A Maze Festival isn’t necessarily something you come across every day. But Saffron Walden, the market town in North Essex where I live, has had three of them so far, the latest one of which took place only last weekend.
But there is some foundation for choosing such an apparently obscure theme to titillate tourists and locals alike – Saffron Walden, it seems, is alone in the UK in having two historic mazes within the town’s reaches.
The first is a turf labyrinth – even though it’s known locally as “The Maze” – located on the east side of its extensive Common, only a hop, skip and a jump from the centre of town. Built in 1699, it was apparently based on an even older version formerly sited nearby and, at an impressive 132 feet (40 metres) across, is said to be the largest structure of its kind in England.
The path, which is inlaid with bricks, is made up of a huge 17 circuits that visit each of the four small mounds at the labyrinth’s corners before winding itself into a higher central mound that used to be home to an ash tree – or World Tree according to the cosmic world view of the ancient Celts and Vikings.
The second maze, meanwhile, is a Victorian yew-hedge-based creation on the north side of town that was laid out in Italian Renaissance style during the 1840s in the lovely Bridge End Gardens – which, incidentally, were never actually attached to or designed around a house as is usually the case. So it’s a bit strange really.
But Saffron Walden now also boasts a third maze, newly located at the entrance to Swan Meadow car park and a stone’s throw from the local duck pond. Spelling out “Saffron Walden Amazes’ in box hedging, it includes eight finger labyrinths and mazes positioned carefully on plinths. And this new attraction was opened to great fanfare last Saturday by no less an individual than international maze guru, Jeff Saward himself, who designs, builds, researches and writes about labyrinths with his equally expert wife, Kimberley.
As to what the difference between a labyrinth and a maze actually is, this was revealed by the Festival’s keynote speaker, Dr Jan Sellers. Although now retired, she used to lecture in education and guidance at the University of Kent at Canterbury, where she helped create the nearby medieval-style Canterbury Labyrinth in 2008.
Anyway, to get to the point, it turns out that mazes have high walls and many paths to their centre, which means that their walkers often get lost. Labyrinths, on the other hand, have no walls at all and offer only one path that weaves, albeit by the most circuitous of routes, to the heart and then back again.
The idea, among other things, is that the twists and turns symbolise life’s journey but also require concentration to stay on the path. As a result, they help the walker to stay focused and in the present, quieting the mind and generating a kind of meditative state within, which nurtures the spirit in the process.
Dr Donna Zucker, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US, is in fact currently researching whether labyrinth-walking can help to reduce stress levels among offenders, and whether indoor or outdoor labyrinth-walking actually proves more beneficial.
But I must say that, whatever the truth of it, labyrinth-walking certainly did something for me. I’d never tried it before, but I thought I’d give it a go when a canvas image of one was placed on the floor in the middle of the Town Hall’s Assembly Room for anyone showing an interest.
After taking a few deep breaths to let go of tension and forget feeling a bit foolish, I took my initial steps at the entrance point, putting one foot slowly in front of the other, heel to toe. And it was strange – as I travelled inwards towards the middle, it felt like I was leaving the everyday behind and moving inside myself.
In fact, by the time I reached the centre, I could feel wells of deep emotion that I’d previously not suspected. It was quite a revelation. But the journey back was no less symbolic as it represented (to me at least) the path back to the mundane, with my (rather turbulent) emotions easing as I went. An interesting experience, definitely, and one that I’d certainly like to try again.
Because I wonder if the labyrinth isn’t actually a Jungian-style archetype or universal mythic character found in the collective unconscious of people all over the world. The thing is that they’re symbols seen in faiths, cultures, countries and communities across the globe ranging from Europe to India and from Indonesia to the American Southwest.
The earliest one discovered was actually chipped into a rock face 4,000 years ago as a petroglyph in Mogor, Spain. But the Romans also used the design in their mosaic flooring, and it likewise popped up in many a European Gothic cathedral, including perhaps the most famous of all at Chartres in France, for pilgrims to wander prayerfully around.
By the late medieval period (1300 to 1500), however, the trusty labyrinth found itself morphing into the puzzle maze so familiar to us all today. In more recent times though, its use has expanded still further. Because labyrinths are often found to be calming, they’re increasingly being used for health and wellbeing purposes.
For example, labyrinth facilitator Kay Barrett and a team of helpers made a temporary structure of sand and LED tea lights for patients and staff to walk around during Mental Health Resilience Week at Addenbrookes, Cambridge, in both 2013 and 2014. Pilgrim’s Hospices in Canterbury, Kent, also became the first such institution in the country to build a wheelchair-accessible, therapeutic labyrinth garden in order to benefit staff, carers and the terminally ill.
But for those without access to such facilities and who can’t walk one themselves, there are always finger labyrinths so you can trace the pathways using your digits as a means of meditation, prayer or just to relax.
In fact, Cambridge-based charity and arts centre Rowan specialises in manufacturing them to fund its activities. Its students, who all have learning difficulties, work under the direction of various artists and craftspeople to create these portable labyrinths out of wood, building up their artistic skills, confidence and self-esteem in the process.
And if that isn’t a great way to nurture the human spirit, then I don’t really know what is.