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A common definition of a turf maze is a “convoluted path cut into level areas of short grass” [1]. Sometimes the groove cut into the turf is to be walked but more commonly it is the turf itself which is the path. The maze is cut into level areas of short grass or lawn to create raised paths of turf marked by shallow channels excavated between twists and turns.


There are two types of turf mazes; classical and medieval. The medieval pattern of turf mazes is identical to pavement labyrinths found in Gothic Cathedrals elsewhere in Europe such as the famous example in Chartres Cathedral.

On the other hand, the classical form seems to have taken its inspiration from ancient Greek mythology and history. Coins depicting the minotaur’s labyrinth found in Crete at the site of ancient Knossos confirms this as does the names of three of the surviving English examples; ‘The City of Troy’, ‘Troy’ and ‘Troy Town’. The preference for the name Troy could refer to an ancient Roman equestrian game which re-enacted the battle of Troy played over a maze-like pattern with the grooves separating the pathways representing the walls of the ancient city[2]. The link between the name Troy and the design is taken as evidence of the deliberate decision to connect the mazes to the ancient world but there is another school of thought that asserts that ‘Troy’ is a corruption of the Celtic word to turn, ‘tro’[3]. I personally don’t see any reason why the name ‘Troy’ couldn’t have been chosen precisely because of its double meaning.

Although they are known as mazes, the name itself is misleading. They are actually labyrinths because unlike mazes there is only one route from the entrance to the centre.

Wi1234, CC BY-SA 3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons


Turf mazes come in all sizes and can be found in Britain, Ireland, Germany and Denmark but the practice of constructing mazes from stones and boulders was much more widespread. Most experts believe the tradition of ancient stone mazes predates the creation of the earliest turf mazes. This is more than likely correct but it is nearly impossible to verify because of the nature of turf mazes. In order for turf mazes to keep their shape they need to be constantly re-cut; this destroys any archaeological material which could have helped with the dating process.

Saffron Walden turf maze. Image by Miss Jessel

Evidence from written sources such as W.H. Matthews, who in his 1922 book, Mazes and Labyrinths recorded over 30 mazes[4], and also from local oral folklore reveal that at one time turf mazes existed all over Britain but unfortunately only eight have survived in England. These are: –

  • Alkborough, North Lincolnshire
  • Breamore, Hampshire
  • Dalby North Yorkshire
  • Hilton, Cambridgeshire
  • Saffron Walden, Essex
  • Troy Farm, Somerton, Oxfordshire
  • St Catherine’s Hill, Hampshire
  • Wing, Rutland

So, what was the purpose of these mazes? Many theories have been put forward including those relating to religion and fertility rites. Whatever the reason, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the trend of cutting turf mazes reached its peak. More and more appeared, mainly on village greens but also on estates of wealthy landowners. During Cromwell’s reign the use of turf mazes was forbidden but they regained popularity after the restoration of the monarchy. A memorial obelisk placed at the centre of the Hilton turf maze by 19-year-old William Sparrow who re-cut the turf maze in 1660, commemorates both the return of King Charles II to England and the rededication of the maze [5]. Turf mazes witnessed a revival in interest in the nineteenth century although many on private land were destroyed by Capability Brown, who disliked their unnatural stylised form.


As was mentioned before, turf mazes cut in the medieval pattern are identical in style and shape to the engravings found in the naves of cathedrals in mainland Europe. These labyrinths symbolised the search for redemption. Penitents were encouraged to cleanse their souls by following the path of the labyrinth as it was believed that walking a twisting path would confound the Devil who could only travel in straight lines[6]. Many would do so on their hands and knees[7]. Few of these survive, most were destroyed, seen as a distraction from the religious solemnity of the services. You can sort of picture the scene, a queue of sinners all lined up to walk the labyrinth and so focused on keeping their place that they become oblivious to the words of wisdom coming from the pulpit.

Walking the maze at Wing. SiGarb at English Wikipedia,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are no records of pavement mazes inside English churches but there is evidence that some turf mazes existed just outside as well as close to places of pilgrimage such as Julian’s Bower, the twelve-circuit turf maze in Alkborough which was located next to a thirteenth century Benedictine cell [8]. This has led some to speculate that they fulfilled the same function as their European counterparts. An unsubstantiated but interesting legend recounts how the Alkborough maze was created to force a knight who took part in the murder of Thomas Becket to pay penance[9]. Even if this can explain why turf mazes were first introduced it does not account for the fact that so many mazes were located far from any religious sites. The evidence for a few mazes near churches have also led to some theorising that they actually predated Christianity which is also a possibility as early Christian sites do have strong links to the sacred places of pre-Christian religious practices[10].

