Topiary mazes owe much of their mystique and charm to the folk culture in which they are set. Stories of perplexing labyrinths date back at least as far as ancient Greece, but the hedge mazes found in many formal gardens of England probably owe less to the classical myth of Theseus and the Minotaur than to a more particularly English legend.

The archetypal English topiary maze was Rosamund's Bower, planted during Henry II's reign at his palace at Woodstock. Along with the hedge grew some fanciful embellishments to its history, not the least of which attributed its design to Daedalus--the same mythical genius mentioned in the earlier Greek tale. Conservative historians more plausibly reason that Henry's own gardeners planted it on orders from the King. Presumably Henry had nothing more in mind than creating a frivolously decorative curiosity, but according to the legend, he ultimately found a more pragmatic use for it. By placing his mistress, Rosamund Clifford, in the centre of the maze, the King, who alone knew the correct path to take, could enjoy her company without Queen Eleanor's knowledge. Then as now, however, no maze, no matter how intricate, is unsolvable, and Eleanor, perhaps using one of the tricks employed by maze-walkers today, found her way to the centre and killed her rival.

Rosamund's Bower no longer exists, and in fact probably never existed in the form depicted in the legend, but the tale surrounding it inspired many copies, and today true hedge mazes, where a person may be lost from sight for hours, delight thousands of visitors each year--not all of them children.

Although mazes appeared in Britain long before Henry's day, the use of shrubbery to define the pathways is a comparatively recent fad. Early labyrinths typically consisted of earthen mounds, pathways bordered by stones, or tiles arranged on cathedral floors. (The church incorporated maze motifs into its art and architecture very early in the Christian era. The winding pathways symbolized the difficult path to salvation, with the many twists and turns caused by sin.)

Most of these early labyrinths were of the unicursal type, consisting of a single, very indirect path leading to the centre, with no false turns or blind alleys. A second variety comprises what we more often have in mind when we speak of mazes: multiple pathways with intersections and dead-ends. The unicursal labyrinths seem, in addition to their symbolic meaning, to have been created primarily for the simple visual delight of the public. Creators of puzzle mazes, though, sometimes had a less benign intent. The designer Batty Langley, whose name must surely have given rise to some sarcastic comments from his 'victims,' wrote in 1742 that the principal thought behind his mazes was to require 'an intricate and difficult Labour to find out the Centre, and to be so intricate, as to lose one's self therein, and to meet with as great a Number of Stops therein and Disappointments as possible.'

Langley would have been heartily satisfied by the predicament of Jerome K. Jerome's character Harris, who visited the Hampton Court maze in the novel, Three Men in a Boat, and, armed with an erroneous theory of how to reach the centre, became lost for an entire afternoon. Taking a lesson from Jerome's story, I studied the design thoroughly before entering the maze and reassured myself that I knew the correct sequence of turns. While my theory was superior to Harris', however, my sense of direction was not, and I soon found myself nose-to-leaf with an unexpected wall of yew--at which time, it began to rain.

The Hampton Court maze, certainly the best-known in England, was planted during the reign of William and Mary, as part of a grand design known as the Wilderness--a huge plot of geometrically laid-out gardens, of which only the maze survives today. Its popularity stems perhaps from the fact that it is challenging enough, without being nearly as frustrating as one would gather from reading Jerome's light-hearted story.

Novelist Daniel Defoe had good things to say about the maze when he visited Hampton Court in the early part of the 18th century: 'On the north side of the house, where the gardens seem'd to want skreening from the weather, or the view of the Chapel, and some part of the old building requir'd to be cover'd from the eye, the vacant ground, which was large, is very happily cast into a wilderness, with a labyrinth. . . . This labyrinth and wilderness is not only well design'd, and compleatly finished, but is perfectly well kept . . . .'

Not everyone found the maze quite so delightful, though. The renowned landscape architect, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, who lived within sight of Hampton Court, never fell under its spell and rather tended to look down his nose at the whole concept.

