The turf labyrinth at Saffron Walden, in the county of Essex, is one of the best-known and well maintained historic turf labyrinths in Europe, and it is also the largest surviving example. It is located at the east end of a large open area known as the Common adjacent to the town center.
The Saffron Walden maze is incredibly unusual. The design is circular in the Classical or Chartres style with 17 circuits leading to the center, but is unique in having four lobes or bastions at the corners. The center is marked by a mound 32 feet diameter that stands approximately 1.5 feet above the level of the pathways. The corner lobes are similarly raised above the general level of the labyrinth.
As with the Winchester Maze, the path of the Saffron Walden labyrinth is formed from bricks sunk in the hollows between turf ridges, contrary to the normal arrangement where the turf ridge is the path to follow. Note the pattern drawing to the right where the beginning and end are clear, then compare with the aerial photo at the end of this blog where the beginning is marked with a wooden sign. The total diameter is 132 feet, the cut grooves of the turf pathway nearly a mile in length.
The design of the labyrinth at Saffron Walden is quite unique among the corpus of turf labyrinth designs recorded in the British Isles, but is by no means original. The first book on gardening published in the English language —The Profitable Arte of Gardening by Thomas Hill, 1563— has two illustrations of “proper Mazes” that are almost exactly identical to Saffron Walden. Hill’s illustrations, in turn, were copied from a 1539 French book. It is unknown if these sources were the inspiration, but as Hill’s book was extremely popular, it is likely.
Town records indicate the maze was cut in 1699 for the cost of 15 shillings. The purpose of the maze is not documented, however, the town of Saffron Walden was undergoing a period of considerable civic pride during the latter decades of the 1600s, including a charter of incorporation by King William III in 1694. The village Commons was (and still is) the location of public fairs, so most likely the maze was cut for amusement and beautification.
Restorations are recorded for 1826, 1841, 1859, and 1887. Again in 1911, when the pathway was laid with bricks on edge. The most recent re-cutting was completed in 1979, and the bricks were relaid flat.