The Maze – When A Hedge Is Not Just A Hedge

“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 round for ten minutes, and then go and get some lunch.”

Harris kept on turning to the right, but it seemed a long way…

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

…when it’s a maze.

Our story starts in Italy during the early days of the Renaissance when knot gardens first appeared. Originally planted only with lavender, rosemary and other herbs to delineate the edges of and the intricate patterns within the square outline, their design was further formalised by the addition of neatly trimmed box hedging – parterres had been born. And the French not only fell in love with them, they planted them on a grand scale – as those at Versailles (planted in the late 1600s) demonstrate.

Of course, these ideas all crossed the Channel and were eagerly adopted by those with money and land enough. But one further development, one little horticultural stepping stone, was still required before a proper hedge maze became a possibility. At some point in the C16th, a Tudor gardener or garden owner – or several working independently – decided to let the lavenders etc. in his knot garden grow. And with this new height came the idea of opening up the knot garden and simplifying its patterns so that one could walk through what had effectively become a maze. These early examples, though, were not intended to puzzle and confuse – the way out was always obvious and visible – but simply to delight.

It took a revolution – the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – and the coronation of William of Orange for the first true how-do-I-get-out-of-here hedge maze to appear in England. It was planted by Henry Wise and George London at Hampton Court Palace between 1689 and 1695 for the new king. Hedge mazes soon became fashionable and even when, a few decades later, Capability Brown was ripping up the gardening rule book (and many a parterre), the hedge maze survived.

During the Victorian age, hedge mazes enjoyed a further boost when the bourgeoning – and increasingly wealthy – bourgeoisie took a fancy to them. Today, the hedge maze has never been so popular and there’s scarcely a stately home open to the public that hasn’t either planted one or is thinking of doing so. The hedge maze has become a tourist attraction. For the traditionalists among you, here’s a selection of those that have been around a little longer:

Hampton Court Palace

We have to start with what must surely be the country’s most famous hedge maze – it is certainly its oldest. While many think of it as a living relic of the Tudor era, it is, in fact, a little over 300 years old – which still isn’t bad. Today’s hedge maze was originally planted (possibly over Cardinal Wolsey’s own parterre) exclusively with hornbeam but many different plants, including beech and yew, have been used since then to effect repairs and add additional twists and turns. It may well be our most visited mixed hedge – and the one in which Harris (above) is hopelessly lost..

Glendurgan Garden, Cornwall

This National Trust garden, near Falmouth, was laid out by Alfred and Sarah Fox in the 1820s and 30s and features a cherry laurel maze, planted in 1833. Ostensibly for their many children, the maze also served as an al fresco smoking room for the gentlemen during summer.

The Fox’s chose Cherry Laurel because of all the suitable hedging plants including beech and yew, it was the fastest growing option – the arrival of Leylandii was still a few years away. It was a good choice and the maze stood proud for over 150 years before major repairs to the laurel themselves became necessary. The original Cherry Laurels were cut right back (NOT dug up) in 1991 and the maze reopened three years later.

So, if you fancy a maze of your own…

Somerleyton Hall, Suffolk

The Hall’s formal gardens run to about12 acres and include a yew hedge maze planted by William Andrews Nesfield in 1846. It’s definitely worth the trip as it is recognised as one of the finest in Britain.

Bridge End Garden, Saffron Walden

This delightful Victorian garden, first laid out by Francis Gibson in the 1840s, was sympathetically restored in 1982 to its 1870 glory. Gibson’s planting has been re-instated and, alongside the rose garden, the kitchen garden, the main lawn and the Dutch sunken garden there is a hedge maze in yew to enjoy.

Hever Castle, Kent

Most famously a childhood home of Anne Boleyn, Hever Castle was bought by William Waldorf Astor in 1903. As part of the restoration work to the house and gardens, Astor had a traditionally designed yew hedge maze planted in 1906. It measures eighty feet by eighty feet with the yews reaching just under3m in height and has paths covering a quarter of a mile.

Saltwell Park, Gateshead

In 1876, William Wailes, sold his Saltwell estate to Gateshead Council who leased the house, Saltwell Towers, and some adjacent land for a private garden back to him. In 1877 he built a hedge maze for his family. On his death, his garden, too, became part of the park. In 2005, an £8.6m restoration project was completed which saw Wailes original hedge maze fully replanted in yew.

The Modern Era

Finally, here is a selection of hedge mazes planted during the last few decades. Mazes were a popular choice to mark the millennium:

Longleat, Wiltshire 1975 Yew

Traquair, Peeblesshire 1981 Leylandii and Beech

Hoo Hill, Shefford 1983 Golden Leylandii

Leeds Castle, Kent 1988 Yew

Castlewellan, County Down 2000 Yew

Penpont House and Gardens, Powys 2001 Yew and beech (with lavenders inside)

Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, Wraxall 2003 Beech and Copper Beech