If turf mazes were linked to Christian practices it leads to the question of why English churches or cathedrals did not incorporate them into their design? Could it have been due to differences in architectural, cultural or religious preferences or is there another reason that we are just not aware of. Did the early turf mazes have a religious purpose and if not, why was this particular design adopted? Do the origins of the English turf mazes lie in the European pavement labyrinths or were the church versions built upon an earlier tradition? There are so many questions, most of which we will never know the answers to.


A number of stone mazes existed and still survive along the Baltic coast. According to the folklore of this area, these mazes were used by fishermen as a snare to trap evil sprites during tempestuous weather. It was believed that the smagubbar or little people followed fishermen everywhere and brought bad luck [11]. In order to prevent them from wreaking havoc the fishermen would walk the maze calling on the smagubbar to follow them. Once they reached the middle the men would flee and put out to sea, thus confounding the smagubbars’ dastardly plans. It was believed these sprites were unable to turn corners which links back to the Catholic belief about the Devil only being able to walk in straight lines[12].

Studies of labyrinth imagery from Scandinavia has shown that from the earliest times it was asserted that

“walking the stone labyrinths in the proper way gave fortune and protection healing and magical aid – even fishermen used labyrinths in the hope of being able to control the weather and increase the catch, as well as protection against the perils of the sea”[13].

St Agnes Lighthouse by Colin Park, CC BY-SA 2.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

Fishermen and sailors because of the perilous nature of their work and the fact that their lives depend on elements which are beyond their control have some of the most fascinating superstitions of any other group of people. Therefore, considering how so many countries share similar mythologies and practices I can see no reason why this link between fishermen and mazes shouldn’t have also existed in England. Although no examples exist in England, the closest comparison we have comes from St Agnes in the Isles of Scilly where a stone and boulder seven-ring maze can be found on the coast[14]. The present form of the maze was built by the son of a man who worked the local lighthouse in the 1700s[15]. Considering that the role of lighthouses is to keep sailors safe it would be logical to think that the maze was also a form of protection. Excavations of the site have revealed that the current maze was built on top of an earlier one, lending support to the idea that this connection goes back a long way.


As with every ancient countryside ritual or structure sooner or later we get back to the idea of fertility and turf mazes are no exception.

There are many different versions of this practice but they all centre around one particular theme, that of the boy finding his way to the girl and carrying her off. Often the event took place during village fairs. In some places the chosen girl would stand in the centre and a group of young men would run through the maze to reach her and claim her as their prize or the men would race to the middle, the winner able to take his pick of the young women waiting on the edges of the maze[16]. At the turf maze in Saffron Walden a young maiden would have to wait patiently at ‘home’ i.e. the centre of the maze, to be rescued by a boy who had managed to negotiate the twists and turns of the path without stumbling.

Saffron Walden turf maze. Image by Miss Jessel.

Lending credibility to the similarity of uses of the turf mazes and their stone maze cousins is the fact that nearly identical fertility rituals existed in Scandinavia where races would take place and girls saved and ‘freed’ from their imprisonment in the maze. In Finland another strange custom existed called The Virgin Dances, whereby the man who won would be allowed to lead her in a dance[17]. In Sweden even as late as 1985, the folklore department of Abo Akademi recorded how locals from one area would still meet in secret at their stone maze during the summer, choose a girl to stand in the centre and watch the boys race the maze. The girl would belong to the first boy to reach her who had not taken any wrong turns. The rest of the villagers would watch the entertainment clapping and encouraging the participants[18].

In many ways these practices remind me of the rituals surrounding the harvesting the last sheath of corn and the creation of the corn dollies, in that the young men of the villages would run a gauntlet in order to demand a kiss from one of the village girls.


Connecting the mazes back to their classical associations can be seen in the writing of Abraham de la Pryme. Whilst at Alkborough in 1697, he relates how he sat on the hill overlooking the maze and watched two Roman games being played[19]. I would hazard a guess that this must have been an English version of the Battle of Troy re-enactment. From his account the games seemed to have been very popular.

Understandably the mazes became a source of amusement for local children who would make up games and invent rules for playing on the maze. Few details of these games have survived.

The mazes also seem to have been turned into a drinking game where local men would wager beer for walking the maze. In one village a game was played where three men, blindfolded, tried to follow the maze’s path without stepping off [20]. Not sure if they did this sober or drunk!