Brown would certainly be horrified to learn that today the Hampton Court maze is just one of more than 100 mazes in Britain. Many of them adorn the grounds of the finest stately homes, thus making a themed 'Maze Tour' a wonderful way to explore Britain's cultural and architectural heritage--a notion not lost on the tourist trade, who, in 1991, declared a 'Year of the Maze.'

For no apparent reason, mazes seem to take root on properties enjoying strong connections with Henry VIII. Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn, features one of the most picturesque hedge mazes in all of Britain. Henry Tudor never had an opportunity to emulate Henry II by meeting Anne behind the hedge, because William Waldorf Astor planted it only at the turn of the 20th century. The maze, of closely trimmed yew, measures 80 feet on each side--making it only a little smaller than the tiny castle itself. Hever's small scale and Astor's adjoining 'Tudor' village and gardens lend this maze one of the most charming, fairy-tale settings in Britain, and it also manages to capture that elusive 'just hard enough' quality.

Yet another of Henry's haunts, Leeds Castle, embraced the concept of the hedge maze on a grander scale. Planted only in 1988, the new maze incorporates some unique ideas, which are themselves something of a reaction to the booming popularity of hedge mazes in England. The 2,400 yew trees--not yet grown to maturity and therefore providing only an inkling of what the maze will ultimately look like, form a castle in outline, complete with corner towers and bastions. When fully grown, the hedge will be castellated, giving it the appearance of a real, albeit uniquely green, fortress. Inside, the pathways form two images closely linked with Leeds Castle--a chalice symbolizing Eleanor of Castille, the castle's first royal owner; and a queen's crown, in reference to the many queens who have lived there since.

The most distinctive feature of this maze, though, is the manner in which visitors exit it after successfully finding their way to the centre. Rather than requiring departing guests to retrace their steps back through the maze, the designers fashioned an underground grotto leading from the centre, beneath the maze, to the exit. The entrance to the grotto lies atop a mound that serves as an observation point overlooking the maze. A stairway winds down inside the mound, past decorative stonework depicting the castle's grounds, to a main chamber, where images of mythic heroes and beasts in stone, shells and colourful minerals provide a fantastical escort for departing guests. Descending yet more steps, maze-walkers enter a macabre passageway decorated with bones, slag, moss, tree bark--even saucepans--which finally leads them toward the exit and back to daylight.

It may be, though, that some visitors to the Leeds Castle maze will never find their way into the grotto. The maze's designers slyly chose to make this maze of the 'island' sort--an insidious arrangement that foils one of the standard tricks used by maze connoisseurs. If a hedge maze consists of a single interlinked border of shrubbery, no matter how convoluted, maze-walkers will be able to reach the goal by keeping one hand against the wall of the maze and following it wherever it leads--into and back out of every blind alley. Eventually, after a very circuitous walk, this method invariably takes you to the centre. But not in an island maze, where the hedges are planted in unconnected segments, so that the hand-on-the-wall method takes you around the edge of the maze, but not into the central 'island' where the goal lies.

The maze at Leeds is therefore relatively tough; but in order to take on the biggest topiary maze in England, enthusiasts must head to Longleat House, home of the Marquess of Bath. Although vying for attention with a Safari Park, Dr. Who Exhibition, and an assortment of other attractions, this maze nonetheless draws its share of interest. Not satisfied with merely planting an island maze, the designers at Longleat devised a three-dimensional challenge, which takes many visitors more than an hour to solve. Even some aficionados think this is a little too much and that becoming intentionally lost ceases to be fun long before they find their way back out. Much, however, depends upon individual expectations: Those looking for a quick diversion will probably be less entertained than frustrated, but those seeking the ultimate challenge can do no better.

At Blenheim Palace, pilgrims to the birthplace of Winston Churchill can now also experience one of the newest hedge mazes in England, and the largest 'symbolic' maze in the world--so-called because of the heraldic imagery and other symbols depicted within the hedge patterns. The maze, 294 feet long and 185 feet wide, complete with pavilions and wooden bridges, stands, ironically, on grounds once laid out by Capability Brown.

