Cornish Mazes

Of all the historic remains found in Cornwall the various Cornish mazes are perhaps some of our most mysterious, fun and enigmatic. We are attracted to, and intrigued by, them not only because of their rarity but because of what they symbolise. Amongst other things they seem to represent a tangible connection to the artistic, creative nature of our ancestors.

The Origins of the Maze

Where the idea and form of the maze originated is a mystery. The earliest known mazes in the world are found in the Camonica Valley in Italy. The huge collection of petroglyphs are estimated to be between 4000 and 8000 years old and were recognised by UNESCO in 1979. Amongst 140,000 imagez of stick figures and other symbols beautiful and complicated mazes swirl. (They appear hauntingly similar to some of our Cornish mazes.)

Valcamonia rock art, Italy

Closer to home prehistoric rock carvings, that is deliberate patterns in the surface of rocks made by ancient man, are fairly common across the UK. Although the examples found in Cornwall can be comparatively simplistic. (See links below).

At Newgrange the 5000 year old spiralling design bears, some believe, strong similarities to maze art. And it is thought that there were labyrinthine buildings constructed in ancient Egypt. Of course the most famous maze legend of all is perhaps the Cretan story of Theseus and the Minotaur.

The maze as a symbol can be found across Europe, on a 7th century terracotta jar from Italy, in Roman mosaics and on the walls of Neolithic tombs in Ireland. Many believe that the maze was used as part of ancient funeral rites to keep evil from a place of burial. Or that twists and turns of the pattern represents the journey that all of us take through life to death and rebirth.

There are numerous maze designs and their complexity varies but the main features are that there is one ‘correct’ route, one entrance, one way out and most lead you to the centre point.

“The Nine Men’s Morris is filled up with mud, And the quaint mazes in the wanton green, For lack of tread are indistinguishable.” Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Troy Town Turf Maze

Perhaps the most well known maze in Cornwall is the Troy Town turf maze on the Isles of Scilly. There were once numerous other turf mazes across Britain. The earliest are thought to date from the medieval period but few of this age remain having been destroyed by cultivation or modern building. These mazes often had ritual, dancing or festivals associated with them.

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Me & a friend, Troy Town Maze, 1998

The Cornish maze known as the Troy Town is on the isolated island of St Agnes, Isles of Scilly. Many so called turf mazes were named ‘Troy Town’, or some variations on that, in reference, it is thought, to the walls of the ancient city of Troy. Legend has it that the city’s walls were constructed in a complex, maze-like way so as to disorientate and confuse any enemy who entered them.

The seven ring maze on St Agnes, oviod in shape (measuring 5m by 5.5m), is rare in the UK. Constructed of smooth pebbles, Historic England dates it to the vague post-medieval period. Local tradition maintains that the maze was laid out in 1729 by Amor Clarke, a keeper of the St Agnes lighthouse at the time. But excavations in the 1980s are said to have revealed a much earlier maze beneath the present day one and it is possible that Clark was simply restoring an older monument.

It is worth noting that the Troy Town maze is also surrounded by a prehistoric field system and there is a civil war period defensive bank nearby. So many layers of history.

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Troy Town Maze, St Agnes, 1977 Credit: Fay Godwin

“This maze provides a good example of a once-popular and now scarce form of local pastime, and unusually retains the traditional name applied to mazes. Its combination of labyrinthine pattern and mode of construction is unique in England among surviving pre-20th century mazes. It also shows well the significant place that mazes occupy in popular consciousness, not only giving rise to local traditions and place-names but more recently inspiring many copies created in several parts of Scilly by modern visitors.” – Historic England.

In June 1923 Robert Morton Nance, the founder of the Old Cornwall Society and an expert on the Cornish language, gave a presentation on the Troy Town maze at a meeting of the Royal Institute of Cornwall. Nance proposed that the origin and name of the maze does not refer to the famous warring city of antiquity but rather it referred to . . .

“A once popular maze-game that could be traced back, it’s pattern unchanged, through mediaeval Europe to Rome, Crete under Greece and Eturia, for over two thousand years.”

Nance believed that this ‘game’ was still played in Scandinavia, West Scotland and of course at Troy Town on the Isles of Scilly. The game which he describes appears to have been pretty basic.

cornish mazes

Some other maze designs

The idea was to traverse the twists and turns of the maze in a kind of dance without stepping outside of the lines or going off track. Nance apparently thought that it may have begun as some kind of military exercise and could even have been done on horseback. (Though not at St Agnes obviously which would have presented problems for even the most sure footed mount!)

The West Briton reported Nance’s comments, they wrote:

“Mr Nance traced the name ‘Troy Town’ through it’s applications to turf cut mazes on village greens and to tile laid mazes in cathedrals of more intricate design, descended from Roman mosaic mazes and finally, . . . to the game of ‘Nine Men’s Morris’ or ‘Merrels’ from which is derived the game commonly known in England as ‘Hop Scotch’.”