Saffron Walden turf maze. Image by Miss Jessel.

In Saffron Walden there still survives the largest turf maze in Europe with a circumference of 132 feet, a pathway of one mile, seventeen circuits and enclosed by a bank and ditch. Four bastions are located at equal distances around the perimeter. A notebook owned by the town’s museum records how each part of the maze was named after a local town. During festivals and fairs everyone would come together to watch men race between the different sections of the maze within a set time. An umpire watched over the proceedings to ensure no cheating took place[21].

The cutting of the turf was also an occasion for celebration as the whole village would turn out to help with food being provided and music and dancing taking place. It seems that turf mazes played an important role in village life.


William Barnes in 1879, wrote how the eastern part of Leigh Common was called Witches Corner and that records from Somerset magistrates contain information about the site between 1650 to 1664, being the meeting places of a coven of witches. The turf maze at Leigh has long since disappeared and although there is no evidence of the maze having any association with witchcraft, a local legend has somehow developed which fuses the two together. Personally, I think it would have been a very appropriate place for them to meet except for the fact that it seems that evil beings are unable to traverse the mazes due to their circular design, maybe witches were an exception to this rule! According to sources in the 1990s, Leigh Women’s Institute designed a banner which depicted a witch on a broomstick viewing the six-sided puzzle[22].


Not only does England boast the largest turf maze but we also have the smallest one too. The classical shaped seven-ringed turf maze in Dalby, North Yorkshire is tiny but beautifully preserved. I am not sure if someone was being ironic but it is known as the City of Troy. A sign nearby informs visitors that the maze is a waiting point for trapped lost souls and that they may be consulted at the centre of the maze[23]

Hilton Turf Maze by Alan Simkins via
Wikimedia Commons


Although most documentary evidence suggests that turf mazes sprung up in the sixteenth century, there is no reason to suppose that they had not existed prior to this period. Why they appeared is a mystery, it is possible they originally had a religious purpose whether that was for Christians or Pagans but it is equally as likely that they were simply a form of rural entertainment.

Why they were allowed to overgrow and disappear was probably due to several factors. Maybe over time the reason for their existence disappeared alongside many traditional countryside superstitions, maybe just like many fads they just fell out of popularity or maybe the money and labour needed for their upkeep was seen as an unnecessary expense, for example in 1699, it cost 15 shillings to pay for three men to work for five days to cut the turf at the Saffron Walden maze[24].

I am just really glad that at least a few of them defied the odds and survived. They are a remnant of a bygone age and as such should be cherished and protected because they are just as much a part of our history and culture as the castles, iron age forts and standing stones which decorate the English countryside.

Dalby City of Troy turf maze. User:SiGarb,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Kraft, John: The Goddess in the Labyrinth, Abo Akademi, 1995

Gogerty, Clare: Beyond the Footpath: Mindful Adventures for Modern Pilgrims, Little, Brown Book Club, 2019

Bounford, Dr Julie E: The Curious History of Mazes: 4000 years of Fascinating Twists and Turns, Wellfleet, 2018

Baker, Katherine: The Mizmaze at Leigh,

Saffron Walden,

Saward, Jeff: The Turf Maze on Saffron Walden Common, C41 Saffron Walden.pdf (

Reprinted from: Saffron Walden Historical Journal No 23 Autumn 2017 Saffron Walden Historical Society,

Labyrinths and Ritual in Scandinavia,

Troy Town Maze,

City of Troy, the Dalby turf maze,

The Megalithic Portal,

The Riddle of English Turf Mazes, Karen Warren,

English Turf Mazes in the Regency, Kathryn Kane,


[1] Wikipedia, Turf Mazes

[2] The Riddle of English Turf Mazes

[3] The Curious History of Mazes

[4] Wikipedia, Turf Mazes

[5] The Curious History of Mazes

[6] The Riddle of English Turf Mazes

[7] Wikipedia, Turf Mazes

[8] The Curious History of Mazes

[9] Ibid

[10] English Turf Mazes in the Regency

[11] Wikipedia, Turf Mazes

[12] The Riddle of English Turf Mazes

[13]Labyrinths and Ritual in Scandinavia

[14] Troy Town Maze

[15] Ibid

[16] English Turf Mazes in the Regency

[17] Labyrinths and Ritual in Scandinavia

[18] Ibid

[19] The Curious History of Mazes

[20] English Turf Mazes in the Regency

[21] The Curious History of Mazes

[22] The Mizmaze at Leigh

[23] City of Troy, the Dalby Turf Maze

[24] The Curious History of Mazes