Historic Mazes: Hampton Court & Woburn Abbey

Historic Mazes: Hampton Court & Woburn Abbey

MAZE MONTH reaches its conclusion with the discussion of hedge mazes from the days of yore! Be sure to check out the previous four blog posts covering the overall history of mazes and labyrinths (links below). In between the historical blogs, MAZE MONTH has included eight posts spotlighting the surviving turf mizmazes in England, and now it is time to spotlight the four historic hedge mazes.

History of the Maze

More Maze History, and an Exploration of the Purpose

Turf Labyrinths: What they are & How they came to England

Topiary & Hedge Maze History


Hedge Maze at Hampton Court Palace in Surrey

1832 map of the Hampton Court Palace maze.

The hedge maze at Hampton Court Palace is the oldest surviving one of its type in the United Kingdom. Moreover, it is the oldest hedge maze in the world still in continuous use. Furthermore, historians believe it probably replaced an even older maze laid out for King Henry VIII or Thomas Cardinal Wolsey.

Commissioned by King William III, the maze was designed by royal gardeners George London and Henry Wise. It was originally planted in 1690 using hornbeam (carpinus betulus), a densely branched hedge with dark green foliage that turns yellow-orange in autumn. Not an evergreen plant, the maze would have looked very different than it does today, but more on that in a moment.

A true multicursal puzzle maze —meaning it has numerous possible paths and dead ends intended to confuse— the layout is a trapezoid shape covering one-third of an acre in the Wilderness Garden portion of the palace gardens. The total length of the paths (including the wrong trails and dead ends) is 0.5 miles (800m).

The Hampton Court Palace gardens were opened to the public in 1838, this including the hedge maze. Already a noteworthy garden feature inspiring a host of garden mazes to be creating during the 1700s, opening for public tours catapulted the delight in hedge mazes to new levels of popularity.

The maze even entered the pop culture of the day in the 1889 novel Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. One of the characters (Harris) optimistically believes Hampton Court Maze to be “so simple that it seemed foolish”, only to get hopeless lost, before having to call out to the groundkeeper for help. Hilarious!

Early 20th century postcard

Over the decades, gaps in the hornbeam hedges were patched with assorted evergreen shrubs, which gradually created subtle alterations in the design, including a decrease of the entrance side, and a softening of the sharp corners and straight lines. The patchwork quality of the maze finally resulted in a need to restore the whole structure, which happened in the 1960s when it was replaced with yew, a coniferous evergreen shrub.

To this day, Hampton Court Palace maze is regarded as the most famous maze in the world and remains a top tourist attraction. It is open to visitors every day, and takes on average 20 minutes to navigate to the center. It is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest surviving hedge maze.

There was a young teacher from Hayes
Took her class to the Hampton Court Maze
They got thoroughly lost
At a reasonable cost
The children and teacher from Hayes.
~London Transport poster verse from the early 20th century

Aerial view of the Hampton Court Palace maze as it is today.

Hornbeam Maze at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire

Hornbeam Maze at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire

Woburn Abbey began as a Cistercian monastery but it has been the home of the Dukes of Bedford since the 17th century. The elegant house is one of the finest stately homes in England and is set in equally impressive historic gardens. The Hornbeam Maze was designed by John Russell, the 6th Duke of Bedford in 1831.

The Woburn Abbey gardens were designed by famed landscape architect Humphrey Repton, who committed his work to a “Red Book” which has allowed for the gardens to be properly maintained and restored. The grounds are divided into zones separated by grasslands and woodlands. There is a significant presence of Chinoiserie throughout the gardens (which I plan to write about on a later blog), and this architectural passion is also seen in the maze. At the center of the maze is a Chinese pagoda, a reminder of the fashion for Oriental style that swept English architecture and design in the early Victorian period. The pagoda is based on a 1757 design by Sir William Chambers but was erected in 1833 after the maze was completed.

Many specifics about the Hornbeam Maze are nonexistence, including the dimensions, which I found really annoying. Interestingly, it is referred to as a maze literally everywhere, except for the plaque over the hedge arch entrance (see below) which I presume was placed in recent decades. At first glance, the circular pattern is reminiscent of the Chartres/Classical design, which were typically a labyrinth. Perhaps that was the Duke of Bedford’s inspiration and –as noted quite a few times in this blog series– “maze” and “labyrinth” were used interchangeably. Adding to the confusion, when following the pathway in photographs, there are breaks in the hedges that offer choices of which way to walk, translating to a true maze. Of course, these gaps could be the result of normal changes that occur over the decades with pruning and replanting. Bottom line is that I cannot state with certainty what was the original intent of the design —maze vs. labyrinth— or what it is now!

Indeed, the maze did suffer from years of neglect, although thankfully not to the point of disappearing entirely. The Hornbeam Maze was completely restored, along with the entire garden, beginning in 2003, by the Duchess of Bedford, wife of the 15th Duke of Bedford. Today the gardens are open for visitors daily.



Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

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cindie snyder

What intricate mazes! Amazing!

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