Both Nine Men’s Morris and Hop Scotch are games that have Roman origins but how Nance felt they linked to the mazes is not entirely clear today without the benefit of the ‘series of diagrams’ he apparently used during his talk to illustrate his idea.

Rocky Valley Mazes

Part way up the narrow footpath that runs along the base of Rocky Valley is the ruin Trewethett Mill. It is behind this roofless shell, which was once used to produce yarn, that you can find the Rocky Valley Mazes carved into the cool, damp rockface.

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Carvings of this type are nearly impossible to date, although it is possible to acknowledge a clear resemblance to the earliest examples in the Italian Camonica Valley (above). A nearby plaque claims they were thought to have been carved sometime in the Bronze Age but actually their origin is a complete mystery. No one knows who carved them or when, although there are several theories.

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One idea is that they were carved by a bored worker at the mill in the 18th century when such mazes were seeing a revival. Another is that they were created by a pilgrim visiting the beautiful St Nectan’s Glen a short walk away.

Whatever the true origin of this site the carvings are extremely rare for Cornwall and well worth a visit. Perhaps seeing them with your own eyes you will come to your own conclusions.

Glendurgan Hedge Maze

The hedge maze at Glendurgan was built for pleasure and entertainment rather than ritual. The Glendurgan gardens on the Helford river near Falmouth were begun by Alfred Fox in the 1820s. Alfred was a member of the famous Quaker Fox family, and uncle to the diarist Caroline Fox. He had twelve children and it seems possible that the Glendurgan maze was built to entertain his brood.

As they grew the gardens became an idyllic playground for all of the Fox’s large, extended family. Barclay Fox, Alfred’s nephew recalls them fondly in his diary in July 1841.

“I joined a large and joyous party at Glendurgan. The day was a realised idea of summertime and three boat loads of us on the mirror surface of the Helford river, basking in the sunshine and watching the drawing of the trammels, felt it altogether a luxury of existence seldom equalled.”

The original plan for the laurel hedge maze was drawn up in 1833. It is thought to have been copied from one that no longer exists in the Sydney Gardens in Bath. By the early 1990s the maze was already about 160 years old and in need of serious repair. The present owner, Charles Fox, along with the National Trust, set about restoring it to its formal glory.

cornish mazes

“In addition to all the holes where visitors had pushed their way through, or out of, the maze the general condition was very poor . . . Huge wadges of irrelevant laurel and hydrangea were removed, weeds and sapling trees eradicated, paths drained and rebuilt, and the original laurel hedges reduced to ground level.”

A focal point of a thatched summer house was added with a beautiful pebbles mosaic of fish on the floor. The intensive, almost brutal, work was worth the effort and the old laurel hedges sprung back to life. The Glendurgan Maze today is an absolute joy for visitors, both young and old.

The Giant Labyrinth, Bodmin Moor

In February 2020 it was announced that a new maze is going to be built in Cornwall to mark the 60th anniversary of Cornwall’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The giant labyrinth, as it has been dubbed, is planned for construction using traditional Cornish hedges on Bodmin Moor close to Colliford Lake.

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Credit: Golden Tree Productions

Officially it is known as Kredroya , the Cornish labyrinth landscape, this new maze is based on a traditional design. But importantly it will also be living monument providing a unique hedgerow habitat for all kinds of wildflowers and insects. Kredroya is another brain child of Will Coleman, who was also the force behind the hugely successful Man Engine in 2016. Will says of the project:

“Here, in this disused car park by Colliford Lake, we’re going to build the world’s largest classical labyrinth. Fifty six metres diameter, all built from traditional Cornish hedging. You walk a single meandering path, this isn’t a maze where you get lost, it’s a labyrinth where you find yourself.”

The aim of this project is to build something that will still be visible, as the other mazes we have looked at here are, in hundreds or even thousands of years time.

Further Reading:

The Cup-Marked Stones of Stithians

Tregiffian Barrow & the Cup-marked Stone

The Trenear Mortar Stone – Treasure in a car park!

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3 thoughts on “Cornish Mazes

  1. I Enjoyed this post but I must say that it is important to differentiate between a ‘maze’ and a ‘labyrinth’ for they are not the same thing!. A maze is constructed with twists, turns and dead ends; it is intended use is to bewilder and frustrate any person entering it. A Labyrinth is a convoluted pathway that inexorably heads to the centre. Labyrinths are used as contemplative and meditative tools to lead the user to their inner self…and out again. There is no confusion or frustration in using a Labyrinth but on the other hand in a maze…I recommend reading in Jerome K Jerome’s book ‘three Men in a Boat’ his description of his friend Harris’s adventure in the maze at Hampton Court.

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