What does it take to make a maze amazing? More than you might think.
A short history of a colourful profession with many unexpected turns – and the occasional dead end.
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The hedge maze at Longleat in Wiltshire, is the largest in Britain. Comprising 16,000 English yew trees and a mile-and-a-half of paths, the owners claim successful navigation can take ‘between 20 and 90 minutes – depending on how adept you are.’ The design of such an obstacle is a blend of art and mathematics – and one that goes back to ancient times.
Photograph by Lee Robinson / Alamy
Published 30 Jun 2020, 15:44 BST
THE DIRECTIONS to Adrian Fisher’s house, in a small village in rural Dorset, are convoluted. It wouldn't do to get lost, though. This 68-year-old is one of the world’s leading designers of mazes and therefore expects a certain sense of direction from his visitors.
During his lifetime, he has designed over 700 mazes across 36 different countries. Hedge mazes, mirror mazes, cornfield mazes, wooden-fence mazes, water mazes – and so on. Fisher perhaps knows better than anyone how to get people lost.
His creations now reside in English stately homes, French chateaux, American cornfields, Chinese and Arabian theme parks. He has designed for zoos, wildlife parks, museums, shopping malls and schools.
Fisher has even built his very own yew hedge maze in his back garden, in a village near Shaftesbury. In its centre is a small tower with mirrored walls inside, giving it the Tardis-like impression that it’s larger inside than outside.
A stone’s throw away, on the other side of the garden, is Fisher’s office and workshop, the place where he dreams up new ways to get people lost. On the walls hang embroideries and photos of some of his creations: the Chateau de Thoiry maze near Paris, an Alice in Wonderland-themed maze in Dorset, and the Marlborough Maze at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire; even a Guinness World Records certificate celebrating Fisher’s hand in creating the world’s largest hedge maze in China.
The Blenheim Palace Marlborough Maze provided quite a windfall for Fisher when the Bank of England used its centrepiece as a green foil patch on the back of its new £5 note in 2016. (The one starring Sir Winston Churchill.)
“They didn’t realise we had the copyright for the hedge design,” Fisher explains. “And they didn’t ask to use it. That’s why, when we agreed a one-off royalty, we could name our price. I couldn’t possibly tell you how much we were paid, but it was less than the cost of printing all new banknotes.”
Fisher’s unorthodox occupation can be quite lucrative. At one point, several years ago, he was being commissioned to design a new maze every 17 days. He won't reveal what fees he commands, but he admits they’re not low.
He normally starts his design process with paper sketches, moving on to computers afterwards. The key to his trade, he says, is a combination of mathematics and artistry. “It’s like ice skating: one part artistic impression, one part technical merit.
The technical merit has to be a puzzle that is entertaining and challenging, so that you enjoy the maze with friends, while the artistic impression must inspire you and excite you with the storyline.”
So what makes a great maze? Firstly they must be entertaining. He stresses how, like a good movie, they shouldn’t last too long. And once you’ve reached the climax (or the end of the maze), there should be a quick exit. “As an entertainer, it would be very bad of me to go on too long,” he says.
Secondly, they must be sociable, an experience shared with friends. At the end, visitors should feel that teamwork won the day.
There can be a fitness element to mazes, with steps and bridges among the features, for example. Fisher calls this “the incidental fitness maze”.
And then there’s the forbidden element; the need to discover what’s at the end of the maze. “It’s like the fruit tree in the garden of Eden. It’s out of sight, forbidden, something you’re not supposed to know. We want to know what’s behind the next hedge; behind the next alleyway.”
Maze or labyrinth?
Ever since the first recorded mazes of the ancient world, much ink has been spilled analysing the symbolism of these confusing networks. First off, it’s important to note that labyrinths and mazes are not the same thing, even though both words are often interchanged. Labyrinths, which have been around for thousands of years, involve a single route to and back from the centre, and are described as unicursal.
The one featured in the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur is arguably the most famous of all. Mazes, on the other hand, which have been around only since the Renaissance, feature multiple choices of path and direction, and are described as multicursal. The ones at Hampton Court Palace in London and Longleat in Wiltshire are good examples.
Originally, labyrinths served many purposes. They were traps for malevolent spirits, or in Theseus’s case, where the monster lurked. (Related: discover the roots of the Minotaur's legend.)
Some, it’s believed, represented a pathway to one’s dead ancestors. For young men, negotiating a labyrinth was a rite of passage, a test of courage or devotion. Communal processions and ritual dances would follow the path of labyrinths. Some believe they were symbols of fertility, with the centre representing the womb.
In the Middle Ages many Christians considered labyrinths miniature pilgrimages towards spiritual enlightenment. In France, for example, medieval clerics were known to crawl along labyrinthine routes inscribed on cathedral floors while praying.
It wasn’t until the Renaissance that these labyrinths evolved into the more complicated mazes, giving visitors the added possibility of becoming truly lost. (The English word ‘maze’ shares the same origin as the word ‘amaze’, thanks to the bewilderment of being lost.) Soon they served as havens for quiet contemplation or hiding places for courting couples. Eventually they became playgrounds for party guests.
They exist in various forms all over the planet. There’s even something called the Labyrinth Society, an American educational trust “whose mission is to support all those who create, maintain, and use labyrinths, and to serve the global community by providing education, networking, and opportunities to experience transformation”.
The society operates a “world-wide labyrinth locator”, an online database with information on labyrinths and mazes one can visit. Administered by British labyrinth enthusiast Jeff Saward, it currently lists over 5,900 examples in more than 80 countries.
Modern twists and turns
With so much hidden meaning, it’s not surprising that labyrinths and mazes feature prominently in our popular culture. In Alice in Wonderland, for example; in the Stanley Kubrick horror film The Shining; the maze of scary obstacles in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; in Pac-Man and the hundreds of other maze video games of the 20thCentury. All these hark back in some way to Theseus and the Minotaur.
Fisher himself likes to bring popular culture into his design. In 1984 he was commissioned to create a Beatles-themed maze for a festival in Liverpool, with a giant yellow submarine as the centrepiece. He says a million people, including the Queen, visited it over the seven-month period it was in place. Other works he is particularly proud of include a maze up the outside walls of a skyscraper in Dubai, and a water maze in Jersey where visitors are steered in different directions as jets of water squirt up from the floor. But his strangest commission of all, he says, was from a woman who requested a tiny maze design, just a few centimetres in diameter, for a body tattoo. He never did find out where that maze ended up.
Virtually all his other mazes, though, he has visited. There are now so many that he has even been known to lose his way on occasion. A few years ago, the Queen’s cousin Princess Alexandra was invited to open his new maze at Leeds Castle in Kent, and he was tasked with accompanying the royal visitor through it. Unbeknownst to him, gardeners had made slight alterations to the layout of the hedges so that Fisher and the royal party he was leading suddenly found themselves rounding a corner into a dead end.
Sheepishly, he turned back to the princess. “I said to her, ‘I don't know how to put this. The maze designer has got lost.’”