The Hedge or Topiary Maze

This is the last in my series of articles on mazes. I have saved the best for last, as this article is about hedge mazes, many times the charming setting of a romantic tryst in a Regency novel. And coming last is also appropriate, as hedge mazes developed much later than did their ancient predecessors, the cathedral maze, the turf maze, the block labyrinth, or the wilderness.

The origins of the hedge maze and its growth through history to the Regency …

The hedge or topiary maze did almost literally grow up out of the turf maze, in a manner of speaking. By the sixteenth century, many kings and wealthy aristocrats across Europe had adopted the fashion of ornamenting their large gardens with labyrinthine features. These included both floral labyrinths and dwarf shrub mazes, both similar to formal parterres. Most of these early garden mazes were based on the designs of turf mazes, having a unicursal, or single meandering path. Many of these gardens also featured strategically-placed intricate living sculptures in plants, the highest expression of the art of topiary, to delight garden visitors. Ladies and gentlemen could stroll along these paths, usually covered with gravel or sand, surreptitiously flirting or merely conversing as they enjoyed the beauties of the ornate and well-trimmed garden with its fanciful creatures in topiary. As they were in full view of anyone else in the garden or the house, they had to be very circumspect in their behavior since these gardens, like the turf maze, offered no privacy.

The "wilderness" became a fashionable addition to an aristocratic garden during the next century. In Britain, these were essentially groves of trees inter-planted with shrubs which were trained into thickets and copses. In these private nooks a couple might find a rustic bench screened from prying eyes by the shrubbery. Occassionally, those who entered a wilderness with which they were not familiar might have some difficulty in finding their way out. (Or use that excuse to explain tarrying too long in the wilderness with a paramour?) A number of garden owners and designers saw the potential for amusement in the predicaments encountered by these perplexed wilderness visitors. And thus was the seed of the idea of the high-hedge topiary maze planted.

Initially, the hedge maze was often added in or next to a wilderness in a garden, like the two mazes which were incorporated into the wilderness William III had constructed at Hampton Court Palace. One of the mazes in the Hampton Court wilderness, the one which survives, was an example of the English "puzzle maze," that is, it had multicursal paths. Puzzle mazes, those of the multicursal design, had paths with numerous branchings which might lead to a dead end, or loop back to the original path, frustrating the visitor’s attempts either to reach the goal at the center of the maze or escape its confusing confines. There had been no point in designing a turf maze or a dwarf hedge maze with a multicursal path, as those who trod its paths could easily find their way, since there were no walls of thick hedge to block their view. But once the high-hedge maze was conceived, the puzzle maze was a popular option, though a few of the very early hedge mazes retained the unicursal path of turf and early garden mazes, as did the now lost circular maze constructed in the Hampton Court wilderness.

The topiary puzzle maze offered such enjoyment to visitors that its popularity quickly spread, easily displacing the much less challenging mazes with tedious, predictable unicursal paths, which offered no secret nooks or alcoves for private moments. By the early eighteenth century, hedge mazes were to be found in many gardens across England. This was particularly fortunate for the many garden topiary artists, as Alexander Pope’s ridicule of topiary sculpture had sparked a rapid decline in topiary art across the country. For one did not just plant some shrubbery and wait for it to grow into a maze. The construction and maintenance of a hedge maze required a great deal of ability and effort, much of it from gardeners with skill in topiary.

A new hedge maze for a gentleman’s garden began on paper, the design drawn by himself, his chief gardener, or by a landscape architect or garden designer employed for the purpose. The design would heavily depend upon the amount of land to be dedicated to the maze. The greater the area, the more opportunity to bewilder the visitor with multiple dead ends and looping circuits intended to delay his or her arrival at the goal, the centre of the maze. A large maze, one which covered a quarter to half an acre, would have many dead-end branches, multiple looping paths and thus many secluded nooks or alcoves for private moments. These large mazes would also have a central goal well worth attaining. At the centre of the maze the persistent and determined visitor might find an open-air pavilion surrounded by flowering plants or an elaborate fountain with multiple tiers of basins trickling water into the pool below. Some large mazes had a handful of trees planted at their center providing a natural canopy of shade over a suite of fashionable garden furniture in the rustic style where the successful visitor could take their ease. The dead-end nooks of most puzzle mazes were furnished with stone benches or other simple types of seating. The maze of a gentleman of taste might have niches cut into the maze wall here and there for the display of attractive stone statuary and other garden ornaments. However, even a smaller maze, one in an area of a quarter acre or less, could still offer many of these same features, if perhaps with somewhat less complexity.

