By Cath Everett, content editor for the Spirit of East Anglia community.
Saffron Walden, a pretty, little market town in North West Essex, prides itself on its mazes. So proud is it of them, in fact, that it holds a regular Maze Festival there, the last one of which took place in 2016.
While two of its mazes were only created a few years ago – one in the bandstand in the town’s Jubilee Garden and another at the entrance to Swan Meadow car park and a stone’s throw from the local duck pond – the others are a bit more special. This is because Saffron Walden is unique in the UK in having two historic mazes within its boundaries.
The first consists of a traditional Victorian yew-hedge-based creation on the north side of town. It was laid out in Italian Renaissance style during the 1840s in the lovely Bridge End Gardens – which, incidentally, were never attached to a house, something that is pretty unusual for formal gardens of this type.
Anyway, the second, although known locally as “The Maze”, is actually a circular turf labyrinth. Located on the east side of the town’s extensive Common, only a hop, skip and a jump from the centre of town, it is the largest Medieval turf maze of its kind in Europe at an impressive 35 metres in diameter.
Apparently built in 1699, this labyrinth is said to be based on an even older version that was located nearby. And its path, which is now inlaid with bricks rather than the original cut-away turf, curves backwards and forwards in 17 circuits. It visits four small, bulgy bits, otherwise known as bastions, to form the shape of a cross, before winding itself to a higher central mound that, in most similar cases, would take the form of a rosette.
Rosettes in those days were often shaped as six-petalled roses and symbolised love, both human and divine and, like the Lotus flower of the East, enlightenment. Indeed, in Medieval Christian thought, to reach the centre of a labyrinth was to come face-to-face with God and experience the radical transformation that would undoubtedly follow.
But interestingly, at the centre of Saffron Walden’s labyrinth, there was actually an ash tree. And ash trees, or Nuin as they are known in the Ogham or ancient Celtic Tree Alphabet, symbolised, in a somewhat similar vein, rebirth, regeneration, reawakening and new beginnings. Ashes were likewise the tree of Gwydion, hero, trickster and master enchanter of Britain.
In fact, he hung on the World Tree for nine days and nights without food to gain esoteric knowledge, after which time he perceived the runes, a magical, ancient Germanic alphabet said to contain many of the secrets of existence.
As to what the difference between a labyrinth and a maze actually is, this was revealed to me by keynote speaker, Dr Jan Sellers, during Saffron Walden’s Maze Festival in 2016. Although now retired, she used to lecture in education and guidance at the University of Kent at Canterbury, where she helped create the nearby medieval-style Canterbury Labyrinth in 2008.
Anyway, it turns out that mazes have high walls and many paths to their centre, which means that their walkers often get lost. This situation could, therefore, be said to represent the human experience as we struggle through life’s winding paths, dead-ends and detours, trying to make sense of it and not get too lost.
Labyrinths, on the other hand, have no walls at all and offer only one path that weaves, albeit circuitously, to the heart of the matter and then back again. The idea here, among other things, is that these twists and turns symbolise life’s journey but also require concentration to stay on the path.
As a result, they help the walker to stay focused and in the present, quieting the mind and generating a kind of meditative state within, which nurtures the spirit in the process.
Dr Donna Zucker, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US, has in fact recently researched and written a book called ‘Reducing Stress through Labyrinth Walking’ based on her work with clients, students and prison inmates, in which she harnessed the labyrinth’s power.
And I must say that labyrinth-walking certainly made an impact on me. Although I had never done it before, I thought I would give it a go when a canvas image of one was placed on the floor in the middle of the Town Hall’s Assembly Room for anyone showing an interest.
After taking a few deep breaths to let go of tension and try to forget feeling a bit foolish, I took my initial steps at the entrance point, putting one foot slowly in front of the other, heel to toe. And it was strange – as I travelled inwards towards the middle, it felt like I was leaving the everyday behind and moving inside myself.
Symbols and archetypes
In fact, by the time I reached the centre, I could feel wells of deep emotion that I had not expected to surface. It was quite a revelation. But the journey back was no less symbolic as it represented (to me at least) the path back to the mundane. An interesting experience, definitely, and one that I would certainly like to try again.
Because I wonder if the labyrinth isn’t actually a Jungian-style archetype, or universal mythic character, found in the collective unconscious of people all over the world. They are certainly symbols seen in faiths, cultures, countries and communities across the globe ranging from Europe to India and from Indonesia to the American Southwest.
The earliest one discovered was actually chipped into a rock face 4,000 years ago as a petroglyph in Mogor, Spain. But the Romans also used the design in their mosaic flooring, and it likewise popped up in many a European Gothic cathedral, including perhaps the most famous of all at Chartres in France.
Then by the late medieval period (1300 to 1500), the trusty labyrinth found itself morphing into the puzzle maze so familiar to us all today. In more recent times though, its use has expanded still further. Because labyrinths are often found to be calming, they are increasingly being used for health and wellbeing purposes.
For example, labyrinth facilitator Kay Barrett and a team of helpers made a temporary structure of sand and LED tea lights for patients and staff to walk during Mental Health Resilience Week at Addenbrookes, my local hospital in Cambridge, in both 2013 and 2014.
Pilgrim’s Hospices in Canterbury, Kent, became the first such institution in the country to build a wheelchair-accessible, therapeutic labyrinth garden in order to benefit staff, carers and the terminally ill.
But for those without access to such facilities and who are unable to walk one themselves, there are now finger labyrinths for you to trace the pathways using your digits as a means of meditation, prayer or just to relax.
In fact, Cambridge-based charity and arts centre Rowan specialises in manufacturing them to fund its activities. Its students, who all have learning disabilities, work under the direction of various artists and craftspeople to create these portable labyrinths out of wood, building up their artistic skills, confidence and self-esteem in the process.
And if that isn’t a great way to nurture and heal the human spirit, then I don’t know what is.
Cath Everett has been a journalist and editor since 1992. She has written for a wide range of publications ranging from The Times to The Guardian as well as various business websites and magazines on areas such as diversity and inclusion, leadership, skills and other workplace issues. Cath also explores the impact of technology on the workplace and wider society.
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