Sunday, November 20, 2022

Mazes and Labyrinths

This year marks the centenary of Mazes and Labyrinths, A General Account of Their History and Development by W H Matthews, a pioneering study of this fascinating subject.

The author is referenced by the British Library catalogue as William Henry Matthews of Ruislip, Middlesex, and this is the only title attributed to him. The original edition is quite hard to find and its pale blue boards and paper label are often rather battered, but it has been reprinted as a readily-available Dover paperback.

His study was one of the first to draw attention to turf mazes in Britain, which were then little-known and often neglected. These spiralling forms, carved into the grass, are enigmatic in origin and purpose and, though there are several theories, have never been definitively explained. They are also hard to date, though some are certainly at least medieval. They often have curious names, such as Troy Town, Julian's Bower, Maiden's Bower, Shepherd's Race.

I was reminded of the centenary of Matthews' book when I received my copy of this year’s issue of Caerdroia, The Journal of Mazes and Labyrinths edited by Jeff Saward, no. LI. This wonderful, long-running publication (founded 1980) is always full of learned articles in the best amateur antiquarian tradition. Jeff describes Matthews’ book in his editorial as “Ground breaking, if somewhat overlooked, in its day, it remains a constant and charming source of reference”. 

There is an affectionate and informative memoir of Matthews by his daughter Zeta Eastes at the Caerdroia Archive. He was a musician, botanist, Great War volunteer, cyclist and Board of Trade civil servant, who researched his mazes book in the British Museum reading room but also made field trips to notable mazes. His daughter recalls him drawing mazes in the sand for her at the seaside.

I discovered an early issue of Caerdroia in my youthful antiquarian wanderings in the early 1980s, at the Gothic Image bookshop in Glastonbury, along with an array of other alluring magazines covering Druidism, paganism, landscape mysteries, ancient sacred sites, the Arthurian legends and much else. Jeff had also produced Caer Sidi, one of the first modern descriptive checklists of turf mazes in Britain.

Inspired by his work, I at once set out (with my colleague G J Cooling) for a nearby example, the Miz-maze at Breamore, Hants, bowered in a wooded hilltop in private grounds but reachable by a public footpath. It was certainly a lonely, strange place.

However, the expedition was made the more thrilling when a helicopter hovered while we were contemplating the maze, as if observing our presence. Below a woman's voice called stridently for her dog, Bruno. It felt like a scene from The Avengers or The Prisoner. Were we intruders at some secret parapsychology installation? I half-expected the miz-maze to revolve into the earth and black-tunicked villains to disgorge.

Rosemary Pardoe's The Ghosts & Scholars Book of Mazes (Sarob, 2020) is a recent notable anthology of short stories on the theme. There may well be lost turf maze sites still to be discovered, using detailed place-name evidence or possibly local traditions: I came across one by chance a while ago in a church guide.

(Mark Valentine)

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