To those who echo the famous landscape designer's disdain for the maze at Hampton Court, W. H. Matthews responded, in his book Mazes & Labyrinths: 'Long may it remain! It may be a sad sight to the "high-brows" of horticulture, but to the unsophisticated many it is a never-failing source of innocent merriment. Those who incline to deplore the perpetuation of these "topiary toys" should spend an hour or two in the Hampton Court maze on a sunny holiday and witness the undiluted delight which it affords to scores and hundreds of children, not to mention a fair sprinkling of their elders.'

As much as any other single person, Adrian Fisher drives the current maze craze in Britain. A Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners of London, Fisher has been designing mazes since 1975--the first in his father's garden--but his most spectacular creative outburst has come since 1991, when he was made director of 'The Year of the Maze', a tourism campaign that reawakened interest in an ancient art form.

Labyrinths have been drawn on walls and cut into English turf for many centuries, but Mr Fisher has not been content to simply mimic the work of his maze-designing predecessors. Rather, he has created his own style, characterized by seemingly endless variations on the labyrinth theme, which has turned the maze into a modern phenomenon.

Each of his creations is a reflection of its setting. The Darwin Maze at Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, for example, is a yew hedge maze symbolizing Darwin's theory of evolution. It features six electronically controlled fountain gates, two bridges and two decorative brick pavements--one representing a DNA spiral and the other an Oran Utang, using an innovative clay paving system that Fisher himself invented.

Fisher has incorporated bridges, waterfalls, fountains, mirrors, and even live animals into his designs. While most of his mazes are intended simply to provide entertainment, Adrian has demonstrated that they can also have great social utility. One of his most unusual efforts was, for a short time in 1993, the largest maze in the world and found its way into the 1994 edition of the Guinness Book of Records. The maze, designed especially to benefit the Red Cross Appeal for the Flood Victims of the Midwest in the United States, was cut out of a cornfield in Annville, Pennsylvania and covered 126,000 square feet, in the shape of a giant Stegosaurus. The $32,000 raised in the course of a single weekend suggests that mazes have as promising a future in the U.S. as in Britain. 'It was one of the most joyful maze events I have ever known,' Fisher recalls.

Also in 1993, Fisher created the first maze especially designed as a training ground for blind people, who need to learn to negotiate their way through a confusing and intricate world. Located at New College in Worcester, England--part of the Royal National Institute for the Blind--the maze gives students practice at using echoes, textures and airflow patterns to conceptualize their surroundings in enclosed spaces.

Adrian has also authored several books on mazes, including The Art of the Maze, which sells for $35, and The British Maze Guide, which costs $15. Both prices include postage. Both can be ordered from Adrian Fisher Maze Design, 5 Victoria Grove, Southsea, Hampshire, PO5 1NE, England. Tel: 01705 355 500.

'A VERY FINE MAZE . . . .'

(from Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat)

Harris asked me if I'd ever been in the maze at Hampton Court. He said he went in once to show somebody else the way. He had studied it up in a map, and it was so simple that it seemed foolish--hardly worth the twopence charged for admission. Harris said he thought that map must have been got up as a practical joke, because it wasn't a bit like the real thing, and only misleading. It was a country cousin that Harris took in. He said:

'We'll just go in here, so that you can say you've been, but it's very simple. It's absurd to call it a maze. You keep on taking the first turning to the right. We'll just walk around for ten minutes, and then go and get some lunch.'

They met some people soon after they had got inside, who said they had been there for three-quarters of an hour, and had had about enough of it. Harris told them they could follow him if they liked; he was just going in, and then should turn round and come out again. They said it was very kind of him, and fell behind, and followed.

They picked up various other people who wanted to get it over, as they went along, until they had absorbed all the persons in the maze. People who had given up all hopes of ever getting either in or out, or of ever seeing their home and friends again, plucked up courage, at the sight of Harris and his party, and joined the procession, blessing him. Harris said he should judge there must have been twenty people following him, in all; and one woman with a baby, who had been there all the morning, insisted on taking his arm, for fear of losing him.

Harris kept on turning to the right, but it seemed a long way, and his cousin said he supposed it was a very big maze.

'Oh, one of the largest in Europe,' said Harris.

'Yes, it must be,' replied the cousin, 'because we've walked a good two miles already.'

