Essex mysteries: Mazes and labyrinths

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.

Saffron Walden hedge maze
Saffron Walden hedge maze

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.

 

Labyrinth-walking

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.

Saffron Walden turf labyrinth
Saffron Walden turf labyrinth

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 2014Pilgrim’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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Holistic medicine: All in the mind?

I’ve been a huge fan of holistic medicine for some time now, I must admit. It’s not that I dislike the NHS or anything because I don’t – in fact, I think it’s one of Britain’s greatest inventions and one that has done wonders for the health of the nation in general, and women’s health in particular, since it was set up in 1948.

 

Having lived in California for a couple of years around the turn of the Millennium, I saw first-hand what not being able to afford healthcare via a private insurance scheme meant. And the concomitant fear of getting sick, or losing your job, and not being able to afford help made me value the Health Service even more – although things have undoubtedly got better over the pond since the introduction of Obamacare, otherwise known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, in 2010.

 

California poppies, California
California poppies, California

Only 9.2% of the US population are now not covered by any health insurance compared with 15.7% when the Act was signed into law, although the Medicaid scheme continues to be available for the most vulnerable and those on the lowest incomes.

 

Anyway, one of the reasons that I started looking for alternatives to allopathic medicine was the fact that, in many instances, it seemed like a sledgehammer to crack a nut. And the side effects, in my experience anyway, were sometimes almost worse than the original condition.

 

A more holistic approach taking in mind, body and spirit also made intrinsic sense to me seeing as each of us comprises all of those things and all of them inevitably interact with each other.

 

So over the years, I’ve tried a goodly assortment of natural or complementary health remedies ranging from homeopathy and Five Elements acupuncture to applied kinesiology and Reiki energy healing, generally to positive effect, no matter what the sceptics say.

 

But there will always be a special place in my heart for herbal medicine. Not only do I love plants, but the practice has also been part of our culture and heritage since time immemorial, handed down from generation to generation long before pharmaceutical drugs came on the scene.

 

Moreover, many of these drugs are simply the synthesised versions of active ingredients found in plants anyway – only they don’t usually contain the range of compounds that buffer and counteract some of the worst side effects of chemical pills and potions. Examples of such active ingredients include aspirin (to treat pain, fever and inflammation), quinine (for malaria) and ephedrine (to relieve asthma and hay fever).

 

Herbal medicine

 

But I’m not the only herbal medicine fan, it seems. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 20% of the British population opt to use herbal products at some point in their lives, while around three million people consult herbalists each year.

 

Anyway, I recently decided to take it just that little bit further and start a home-study course on the subject, which although difficult to squeeze into a hectic work and social schedule, has so far proved fascinating.

 

Herbal medicine
Herbal medicine

Sadly though, herbal medicine does seem to have been a practice under siege for some time. The introduction of the European Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive in 2004, which took full effect in the UK some seven years later, required all mass-produced herbal remedies to be authorised for sale by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority, which also licences pharmaceutical drugs.

 

The move followed reports of harm having been done to people by herbal products manufactured on an industrial-scale as they were believed to have contained dangerous herbs, the wrong constituents or toxic contaminants. This situation led to the banning of specific herbs and the licensing of mass-produced products, although trained herbalists were still permitted to create and dispense their own concoctions – if they had the facilities in place, that is.

 

The next inevitable step though was to explore whether herbal practitioners should be regulated or not and whether it made sense to list authorised personnel on a statutory register. But an enquiry led by Professor David Walker, former deputy chief medical officer for England, concluded in a report published in March last year that they shouldn’t.

 

The quality of research around herbal medicine was insufficient to prove that it actually worked or not, he attested, making it impossible to set standards of good practice. But opinion in the herbalist community and elsewhere was split over whether the outcome was a good or a bad thing.

 

Some worried that, because any Tom, Dick or Harry can currently set themselves up as a practitioner, failure to regulate could put public health at risk and/or bring the profession into disrepute. Others were concerned, on the other hand, that it could act as a stepping-stone to banning herbal practice entirely.

 

Just before Christmas though, it seems, the government chose to quietly drop the entire matter rather than make a ruling one way or the other – and so that, for the time being at least, is that.

 

Homeopathy and the placebo effect

 

Another complementary practice that is also seemingly under threat, however, is homeopathy. Ministers are now planning to hold a consultation later this year on whether to place it on a blacklist of treatments in order to prevent GPs in England from prescribing it.

 

The move followed warnings last year from the so-called Good Thinking Society, a campaigning group that promotes “scientific scepticism”, to take their vocal case against homeopathy to the courts – at which point Department of Health legal advisers told the BBC that ministers had decided a consultation was in order.

 

Homeopathic medicine chest
Homeopathic medicine chest

But the NHS itself is sceptical as to the efficacy of homeopathy anyway, it seems. On its website, the body cites a 2010 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report, which stated that such remedies perform “no better than placebos”. The report also claimed that the principles on which homeopathy are based are “scientifically implausible” – a view likewise held by chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies.

 

But, even if the Good Thinking Society were to get its way, the result of any consultation would only have an impact on the small number of GPs who currently prescribe homeopathic drugs anyway. These cost the NHS an estimated £110,000 per year, a tiny fraction of its overall whopping £15 billion annual drugs bill.

 

It wouldn’t make any difference to the people who either buy homeopathic treatments over the counter or go to private practitioners or homeopathic hospitals, which make up the bulk of the sector’s trade today.

 

Just to return to the concept of the placebo effect for a moment, however. Although it is generally talked about in a rather sniffy way, it always seems to me that it doesn’t actually matter too much where healing comes from as long as it’s effective.

 

In fact, I’ve often thought that one of the reasons complementary medicine possibly does work so well for so many is that practitioners actually take the time to talk to and nurture people who are all too often lonely, unhappy or simply don’t feel listened to in lives that often demand much and seem to give little in return. It’s a much broader definition of caring than is often dished out, but in my experience a smile and a kind word can go a long way to promote healing.

 

Another consideration is that if people believe they are getting pill-shaped help, it can often have a massive impact on their physical health. Thoughts and beliefs, it appears, can materially change our physiology and make a huge difference to our physical wellbeing for positive or negative as we effectively start to heal ourselves.

 

Which, perhaps counter-intuitively for some, does actually make a strong case for a more holistic mind, body and spirit/emotions approach after all.