Once the design of the new maze was approved by the garden owner, the construction began. First the soil would be dug up and turned over, then fertilizer and other organic matter was worked into to it. This was all allowed to settle for at least two or three months. The area would be surveyed and the lines for the planting of the hedges laid out. The gardeners would set to work planting the many yew, hawthorn, box, privet or hornbeam plants to be put in place along the lines laid out by the surveyor. Only one species of hedge plant would be used in a maze, in order to give the finished walls the consistent appearance which was fashionable. Evergreens were usually preferred, but there were mazes constructed of the deciduous hornbeam, though they could only really be enjoyed in the summer months. The type of hedge plant to be used would depend on the climate of the region in which the maze was located, as well as the size and color of the leaves which would best suite the design. Each plant would be carefully placed so that they would not crowd one another as they grew to maturity, but close enough to make a solid sturdy wall when they had attained their full height. As the plants grew, they would be trained by the topiary artist into a palisade of an even thickness of about twenty-five inches and a height of about seven to eight feet. In may mazes the individual plants which comprised the hedge walls were carefully plashed together. In this technique, the branches of one plant are interwoven with the one next to it, thus creating a solid impenetrable wall of hedge as the plants grow. Many puzzle maze owners wanted to make their mazes as challenging as possible, and if the hedges were plashed, visitors would be unable to push through a hedge wall to get to another path, which frustrated maze visitors often did in mazes with unplashed hedges.

Soon after the hedge plants were in place and in training under the topiary gardener, the goal at the center of the maze was usually constructed. If the center of the maze was to feature a fountain, the plumbing for the water would have been laid before the hedges were planted. If the center of the maze was to be shaded by trees, they, too, would have been put in place before the hedges were planted around them. But the remainder of the maze goal would be completed while the hedges grew up around it. A fountain would be constructed and connected to the water supply, or a pavilion, an open summerhouse or other garden folly would be built at the center to reward the determined maze visitor when they finally achieved the center. The center of most mazes typically included some type of seating, to enable the victorious visitors to relax and enjoy their triumph before they then attempted to leave the maze.

Either during or after the construction of the center of the maze, the paths would have to be built up. Most maze paths were about thirty inches wide. The paths of a maze were nearly as important as the hedge which formed it, as it was along these paths that the visitors must walk as they puzzled their way to the central goal. In a damp country like England, the paths must be formed in such a way that water would drain away from them, ensuring firm, dry footing for maze visitors. Typically, maze paths were made very like our modern roadways, with the center of the path higher than the sides. This arrangement allowed the water to drain off the path, where it was not wanted, to the roots of hedge plants, where it was. Though wilderness paths had often been covered with grass or moss, this material was not practical for maze paths which had little to no protection from the sun and which were designed to drain water away. Maze paths might sometimes be covered by sand or crushed gravel, but the most popular covering was tan, the crushed, spent bark of oak trees which were used in the process of tanning leather. Tan was soft, absorbent and was a much more natural material than either sand or gravel for covering maze paths.

After the central goal and the maze paths were completed, the maze could be furnished. Benches or other seating would be placed at the cul-de-sacs of many of the branched paths, others might be decorated with statuary or other garden ornaments, such as sun-dials. If additional statuary or ornaments were intended to be located in niches in the hedge walls, they would be placed in position and the hedges trained around them as they grew. If the seating and other furniture had not yet been placed in the center of the maze, that would also be done. And then, there was nothing left to do but tend the hedges and wait for them to grow high enough to make the maze a challenge. This could take as much as a year or even two, depending on the type of hedge plant used. A garden owner who wanted a maze had to be extremely patient in order to see his dream realized.

