Julian’s Bower Maze at Alkborough

Julian’s Bower Maze at Alkborough

The turf mizmaze located at Alkborough in Lincolnshire is the lone remaining labyrinth in England bearing the ancient name Julian’s Bower. It is situated in a sunken depression atop a hillside overlooking the confluence of the River Humber with the rivers Ouse and Trent. Below the maze stretches the Alkborough Flats, a wetland nature reserve that is home to a large bird population, and to the south is the Medieval fortified settlement of Countess Close. A short distance away is the Alkborough village church, where several etchings of the labyrinth can be found.

Julian’s Bower pattern

Julian’s Bower Maze is in the common circular Chartres design, the single convoluted path threading its way through eleven concentric rings to reach the center. The whole maze is just over 44 feet (13 meters) in diameter and is formed by cutting away the turf on either side of the path. Like a typical maze, a walker treads on top of the grass turf, following the circuitous pathway created by the cut groove.

It is unknown who originally cut the maze or when. It is first recorded in 1697 by diarist Abraham de la Pryme, who called it Gillian’s Bore and speculated it was of Roman origin. Some historians believe Pryme was mistaken and that the Classical design maze was most likely cut in the medieval period, as is common, by local monks. Benedictine monks maintained a cell (Spalding Priory) at Alkborough from at least 1146 until 1220, and then a rectory until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1534, indicating the connection to Christian symbolism for such labyrinths. 

However, other historians contend the monks were merely reshaping an existing Roman maze, in which case Pryme was correct. Evidence for a pre-Medieval antiquity is also suggested by how deeply the maze has sunken into the hilltop (roughly 1.6 feet or 0.5 meter). Sinking naturally occurs due to necessary re-cutting and maintenance of a turf maze.

Interestingly, there is a local legend which claims the labyrinth was carved as a penance by three knights who were involved in the murder of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Pryme recorded this local history in his diary, but no evidence from the 12th century exists. Such a mystery! 

So basically, if originally dating to somewhere in the 1100s, Julian’s Bower at Alkborough would be, by far, the oldest turf labyrinth located in England. Yet, even if some four-hundred years later, it would still be a contender for the oldest.

In 1887, James Goulton Constable (1850-1922), an antiquarian and owner of Walcott Hall, contributed to the restoration of Alkborough Church. Determined to preserve the design of the Julian’s Bower Maze in case it ever became overgrown and lost, he installed two copies of the design into the church. One is laid into the floor of the porch inside the church, and the other is located in the center of the St. John stained glass window. Upon his death in 1922, the maze design was engraved on the stone cross marking his grave.

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