by Frank E Earp
“The nine-men’s morris is
filled up with mud. And the
quaint mazes on the wanton
green for lack of tread are
undistinguishable” — William
Perhaps the most curious and least understood ancient monument in Nottinghamshire, the ʻturf mazeʼ known as the Shepherdʼs Race or Robin Hoodʼs Race.
The ʻmazeʼ has long since disappeared but the debate over its origin and use continues.
Turf mazes are created by cutting a serpentine path into a level area of open grass. Commonly the path of the maze is or was created from the turfed area between narrow channels of bare earth.
In a few instances the path is defined by the channel itself. The latter is the case with the Shepherdʼs Race. The design or pattern of mazes falls into two distinct groups known as ʻclassicalʼ (Cretan) and ʻ medieval ʼ. Many European examples are of the classical design, whilst those in England are mainly medieval.
Although generically referred to as mazes, strictly speaking they should be called labyrinths. A maze is a puzzle with numerous paths and ʻdead endsʼ, whilst a labyrinth is a single path leading to a centre point and back out.
The purpose of the maze seems to have been to run, dance or walk the path to the centre and back out — possible without a pause. This was known as ʻtreading the mazeʼ and was popular at village fairs and other festivals.
There is evidence indicating that in some of the larger mazes ʻtreadingʼ may have been a processional event. Mazes are historically confined to Northern Europe, including England, Wales, Germany, Denmark, Lapland, Iceland and parts of the former Soviet Union, including the Czech Republic and Poland.
Hundreds of examples still exist in Scandinavia, where the paths are marked out using stones.
Shakespeareʼs lines suggest that the maze was once a common sight in the 16th Century English landscape. There are now only eight examples of turf mazes in existence. However, there are — including two in Nottinghamshire — references to over 20 extinct examples.
None of these appear restricted to any particular geographical location. Whilst there are no recorded examples of the mazes in Ireland, the maze design is found carved into a granite boulder known as the Hollywood Stone, in County Wicklow.
The carving has been dated at around 550 A.D. However, this date is probably pure conjecture. English mazes are usually circular in design and between 30 and 60 feet in diameter, although square and polygonal examples are known. They appear to have been commonly located on village greens and commons, often close to a church or chapel. Other examples are known in more remote spots, by crossroads and on hill tops.
The Shepherdʼs Race was cut into flat ground near the summit of Blue Bell Hill — Thorneywood Mount — in the St Annʼs district of Nottingham. The hill was part of Sneinton Common, given to the parish as ʻcommon landʼ by the Pierrepont family. It is described as being 34-35 yards across, covering an area of 324 square yards, with a single path 535 yards long.
These proportions make the Race one of the largest examples of its kind. Its design is fairly typical of the medieval kind, with the addition of four rounded extensions or bastions. Each enclosed a small mound with a design known in heraldry as a ʻcross-crossletʼ cut into the top. The bastions are said to have aligned with the four cardinal points of the compass.
This feature is not unique to the Race as the existing maze at Saffron Walden, Essex, also has bastions but without the additional cross-crosslets.
The name Shepherdʼs Race is not confined to the Nottingham maze. The now lost maze on the village green at Boughton Green in Northamptonshire was known as Shepherd Ring or Shepherdʼs Race. The use of the word shepherd is thought to have derived from the once widely held belief that mazes were cut by shepherds as a sort of exercise ground.
Had the Shepherdʼs Race at Nottingham survived,without doubt it would have been none of the fines examples of its kind. It is strange then that it has always been a footnote in history, an appendix to notes on the more famous St Annʼs Well. Because of their close proximity — around 300 yards — the Race and famous Well were always considered as part of a single ritual site.
However, there is little actual evidence for this actually being the case. This speculative link was reinforced by the fact that at least two 19th Century copies of the maze were created close to the well, one by the tea rooms.
The origin of the Shepherdʼs Race, as with most mazes, is speculative. One modern author on the subject, states that the maze was cut in the 4th Century and modified by the Templar Knights for use in their rituals. Two 18th Century antiquarians pass comment on the maze.
William Stukely, ‘the father of archaeology’, delivers a popular opinion of the time when he declares it to be ʻof Roman originʼ.
Charles Deering says: “It seems to be a name of no old standing.” He disputes Stukelyʼs opinion and declares: “It is evidently, from the cross-crosslets in the centres of the four lesser rounds, and in that there are no banks raised but circular trenches cut into the turf, and those so narrow that persons cannot run in them, but must run on top of the turf, it is of no Roman origin and yet is more ancient than the reformation.”
Although a wonderful description of the maze, Deering is contradicted by contemporary and latter plans which clearly show the path to be the bare earth between the turf walls. He was of the opinion that it was cut by the monks of the near by Chapel of St Ann for the purpose of exorcise and meditation.
At least one Victorian writer agreed with Deering and produced a charming, if inaccurate, illustration of kneeling monks on the turf path of the maze.
There are few references to turf mazes earlier than the late 17th Century and a number of existing examples are claimed to have been cut at this time.
Returning to the quote from Shakespeareʼs ʻA Midsummerʼs Nightʼs Dream, which was
written between 1590 and 1596, for the reference to the maze to have had any impact with the audience, turf mazes must have been a familiar sight.
However, if the words are to be taken literally then it seems that mazes may have been in decline for lack of use ʻ…the quaint mazes on the wanton green for lack of tread are undistinguishableʼ.
By their very nature, turf mazes are ephemeral and need constant maintenance — regular re-cutting — to maintain their existence. Such re-cutting destroys possible archeological evidence for dating their original creation. References to the cutting of a ʻnewʼ maze in the 16th-17th Century may indicate the re cutting of a maze which had become overgrown and forgotten.
The origin of the Shepherdʼs Race may be in dispute. However, its demise is not. Following the Enclosure Act, the maze was ploughed up and the area planted with potatoes on 17th February 1797.
Briscoe, P., 1881. Old Nottinghamshire. London: Hamilton, Adams & Co.
Deering, C., 1751. History of Nottingham. Nottingham.
Morrell, R., 1990. Nottingham’s Mysterious Mazes. Nottingham: APRA Press.
Stukeley, W., 1776. Itinerarium Curiosum. Vol 1. London.