It took over 25 years to grow to full height and consisted of several thousand yew bushes, lovingly tended, trimmed and fed until those bushes became a single yew hedge and a full part of what was almost certainly the largest hedge maze in Scotland, a robust competitor to the famous Hampton Court Maze in London. It was laid out in a field just a hundred metres from a large, fine Edwardian mansion house and flanked by a beech hedge, touching the edge of one of the oldest forests in Scotland.
I know all this because my wife and I commissioned the maze, planted each of its thousands of individual bushes upon the chalk-marked ground, where the design swirled in multiple directions around unknowable obstacles. We then reared it with uncommon pride over the past 30 years. The span of a young man's life. Our children grew from looking over it to looking up at it over three decades. It was situated on ground in a private property near Forres, upon the flat area of a hillside which looked west with views for 30 miles over the Moray Firth and the hills of the Black Isle and beyond Inverness.
The maze was in the shape of a ziggurat laid flat upon the earth. A ziggurat, like the one erected 1,000 years ago in Babylon, was a massive structure built with diminishing steps as it reached upwards. The design and planting was made and supervised by Britain's premier designer of hedge mazes, Randoll Coate, whose other labyrinths enhance half a dozen European castles as well as Combermere Abbey, Blenheim Palace, Longleat in Wiltshire and diverse installations in distant places like his maze tribute to Borges in South America.
His mazes invariably consist of multiple symbolic designs interlinked by the simple fun of a short (or, in the Morayshire case, quite a long) stroll through nature. Among the multiplicity of his designs is the formal and elegant Marlborough Maze at Blenheim Palace, his Beatles maze in Liverpool featuring a yellow submarine, his Garden of Eden maze in Falconberg, Sweden, where men enter through one gate and women through another, each following their own swirling paths until they meet up in Adam's rib near the centre of the maze.
His parterre maze at Grey's Court, known as the Archbishop's Maze, is a work of simple elegance. The maze he designed and installed in an important chateau in Belgium is multi-dimensional as the centre of the rectangle on which it is sited rises higher than the sides. This gives to a pyramid-shaped garden of greenery.
The ziggurat labyrinth in Moray was designed to provide a walk of about a kilometre if no errors were made. The central objective was a circular fountain with a bronze statue of Icarus, plunging into the water. In Greek legend, Icarus's father, Daedalus, was the first creator of the maze.
Coate was a man of immense culture. His mazes encompass every aspect of his personality: wit, artistic knowledge, elegance and profundity. He fully merits the description given to him by a recent article in Country Life as 'the father of the modern maze.'￼The ziggurat maze was among the last of his designs. He died in 2005 at the age of 96. War hero, linguist, diplomat and – for the concluding 30 years of his life – designer of symbolic labyrinths.
Our maze was planted in the 80s, an immense labour which involved preparing the acreage, tilling and fertilising the unyielding ground, laying out the design over the prepared surface and planting the thousands of individual yew bushes which would eventually coalesce into a single, intricate hedge. Coate had designed a maze for a property we owned before, one in Gloucestershire, laid out in the shape of a giant's footprint, the longest toe assigned a small island of its own in the river. This property was sold in the 80s and subsequent owners have maintained it immaculately.
Yew grows very slowly and the climate of Moray does not encourage it to grow any faster. It took more than 25 years for those bushes to reach maturity and provide a dazzling maze, sprawling intricately over the landscape, pruned, trimmed and fertilised each year, its pathways of bright green lawn between the dark green of the hedge. The maze is filled with symbolism, references to Greek myth as well as to the Highlands which gave it birth.￼
Photographs give no good idea of the pleasures of a labyrinth. The voluptuous feel of closely trimmed hedges, the mild surprise of a dead end path, the awe-inspiring achievement of reaching its heart, the delight of training a dog to lead you in and out, the sense of abandonment given by becoming confused about which direction to take. An aerial photo shows only a geometric form laid out on a field.
The labyrinth was grown in yew because yew is one of the few things in nature which are almost eternal. Yew grows and renews itself slowly. Yew trees can last between 200 and 400 years. As they sense their end, their branches rise and then drop into the rotting centre of themselves and become the roots of the next generation. Yew is the perfect plant for a maze intended to outlast generations of owners.
To decimate something as carefully considered and beautiful is, in the absence of good cause, a brutal act. It is, I suppose, my fault that this agonisingly realised and beautiful installation no longer exists. I should have invited those who care for Scotland's landscapes to offer it official protection. I neglected to do that because I couldn't imagine why anyone might one day wish its destruction.
This maze was nurtured on private ground which, although open to the public on occasion in the past, was nonetheless entirely in the ownership of private people on a private estate. When the property changed hands, no entailment required owners to maintain it or to cherish it. And the current owners chose not to. So no complaint can be held against them. It was theirs to do with as they pleased and it pleased them to remove it from the face of the land.
They chose to demolish the maze, I am told, because they favoured a vegetable garden. Or they thought the pathways which seared into the patterns of the ziggurat were too narrow. Or…well, who knows why people destroy things that others have taken decades to create? The maze is gone.
I am sad because of the wasted time, expense and affection which over the years went into creating something utterly unique. A significant feature of Moray, built to endure through generations, capable of handing pleasure down through the decades, is now gone. The house, I see, is now offered as a bed and breakfast property. Their guests will have no idea of what once lay behind that beech hedge unless a few fragments remain. But those fragments will not have purpose, nor design, nor elegance. After 30 years of loving care, watching our children and grandchildren romp between the narrow hedges and splash in the fountain, there are now (or will be soon) vegetables. So I am told. I cling to the hope that I have been misinformed.
But I know otherwise. It is hard not to weep.
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