There's nothing the British like more than to go and get lost. In grand gardens of stately homes and castles around Britain you'll find some of the world's oldest and largest hedge mazes. These elegant horticultural labyrinths have been playfully confusing visitors for hundreds of years. This historical fascination is being fuelled by a boom in creating new mazes. Britain now has mazes of turf, water, brick, stone, wood, coloured paving tiles, mirrors and glass.
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Any exploration of the twists and turns of British mazes should include the oldest and most famous. The classic maze at Hampton Court Royal Palace by the Thames in West London was planted more than 300 years ago during the reign of King William III. He dug up an old orchard planted by Henry VIII and redesigned the garden in the formal style of the time.
The 1702 Maze is the only remaining part of William's garden. It's Britain's oldest hedge maze with winding paths amounting to nearly half a mile and covering a third of an acre. One of Jerome K. Jerome's “Three Men in a Boat” declared it “very simple...it's absurd to call it a maze,” only to become completely lost. Inside he met other visitors “who had given up all hope of ever seeing their home and friends again.” The Hampton Court maze still swallows 300,000 people a year. If you do manage to get out, there are also exquisite riverside gardens and the fabulous Tudor palace to see.
Another great estate 100 miles to the west has become one of the centres of British maze-making. A visit to Longleat in Wiltshire includes the ancestral stately home of Lord Bath, Capability Brown landscaped gardens, and a drive-through animal safari park… plus six mazes. The newest of them, The Blue Peter Maze was built of timber specially for children. It was designed by a nine-year-old girl who beat 12,000 entrants in a competition run by a children’s TV programme. Other Longleat mazes include the indoor King Arthur's Mirror Maze, the rose-covered Love Labyrinth, and the intertwining Sun Maze and Lunar box hedge labyrinths.
Serious maze enthusiasts are catered for by the grand Hedge Maze: it has the world's longest total path length at 1.69 miles. The hedges are made from 16,180 yew trees and are laid out in curves to disorient the walker. It opened 26 years ago and is so complex that special ‘lift if lost’ direction panels are incorporated to help you find the way out.
If you're starting to get the taste for delightful disorientation, the third must-see site is the eccentric Jubilee Park close to the border with Wales near Symonds Yat in Herefordshire. Maze-mad brothers Lindsay and Edward Heyes planted The Amazing Hedge Puzzle Maze to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. It stands in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the Wye Valley and is now Herefordshire's most popular private visitor attraction.
The octagonal cypress maze has a pagoda at the centre - if you can find it. There's also a route from the centre to the world's first Maze Museum. This has hands-on interactive displays and puzzles explaining the history, design and construction of mazes around the world. Lindsay is the creator of the museum and an acknowledged maze expert. Edward meanwhile takes care of the Hedge Maze, personally spending ten weeks doing all the trimming every year.
Across the border in Mid Wales you'll find a thought-provoking rhododendron maze on the theme of transport at the fascinating Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth, in Powys.
You don't have to be crazy about mazes to enjoy the spectacular Hever Castle in Kent. From the outside the 13th-century double-moated fortress has changed little since Henry VIII's second wife Anne Boleyn spent her childhood here. The castle is set in 30 acres of magnificent gardens. A century ago the wealthy Astor family lived here and planted a yew maze which visitors can still explore.
A more recent addition is the highly-acclaimed Water Maze on a shallow lake with an island at the centre. The walkways are made up of curved paths supported above the water on stilts. To make getting to the island even more difficult, some slabs, when stepped on, trigger a spray of water. Can you reach the island AND stay dry?
The Forbidden Corner is another modern maze designed for maximum fun. In this award-winning labryrinth near Leyburn in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, visitors follow meandering paths through tunnels, underground chambers and crenellated follies. Using clues on your ticket you must find your way round a huge pyramid made of translucent glass, paths and passages that lead nowhere, extraordinary statues and a network of underground paths, including very narrow passageways and a revolving room.
The brainchild of eccentric local millionaire Colin Armstrong was originally built as a private family folly but due to public demand was subsequently opened. It has since been voted “The best European folly of the 20th century” and best children’s attraction in Yorkshire.
The maze craze continues north of the border in Scotland. A giant new hedge maze is to be planted in Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden in 2005 in honour of the late Queen Mother.
Farther north, near Inverness, you can visit Cawdor Castle, which is mentioned in Shakespeare's Macbeth. Lord Cawdor planted a holly hedge maze in 1981 in the historic walled garden. He copied a design set in the mosaic floor of a ruined Roman villa in Portugal.
A long-standing labyrinth on Scotland’s East Coast is renowned for being difficult. The Hazelhead Park Maze in Aberdeen is a large privet hedge maze planted in a public park by Sir Henry Alexander in 1935. Don't worry - it has a hidden 'emergency exit' for those who become desperate to find their way out.