Shouldn’t every child have a chance to get lost in a maze? Not totally lost, of course, mazes provide just enough confusion for a thrill but you do always get out in the end (well, except in Harry Potter). And they have a long history, starting out as Elizabethan labyrinths, just a twisting spiral one way path contained in hedges, and developing into puzzle mazes with lots of dead ends in the late 17th century. Walpole the dog doesn’t really get it and always tries to cut through the hedges at the bottom but that spoils the fun!
So where to find a maze to play in this summer?
Hampton Court Maze is perhaps the daddy of them all, commissioned by William III in 1700. It used to be one of a pair, made of hornbeam but was replaced with yew, providing a thick impenetrable series of sinuous hedges over a third of an acre. If you keep walking with hedge on your right you will make it to the middle, but a couple of confusing corners have been added recently and a rather charming soundscape to tempt you further in. The maze had a lucky escape from Capability Brown’s itch to clear and landscape everything when he was Royal Gardener here in the 1770s.
Hever Castle has no less than three different types of maze: a thoroughly traditional Edwardian yew hedge maze; a wooden tower maze for kids in the playground; and, my favourite, a splashy water maze on Sixteen Acre island. The water maze is really fun, with unexpected water jets and stones that tip you into the pool if you don’t pay attention. Take a towel and take on the challenge to reach the stone grotto in the centre.
The largest hedge maze in Scotland is at Traquair House in the Borders. Planted in 1981, it echoes a formal parterre garden which was once behind the house. This cypress and beech maze is particularly complex, but you can direct your children from the terrace which overlooks it.
The star shaped maze at Scone Palace in Perthshire also has a high vantage point from a bridge built into the design but you have to find the steps to the bridge first. The shape comes from the Earl of Mansfield’s family emblem and the colours of the 2000 copper and green beeches from the family tartan. In the centre, if you can find it, is a statue of the water nymph Arethusa by David Williams-Ellis.
Victorians loved a puzzle and you can find another fine yew maze at Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk. The curved edges are marked out by topiary sentinels in contrasting golden Irish yew. In the centre is a little pagoda on a knoll allowing you to look back on the path you have followed. The maze was designed in 1846 by the great 19th century garden designer W A Nesfield for Lord Somerleyton.
The maze at Leeds Castle has a real surprise in the centre. Enter through the square hedge walls and hey presto, the paths are circular and draw you in towards a curving stone wall at the centre. Wend your way up the slope of the central tower and down into a magical shell grotto that traces the tales of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And so through the lighted passages of the grotto back to the perimeter.
The Marlborough Maze at Blenheim Palace has a 25th birthday this year. This is the second largest hedge maze in the world – you have to go to Hawaii to find a rival. It takes 6 gardeners a whole week to trim the 3 kilometres of yew hedges. The design incorporates cannons, banners, flags and trumpets in celebration of the 1st Duke of Marlborough’s military victories plus a V sign as a nod to Blenheim’s other hero, Sir Winston Churchill.
Arley Hall and Gardens in Cheshire planted a hornbeam maze in the Arboretum in 2009 and it is looking grand. You can catch the views over the tops of the hedges to the countryside beyond and admire the pattern from the wooden fort at the centre.
Look out for modern mazes which are great fun for children. The Alnwick Garden, Northumberland, abounds with mazes, The Bamboo Labyrinth encloses you totally in quiet rustling that cuts you off from the outside world while the Serpent Garden uses a hedge maze to guide you through a sparkling series of water sculptures. Ragley Hall, Warwickshire, has a 3-D playground maze with wooden walkways, bridges and blocks of passages and the ambitious maze at Riverhill Himalayan Gardens, Kent, based on the patterns found in Tibetan wood carvings has a few years to go to reach full height but lines of post and rails make running through it lots of fun – and you just might spot the famous yeti that lurks here! Newest of all is the maze at Sudeley Castle, built in partnership with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. The willow boughs hiding willow sculpted characters from the Wind in the Willows.