over din­ner that ‘my place calls for a maze’. ‘Madame,’ he replied, ‘you are speak­ing to a maze­maker.’ Plans had reached an ad­vanced stage when the au­thor­i­ties put an end to them by lay­ing a road through the park.

Another op­por­tu­nity was pre­sented by his brother-in-law, Al­lan Shi­ach. In 1975, he wanted a maze for the Mill at Lech­lade, in Glouces­ter­shire, which he and his wife, Kathy, had re­cently bought. The idea orig­i­nated while the Shi­achs and the Coates were stay­ing at Circeo, south of Rome, sup­pos­edly the place where Ulysses was se­duced by Circe. This in­spired a maze in the form of Circe’s foot­print, for which Coate took a print of Kathy’s own foot made on clay. When en­larged to maze scale, this proved to be too large for the gar­den avail­able and, as at­tempts to buy some fields from the neigh­bour­ing farmer came to nought, a so­lu­tion (al­beit an ex­pen­sive one) was found by plac­ing one toe on a spe­cially cre­ated is­land in the river that runs by the house.

Called The Im­print of Man, the de­sign can be read from the up­stairs win­dows of the house: an or­ganic, sweep­ing pat­tern of whorls and curved par­al­lel lines. The last, Coate once wrote, had al­ways de­lighted him, whether as ‘the glis­ten­ing fur­rows of a neat ploughed field, the trim, ser­ried ranks of vine­yards, the par­al­lel lay­ers of rock up­heavals, the troop­ing of the Colour, [or] the sar­to­rial el­e­gance of ze­bras’.

How­ever, the maze is far more in­tri­cate than it looks. When dif­fer­ent el­e­ments are iso­lated, they can be read as sym­bols—more than 100 of them. As Coate tri­umphantly recorded, they’re or­dered nu­mer­i­cally: the two sexes, the three per­sons of the Trin­ity, the four el­e­ments, the five senses and so on, up to the 26 letters of the al­pha­bet and a Noah’s Ark with some 30 an­i­mals. These hid­den

“Madame,” he replied, “you are speak­ing to a maze-maker”

sym­bols over­lap one another, so they’re best ap­pre­ci­ated with the aid of pa­per and coloured crayons.

For­tu­nately, Coate left a de­con­struc­tion for the unini­ti­ated (or lazy) to puzzle them out, as he did for ev­ery maze he de­signed. Given this level of com­plex­ity, it’s no sur­prise to find that ev­ery maze that Coate de­signed is a one-off.

There­after, sev­eral of Coate’s mazes were made over­seas—in Bel­gium, Swe­den, Italy, Ar­gentina and else­where. Of Bri­tish op­por­tu­ni­ties, a par­tic­u­larly suit­able one arose in 1980, when the soon-to-be Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury, Robert Run­cie, dreamt of a maze, which he de­scribed in his en­throne­ment ad­dress. This in­spired Lady Brun­ner of Greys Court, Ox­ford­shire, to com­mis­sion a maze rich in Chris­tian sym­bol­ism from Coate and Fisher. In it can be found the Crown of Thorns, the Seven Days of Cre­ation and the Twelve Apos­tles. Made of turf and only 85ft across, the lin­ear char­ac­ter of The Arch­bishop’s Maze re­calls the labyrinths that can be found in me­dieval cathe­drals such as Chartres.

For the In­ter­na­tional Gar­den Fes­ti­val at Liver­pool in 1984, Coate and Fisher, helped by the writer and gar­dener Gra­ham Burgess, de­signed a Bea­tles Maze, at the cen­tre of which was a Yel­low Sub­ma­rine. The paths, formed of bricks cross­ing wa­ter, take the shape of the world’s lis­ten­ing ears. It won two gold medals. Another fes­ti­val maze was made at Bath the same year. The cen­tre or goal of the maze is a domed mo­saic rep­re­sent­ing Bath’s an­cient past.

If ever there was a coun­try-house owner in need of a maze, that man is the Mar­quess of Bath. He com­mis­sioned not only one, but two mazes, the first to fill a dull parterre be­neath his bed­room win­dow and the sec­ond to be a pen­dant to that. The iconog­ra­phy he left en­tirely to Coate and he chose the Sun and the Moon. Don’t think, how­ever, that the mean­ings stop there. The mazes also re-tell the myth of the Mino­taur, which in­cludes the orig­i­nal labyrinth. Ac­cord­ingly, hid­den in the Sun maze are de­pic­tions of Bac­chus laugh­ing, the Mino­taur, Th­e­seus’s ship, his hel­met, his sword and the dou­ble-edged axe known as a labrys, an at­tribute of Cre­tan fe­male deities.