Harris began to think it rather strange himself, but he held on until, at last, they passed the half of a penny bun on the ground that Harris' cousin swore he had noticed there seven minutes ago. Harris said: 'Oh, impossible!' but the woman with the baby said, 'Not at all,' as she herself had taken it from the child, and thrown it down there, just before she met Harris. She also added that she wished she had never met Harris, and expressed an opinion that he was an impostor. That made Harris mad, and he produced his map, and explained his theory.

'The map may be all right enough,' said one of the party, 'if you know whereabouts in it we are now.'

Harris didn't know, and suggested that the best thing to do would be to go back to the entrance, and begin again. For the beginning again part of it there was not much enthusiasm; but with regard to the advisability of going back to the entrance there was complete unanimity, and so they turned, and trailed after Harris again, in the opposite direction. About ten minutes more passed, and then they found themselves in the centre.

Harris thought at first of pretending that that was what he had been aiming at; but the crowd looked dangerous, and he decided to treat it as an accident.

Anyhow, they had got something to start from then. They did know where they were, and the map was once more consulted, and the thing seemed simpler than ever, and off they started for the third time.

And three minutes later they were back in the centre again.

After that they simply couldn't get anywhere else. Whatever way they turned brought them back to the middle. It became so regular at length, that some of the people stopped there, and waited for the others to take a walk round, and come back to them. Harris drew out his map again, after a while, but the sight of it only infuriated the mob, and they told him to go and curl his hair with it. Harris said that he couldn't help feeling that, to a certain extent, he had become unpopular.

They all got crazy at last, and sang out for the keeper, and the man came and climbed up the ladder outside, and shouted out directions to them. But all their heads were, by this time, in such a confused whirl that they were incapable of grasping anything, and so the man told them to stop where they were, and he would come to them. They huddled together, and waited; and he climbed down, and came in.

He was a young keeper, as luck would have it, and new to the business; and when he got in, he couldn't get to them, and then he got lost. They caught sight of him, every now and then, rushing about the other side of the hedge, and he would see them, and rush to get them, and they would wait there for about five minutes, and then he would reappear again in exactly the same spot, and ask them where they had been.

They had to wait until one of the old keepers came back from his dinner before they got out.

Harris said he thought it was a very fine maze, so far as he was a judge. . . .


Those who would like to try the Hampton Court maze, but who find themselvesin the North of England, can take advantage of a handy alternative. The 4thBaron Egerton planted a copy of the Hampton Court maze in beech on hisestate of Tatton Park in Knutsford, Cheshire, in 1890, which remains opento visitors.

Visitors to Chenies Manor House, Nr Amersham, Bucks, can enjoy both a turfmaze and a recently planted hedge maze. The manor house is another propertywith associations to Henry VIII-his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, and Thomas Culpepper allegedly consummated their adulterous affair in one ofthe bedrooms. Henry's ghost is said to prowl the manor still, seeking tocatch his queen in the act.

The 1,000-acre park surrounding spectacular Chatsworth House, renowned forits collection of paintings and furniture, includes a 131-by-115-foot yewhedge maze planted in 1962.

Traquir House, Innerleithen, Borders, is dripping with memories of Mary,Queen of Scots and the turbulent events of the Jacobite Risings and theCatholic persecution. The gardens include a 147-foot-square hedge mazeplanted in Leylandii.

The spectacular Victorian mansion of Somerleyton Hall, nr Lowestoft,Suffolk, provides the grand setting for an unusual hedge maze that wasplanted in 1846-time out of mind as far as hedge mazes go. The 12 acres ofgardens also include a miniature railway and wonderful displays of azaleasand rhododendrons.

Cawdor Castle, nr Inverness, Highlands, is best-known as the reputed sceneof King Duncan's murder at the hands of Macbeth. Though the story as toldby Shakespeare may be mostly literary embellishment, this 14th centurystronghold provides a romantic backdrop for the surrounding gardens andnature trails, including a hedge maze planted in holly, in an ancient Romanmosaic pattern.

An 'Italianate Maze', set among 30 acres of themed gardens at Capel Manor,Enfield, features holly hedges and illuminated fountains.