St. Catherine’s Hill, located south of the ancient city of Winchester, was the site of an Iron Age fort first built some 2,500 years ago. Winchester itself is one of the most important cities in Roman Britain, being the seat of Norman Kings and the heart of King Alfred’s Wessex. Much later, in the 12th century, the site was occupied by St. Catherine’s Chapel, which was destroyed in 1537. The remains of the Chapel are covered by a circular collection of old beech, elder, and hawthorn trees known as the “Clump” which is visible on the hill’s summit from a great distance away.
On the northeast side of the hill near the Clump is the mizmaze. As noted in previous blogs, only eight turf mazes remain in England. Winchester’s turf maze is particularly noteworthy as one of only two where the walking (or crawling) pathway of the labyrinth is the grooves cut into the underlying chalk earth, as opposed to the raised grass. This is not only odd in itself, the narrowness of the pathway is very strange.
Moreover, this mizmaze is the only one with a rectangular pattern. The rounded corners and nine narrow looping lines form a lovely design that is quite unique. Unfurled, the compacted paths would measure a staggering 2,047 feet long, requiring approximately 820 steps and twenty-minutes to navigate. The Winchester maze measures 90 feet by 86 feet.
The precise date of the maze’s creation are unclear. Archeological records date it to between 1647-1710, the latter date aligning with the earliest known record of the mizmaze, which is found in the archives of Winchester College signed by a J Nowell.
Like most of the English mizmazes, the origin and purpose of the Winchester maze is up for debate. The medieval design and proximity to St. Catherine’s Chapel may indicate it was a meditative aid for prayer or penitence, as was typical for these types of labyrinths. If so, the maze could be much older than suspected, considering the Chapel was destroyed in 1537. However, in this instance, there is also a local legend which aligns with the aforementioned record by J Nowell from 1710.
The traditional legend tells of a student at the historic Winchester College who was, as punishment for disobedience, banished from the school and as punishment was sent to St. Catherine’s Hill. During his banishment, the boy was either ordered to cut the maze or was so bored that he chose to carve the labyrinthine pathway, inspired by classical Greek legends of mazes. Whatever the impetus, rather than simply occupying his time, the winding path is said to have disordered the boy’s mind to such a degree that he threw himself off the hill to a watery death in the River Itchen. Rather gruesome, is it not?
The Winchester Maze can only be accessed by ascending the 220-foot hill, the entire area now a nature reserve. To this day it is a popular visitor attraction and “tolling [walking] the labyrinth” is a recreational hobby of Winchester College students.