Many visitors to a new puzzle maze followed the right-hand rule. By this method, the maze visitor placed their right hand on the wall of the maze when they entered it and kept their hand in contact with the wall, come what may, until they eventually reached the center. The left-hand rule worked just as well, if the visitor preferred to keep their left hand on the maze wall. The main drawback to this method was that it was extremely inefficient as the visitor would have to traverse every cul-de-sac and looping path before they ultimately achieved the goal. Typically, most mazes had a much shorter path to the center, if the visitor was willing to take the chance. For those maze visitors who became hopelessly lost, there were a few methods of rescue. The most discreet, if still embarrassing, would be that someone, often a gardener, who knew the maze well, would be sent to lead them out. If the maze was located within the view of the house, someone from an upper floor might call to them which turns to take until they emerged from the maze. Some particularly complicated mazes had a raised platform constructed nearby, occupied by a kind of maze lifeguard, from whom maze visitors could request directions as they moved along the paths. Of course, the presence of the maze guide would rather put a damper on any couple’s hope of a few moments of privacy, as the guide was placed high enough to see all the paths of the maze.

Puzzle mazes remained popular in England into the last third of the eighteenth century. But by then, they were beginning to be seen as unnatural and contrived, not in keeping with the much more simplistic style of landscape gardening which was promoted by "Capability" Brown. Brown hated mazes, and is known to have torn out several of them when he re-designed the estates of wealthy aristocrats. Which is quite ironic, as his official residence at Hampton Court Palace was situated very near William III’s surviving maze. Fortunately, Brown was not able to get his hands on all the hedge mazes in England, and many people who had them in their gardens continued to maintain and enjoy them right through the Regency.

In the last few years of the Regency, puzzle mazes were once more being designed and constructed in England. One of the first was built at Chevening, the family home of the Stanhopes, in Kent. The fourth Earl Stanhope, brother of Lady Hester, had a puzzle maze laid out in 1818, based on a design created by his grandfather, the second Earl, a noted mathematician and polymath. The maze design developed by the second Earl was probably the first maze design to defeat the right-hand formula of solving a puzzle maze. The secret was the addition of a number of separate hedge "islands" which were not connected to the main hedge wall. In this maze, which reached full maturity in 1830, the visitor would be repeatedly returned to the maze entrance if they attempted to use the hand-on-the-wall method. The only way to reach the central goal of this puzzle maze was to determinedly walk its paths until one found the center. Sadly, though the Chevening estate still exists (the last Earl Stanhope bequeathed it to the British government in 1967), the maze was destroyed long ago.

The fourth Earl Stanhope began a trend with his innovative 1818 puzzle maze design at Chevening. By 1820, there were few new mazes constructed in England which did not employ the hedge islands which so easily defeated the hand-on-the-wall method of reliably traversing the old-fashioned mazes built prior to, and in the early years, of the Regency. Therefore, puzzle mazes during the Regency tended to be much less puzzling than those which were designed and built after the Regent became George IV in 1820. The hedge mazes of Regency England may have been less complex than those built later in the century, but they still provided a challenge to most first-time visitors. In addition, they offered quiet nooks and corners which furnished a modicum of privacy for a romantic tryst or a secret meeting. Unlike turf mazes, hedge mazes tended to be found only in the gardens of large estates, there are no records of any on public lands such as the village green or the church yard.

Well-maintained Regency hedge mazes were lush, verdant garden amusements, places of controled and civilized nature which offered a challenge to traverse, at least the first few times. Along the various paths the visitor would be surprised by the occasional nook containing classical statuary or a seat where they might pause for contemplation. These mazes often rewarded the determined visitor with a treat, should they achieve the goal of the maze center, where they might find a suite of rustic furniture shaded by trees, or an ornate fountain decorated with nature-themed sculpture. They have been and will always be, delightful settings for scenes of romance or intrigue in Regency novels we have read and many more yet to be written. I, for one, am grateful to all those gentlemen and their gardeners who built and maintained hedge mazes, as I invariably enjoy scenes set in them.


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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2 Responses to The Hedge or Topiary Maze

  1. sjmn60 says:

    Kathryn, this is a great series. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it – honestly had no idea there was so much variation in mazes! Opened my eyes, for sure. Thanks for an entertaining and useful series of posts. Màiri Norris

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad to hear you enjoyed the series. I had originally intended to do a single article on mazes, but once I began my research, I saw that I must do a series to do that fascinating subject justice. And, I thought there might be a number of aspects of mazes which might be useful to Regency authors.

      Thank you for stopping by.



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