Al­though the Lon­gleat Maze shows one side of Coate’s creativ­ity, the pom­merie maze at Comber­mere Abbey in Shrop­shire is equally orig­i­nal. Look­ing for the best site, Coate hit

upon the walled gar­den, only to be told it had been ear­marked for an or­chard. ‘Splendid,’ he cried. ‘We’ll have a maze en­tirely made of es­paliered fruit trees.’ The fact you could see through them did noth­ing to dampen his en­thu­si­asm. ‘Ideal—and in­no­va­tive!’ he ex­claimed. ‘The com­pounded trans­parency of the es­paliers will have a most baf­fling maze ef­fect.’

To some, the de­sign will in­vite a con­tem­pla­tion on the cul­tural and spir­i­tual mean­ing of ap­ples—oth­ers may just think that it looks ex­ceed­ingly pretty in the spring.

Com­mon thread: the his­tory of mazes

The verb ‘to amaze’ de­rives from maze—from the Mid­dle english word maes, mean­ing delerium or delu­sion—sug­gest­ing that its labyrinthine paths not only bam­boo­zle, but as­ton­ish. Their ori­gins seem to be just as per­plex­ing as their in­tri­cate shape. There was a great ar­chi­tec­tural labyrinth in egypt near Crocodilopo­lis, vis­ited by the An­cient Greek his­to­rian herodotus, who found it ‘greater than words can tell.’ No­body knows what its pur­pose was.

Sim­i­lar mys­tery sur­rounds later mazes, for ex­am­ple, those that are some­times found ei­ther on the floor or walls of me­dieval churches. It has been sug­gested that they sym­bol­ised the per­plex­i­ties that be­set the Chris­tian life or the en­tan­gling na­ture of sin. They may have played some func­tion in penances im­posed on the faith­ful as a re­sult of con­fes­sion: did they have to com­plete the maze on their knees? This pos­si­bil­ity is sup­ported by the name by which they are some­times known: Chemins de Jérusalem.

In Greek mythol­ogy, the half-hu­man, half-bull Mino­taur lived at the cen­tre of a labyrinth, the word it­self be­ing de­rived from the Greek word for the palace at Knos­sos. Th­e­seus, helped by the king’s daugh­ter Ari­adne and a reel of thread, suc­ceeded in reach­ing the heart of the maze, killing the Mino­taur and find­ing his way out again. Later, maze mo­saics be­came pop­u­lar floor dec­o­ra­tions for Ro­man dwellings—some 60 of them have been found.

At hil­ton, in Cam­bridge, is a turf maze. This is a form special to eng­land. Un­like hedge or top­i­ary mazes, in which the path is fol­lowed be­tween walls of green­ery, turf mazes are two-di­men­sional; as at hil­ton, they are of­ten set into the sward of a vil­lage green and the path is formed by a rib­bon of raised turf.

In A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, Ti­ta­nia speaks of ‘the quaint mazes in the wan­ton green’, al­though they were ‘in­dis­tin­guish­able’ for lack of tread. They were as­so­ci­ated with rus­tic games, of the kind banned by Pu­ri­tans. The hil­ton maze, orig­i­nally laid down as peb­bles, was made, ac­cord­ing to a date on the sun­dial in the mid­dle, in 1660, per­haps to cel­e­brate the Restora­tion.

‘If ever there was a coun­try-house owner in need of a maze, it is the Mar­quess of Bath

The Im­print of Man (left) was the first maze cre­ated by the late Ran­doll Coate (above). In­spired by the god­dess Circe, the in­tri­cate de­sign features more than 100 over­lap­ping sym­bols and an ar­ti­fi­cial is­land

Above: An aerial de­sign of the maze at Lech­lade Mill, show­ing the ‘toe’ of the maze on its special is­land. Bot­tom left and top right: A frog and a pen­guin, ex­am­ples of the sym­bols hid­den within the maze at Lech­lade

Be­low left and right: The Cre­ation maze in Swe­den. Planted in the shape of a fal­con’s egg, it plays a pun on the owner’s name, Falken­berg

Top: The maze at Blen­heim. It con­tains can­non­ball pyra­mids, flying flags and blar­ing trum­pets, draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion from the ‘tro­phies of war’ on the sky­line of the house. Above: A pig de­tail, for Lech­lade. Left: Tall hedges can make mazes tricky to prune, un­less, of course, you have stilts

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