I think mazes are tremendous fun: From the glorious, historic hedge mazes of palaces and castles (e.g. Hampton Court, Hever Castle) to the local Victorian yew hedge maze in Saffron Walden. I invariably get lost in them too, even though I know there is a system.
Then there are the transient, annual mazes, where maize is grown in different patterns on Open Farms like the one in Milton (this year it is in the shape of a Tyrannosaurus Rex apparently). They are great for children with too much energy.
However, what I really love are turf mazes, labyrinths made by cutting convoluted paths into an area of short grass. They were once a fairly common feature of medieval villages in England, but not too many survive now. Luckily for me, Saffron Walden (which is quite near) has a second maze which is an important, large, ancient example of this on its Common. It is designed with four “bastions”, has a dated recuts (1826, 1841,1859,1887) and more recently, its narrow groove path was marked out with bricks (1911).
Best of all, on our doorstep, we have the Cambridge Botanics grass maze. This is reminscent of the medieval turf mazes, but is planted out with Pheasant’s Tail grass, Anemanthele lessoniana, marking the ‘walls’. The design is a simple double spiral.
It is loved by visiting children who, depending on age, either enjoy getting to the centre post (sometimes throne) first or enjoy the feel of the grass as they race around and through it. In fact it gets such wear that on average it has to be completely replaced every two years. It is a beautiful feature that changes with the seasons and with its maturity.
Anemanthele lessoniana was chosen for the maze for a number of reasons: it is an evergreen that turns a beautiful bronze colour in late summer; it is a very tactile grass with a soft arching structure; it makes delightful rustling sounds as it moves in even the gentlest breeze. Furthermore, as a bunch grass, the new shoots appear inside the clump, re-enforcing the wall structure, rather than spreading away from the centre and narrowing the path.
In flower and seed, the plumes catch the light and seem to shimmer, giving rise to its common name in New Zealand: Gossamer grass.
Plantsman E.A. Bowles apparently commented that “The Pheasant’s Tail grass as it is called – goodness knows why, as it is no more like a pheasant’s tail than a pig’s – is one of the most beautiful of all light grasses’.
He was right about its loveliness, but it seems glaringly obvious why it should be called Pheasant’s Tail grass.