Most of the garden at our cottage in Brittany is carefully tended. We are not meticulous but when we are living there – nearly half the year – it gets hours of attention almost everyday. There is, however, an exception; apart from a serious autumn strimming, the meadow near the bottom of the garden is left to grow wild. This does present a problem – we need access to the far side to manage the stream and to collect berries and wood, and for this, each spring before the grasses and wild flowers become too thick, I cut a path down the middle. By tradition the path is winding, and when the grasses and the like are high and dense – some plants are over two metres tall – walking down the path feels like being in a magical tunnel. This blog is about how the path has been transformed.
Four years ago – in the summer of 2018 to be precise – I had an idea; instead of creating a magical thoroughfare, why not be more ambitious? Could a central part of the meadow be carefully mowed to form a maze with its narrow paths separated by high grass walls?
After a year, the essentials of my maze had become clear, and having made measurements in the meadow, I drew up a plan (see first illustration). The basic structure of the maze would be a series of interlinked concentric paths that became progressively smaller, with the innermost – the goal – a disc of cut grass wide enough to accommodate a chair and table. Importantly, the paths would occasionally divide or the route would be barred. Where there was a division those walking would be obliged to make a choice with one option ultimately a cul-de-sac, the other allowing continuation towards the goal. That there would be divisions, and so a requirement to make decisions, is a fundamental feature of a maze; were it to be a labyrinth, the path would be continuous (unicursal), and so unbroken right through to the end.
I showed my plan to Rohan and Yves whose agreement I needed before the project could go ahead. Rohan approved immediately, but pointed out that with a maze in place an alternative route would have to be cut to provide access to the stream. Yves, our enthusiastic, eco-friendly gardener who takes over when we are in London, also agreed but it took longer. For years he had seen the field as a precious haven for the likes of butterflies and bees, small field mammals and the occasional amphibian – we once found a salamander! Luckily, he decided that the new structure with its tall walls would not threaten the garden’s wildlife. He even suggested that he might help both in its construction and, later, its upkeep.
To build the maze, I first had to mark out on the ground the layout of the paths, their branch-points and their various barriers. Using around 500 metres of string slung, hip-high, between umpteen bamboo poles, marking took several days. This all had to be done in early spring, and because of the Covid19 travel restrictions in 2020 and 2021, the first opportunity to build was six weeks ago, so four years after the maze’s conception.
On the night before grass cutting was to start, the whole project was threatened. Tell-tale hoof scratchings in a grassy drive and tracks in the mud near the stream told us that our garden was often visited by a wild boar. Recently, several neighbours had seen him or her, and from our own viewing, as it ran across a nearby field, it was very much alive and very big. The night it visited the maze it knocked down or pulled over a broad swathe of my markers and string across one side of the site. The damage was far too extensive for a fox and we have yet to see a deer in the garden.
It took time and much patience to put the markers and string back in place, but that done, eventually and as planned, path cutting went ahead. Since then Yves and I have together mowed the paths six times and now walking through the maze with its own, almost hidden, magical path with its central table (see second illustration) gives me great pleasure. Importantly, thanks to a makeshift picket fence, the wild boar has not returned.
By the way, to make the bottom of the garden accessible once again, a wide path was built around the maze’s outer edge.
The first illustration is a photo of the plan for the maze that I drew in 2019. The green lines show the paths, and the red lines the tall grass barriers. The entrance is at the top. To the right are some now faded detailed measurements. As I was setting out the markers for the maze, the plan became frayed and weather beaten.
The second illustration, a photo of the central goal of the maze with its entrance just visible on the right. It was taken this week, so six weeks after the first paths were cut. Already, the paths have walls over two metres high. Finding my way down the maze ‘tunnels’ was like being a child again!
For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Yves, Rohan and Vivien