The Hampton Court hedge maze is the oldest surviving hedge maze in the United Kingdom. It is a multicursal maze, that baffle its visitors since the 17th century. Unlike a regular labyrinth, which is single-path or “unicursal,” in a maze like this, which is “multicursal”, a visitor must make decisions) baffling and delighting visitors since the 17th century.
Even if it isn’t large as modern-day mazes, it still provides a challenge and, above all, it remains an important historical structure. The original design has since been modified due to gaps in the hedge, offering more ways to the center and more wrong turns, some of them ending in loops or dead ends. It is built on a third of an acre, with half a mile of paths, within 60 acres of riverside gardens.
Planted by nurserymen and garden designers George London and Henry Wise for William III of Orange in 1690 at Hampton Court Palace, the evidence points towards the current maze having replaced an even older one, possibly devised for Henry VIII or Thomas Cardinal Wolsey. The maze is now the remnants of what was once the many winding paths of William III’s “Wilderness Garden.”
Initially made of hornbeams, the maze has since been repaired over the years and was completely replaced with yew in the 1960s.
A project to restore hornbeam to the maze has been introduced, with hornbeam recently planted in the center to ascertain its viability in modern day wear-and-tear conditions. Unique at its time of development, the Hampton Court Maze provides multiple path choices and dead ends, even if research shows that previous hedge mazes were unicursal, with only one path leading to the center.
There are several accounts of people losing themselves in the maze, both in literature and reality, and It has been described by many authors, including Defoe, popular for his novel Robinson Crusoe, which is second only to the Bible in its number of translations. One of the most popular, if exaggerated, accounts of navigating the labyrinth is given by 19th century British humorist Jerome K. Jerome in his 1889 novel “Three Men in a Boat.” He describes one character studying a map of the Hampton Maze, announcing it should hardly be called a maze, as it is so simple. The three men proceed to haughtily navigate the puzzle, only to become lost and circle around the center repeatedly until they had to call for the groundkeeper’s help. He wrote:
“We’ll just go in here, so that you can say you’ve been, but it’s very simple. It’s absurd to call it a maze. You keep on taking the first turning to the right. We’ll just walk round for ten minutes, and then go and get some lunch.”
…Harris kept on turning to the right, but it seemed a long way, and his cousin said he supposed it was a very big maze.
“Oh, one of the largest in Europe“, said Harris.
“Yes, it must be“, replied the cousin, “because we’ve walked a good two miles already.”
Harris began to think it rather strange himself, but he held on until, at last, they passed the half of a penny bun on the ground that Harris’s cousin swore he had noticed there seven minutes ago.
Jerome exaggerates the hazards of the maze because it has relatively few places at which the path forks and at all but one fork (in Jerome’s time) the wrong choice led to a dead end at the end of a very short corridor.
The Hampton Court Maze takes an average of 30-45 minutes to complete, and though it is an “island maze” which contains separate sections causing this technique to not normally work, the hedges are grown in a fashion where placing and keeping one’s right hand along a wall will lead them to the center. Recently, three new forking places (not shown on the plan displayed just outside the entrance) have introduced more possibilities of walking closed loops within the maze.
In 2006, arts group Greyworld were commissioned to create a permanent artwork for the maze.
The recent addition is the audio exhibit entitled Trace. Spread across the hedges is a gentle “soundwork” composed of music fragments, snippets of conversation, the rustle of fine silks, and tantalizing laughter that disappears upon turning corners. Aimed at luring visitors down certain paths, Trace will eventually incorporate one thousand generated sounds triggered by hidden sensors embedded in the maze walls.