English Turf Mazes in the Regency

Earlier this year I wrote a brief history of the maze. I promised to write in more detail about the two most prominent forms of the maze during the English Regency. This week I will concentrate on a maze form which certainly existed during the Regency, though I have yet to see one mentioned in a novel set during that time.

The English turf maze, its origins, its construction and its uses up to and during the Regency …

It is generally believed that the English turf maze had its origins in the medieval European church mazes, even though there are no records of any mazes on the nave floors of any English churches during the middle ages. In England, a number of churches, instead of having mazes inside, on the floor of the nave, had a maze cut into the turf of the churchyard. However, there is also some evidence that turf mazes in England have even earlier antecedents as a component of fertility rituals performed by the pre-Christian cultures which inhabited ancient Britain.

By the sixteenth century, though there were still many turf mazes in local church yards, some turf mazes had moved to the village green or other open land near the village center. One of the oldest of these is the turf maze in the village of Saffron Walden. By the end of the century, and into the seventeenth century, turf mazes also began to appear on the estates of some wealthy families. Turf mazes across England, and even in Scotland and Wales, were commonly referred to as "Troy Towns." It is believed this name comes from an equestrian game played by Roman youths over a maze pattern which was meant to simulate the battle of ancient Troy, as the walls of Troy were believed to have been of very complex and circuitous construction.

All of these early turf mazes were unicursal, meaning they had a single winding path from the entrance to the center, with no dead ends. Nearly all of these mazes, whether on public or private land, were constructed in the same way. Turf mazes could range in size from twenty-five to over eighty feet in diameter. Contrary to expectation, most turf mazes were constructed by digging a narrow, shallow trench which would outline the resulting raised turf path upon which maze visitors would walk. There are only one or two turf mazes known in England in which a wide, shallow trench was dug to be used as the sunken pathway, with a narrow raised turf border outlining it.

It is interesting that for many generations, even into the decade of the Regency, the turf maze was used in what was essentially an echo of a fertility ritual, as it had been in pre-Christian times. For many generations, during village wakes or fairs, the maze was the site of a popular game. In some of these, a fair young maiden of the village would stand in the center of the maze, while a group of young men would race through the maze. The young man who reached the center first claimed the young woman’s company for the day, or for the duration of the wake or fair. In other villages, the maiden, or maidens, waited outside the maze, while the young men ran it, at which time the fastest runner would claim the company of the young women of his choice.

The use of the village turf maze was not limited to the revelries surrounding wakes and fairs. They were a popular year-round place for children to play any number of games, most of which revolved around running the maze. These games typically had local rules made by the residents of that particular village. At some turf mazes, there were frequently contests between two runners, one of whom would run in and out of the maze while another would run a round-trip course to and from a local landmark, the distance being the same as the distance inside the maze. In some cases, there might be a prize awarded, but more often, these races were run for bragging rights or to impress a particular young woman. The village men also sometimes made use of the local turf maze as part of their drinking games. After quaffing a tankard or three, a man would be blindfolded and then attempt to tread the maze without stepping off the path. It is possible that a "ceramic maze," the puzzle jug, was also used in some of these games. It is certain that many village May Day celebrations included games played on the local turf maze.

Another important village event took place around the maze, usually once every two or three years, most commonly in the spring. In some villages it was an annual affair. This was the re-cutting of the turf maze. Use and weathering would take its toll on mazes which were simply cut into a flat area of grassy turf and they would periodically have to be renewed and re-cut. In many villages this became a popular social occasion. All of the villagers would turn out to lend a hand in re-cutting the maze border. Once that was accomplished, there would be food, music, dancing and games, some of those games being played in the newly re-cut maze. By the Regency, some of these maze borders were paved with bricks, and so that repaving would also be a part of the maze renewal effort.

Turf mazes which had been cut on private estates might not get such heavy usage as public mazes near a village center. However, some landowners with a maze, particularly near a village which did not have its own maze, might offer the villagers the use of his turf maze for maze games as part of local celebrations of wakes, fairs or other important village occasions. But these private mazes were seldom open to the public on a year-round basis, though it is quite possible that some local children might still sneak onto the estate to play on the maze. These private mazes were not usually re-cut by the locals when re-cutting was needed. In most cases, the landowner would have the maze re-cut by his gardening or landscaping staff. Capability Brown, the noted landscape architect of the late eighteenth century, did not like turf mazes, and they were often destroyed on the estates which he landscaped. Fortunately, he did not landscape every estate in Britain, and some of the private turf mazes survived into the Regency years.

Obviously, a turf maze would be useless for a clandestine meeting between the lovers in a Regency romance, as its total openness affords no privacy whatsoever. But I do think that turf mazes have the potential to figure as settings for any number of interesting scenes in a Regency novel. A young woman might accompany her siblings or young charges to the private maze of a neighboring landowner who is seldom at home, only to be surprised by him as the children play boisterously on the maze. A gentleman passing through a village during a May Day celebration might be enchanted by the sight of a lovely young woman who is participating in some game in the village maze. There are so many possibilities. I hope one day to find myself reading a charming scene which takes place in a turf maze in a Regency romance, since turf mazes certainly existed at that time. It seems sad to let these rural playgrounds go unnoticed in the entertainment of today when they offered so much amusement to many during the Regency.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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One Response to English Turf Mazes in the Regency

  1. Pingback: The "Block" Labyrinth and its Variations | The Regency Redingote

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