There’s not one, but three, mazes in the historic market town of Saffron Walden. The oldest is the turf maze on the Common, the subject of this blog.
There are very few turf mazes left in the world; eight still exist in England, of which this one is the largest. As I walked across the common leaving the town and its ruined church behind me, I couldn’t see any maze, but then I’d been conditioned to think of mazes as tall labyrinths grown from hedges or cut into fields of corn.
In contrast, turf mazes are flat, with grooves cut into the grass to create twisting patterns on the ground. Saffron Walden’s grooves, should you measure them, are said to total a mile in length, though I’ll take the local council’s word for it. They form a kind of circle inside a raised bank and a ditch with four bastions giving it a distinctive shape.
This type of maze needs regular recutting, most recently carried out in 1979. The bricks currently helping to give the maze its shape were laid horizontally onto paths replacing others first laid in 1911. The turf maze itself is considerably older and is thought to date from before 1699, when the earliest records of it can be found. As well as the restoration work carried out in 1699 and 1911, the maze was recut in 1826, 1841 and 1887.
It’s unclear why the turf maze was cut. Elsewhere, if they were located near cathedrals they were thought to have been used by penitents who had to crawl along them, or where they are on village greens, they were perhaps designed for the amusement of children. As it’s located on the Common at Saffron Walden, maybe the latter is the most likely reason for this turf maze’s existence.