diamond geezer

 Friday, December 28, 2007

London Journeys: To the centre of Hampton Court Maze

Hampton Court Maze has been baffling visitors for more than three centuries. It was laid out in the palace gardens in 1690, one of four mazes planted for the enjoyment of King William III and his court. The original hornbeam hedges have long since been replanted in yew, but the same half mile of paths survive to this day. The key to the maze's longevity is its forward-looking design. This is no simple one-track medieval labyrinth. This is a proper puzzle with seductive junctions, frustrating loops and deceptive dead ends. Fancy testing yourself? [1]

this way to the Maze[1] "The aim of the Hampton Court Maze", reads the information board outside the entrance, "is to get to the centre." Just in case you though otherwise. Cough up £3.50 (or wave your Palace entrance ticket) and venture inside. It's not a difficult start. The dead end immediately to your right has been blocked off to form a storage area and an exit passage, so veer left and trek around the western perimeter. It's easy to be over-confident at this point, striding ahead as yet unchallenged. But the first junction - a narrow gap carved through the hedge - introduces initial indecision. Take your pick.
Through the gap and left? [2] Through the gap and right? [3] Or continue along the original path? [3]

[2] This looks promising. A long twisty-turny-path between high green walls, with what looks like a hidden right turn at the end. Damn, no, it's a dead end. OK, time to save face. Turn round slowly and head back, grinning innocently at the steady stream of equally misguided tourists shuffling to a similar fate. Should any of them ask whether this is a dead end or not, just smile and lie. Then pray you don't meet them again further along in your travels. Try that first junction again.
Straight ahead? [3] Or through the gap and straight ahead? [3]

[3] That's right, it doesn't matter which of these two paths you take, you still end up at the same second junction. This is one of those cunningly-designed loops where you could keep walking round and round in circles for ever. But don't. It's just a short distance ahead to the next fork in the path.
Hmm, isn't it foolproof to keep your hand on the left-hand hedge? [4] Or maybe it's the right-hand hedge? [5]

[4] On into the heart of the maze, bend after bend after bend. But rounding the fifth and final corner reveals - damn - an impenetrable green barrier. You've been unlucky here. Contrary to what you might expect there are only three dead ends inside Hampton Court Maze, and you've just wandered down the longest of them. If it's any consolation, King William III probably made exactly the same mistake.
Retrace your steps to the previous junction and take the other path [5]

four-way yew junction[5] This long path skirts around the central clearing, where jubilant finishers can be glimpsed oh-so tantalisingly close on the other side of the hedge. But no premature short-cut through the foliage is possible - the maze's iron-railing skeleton makes certain of that. Although you can pass through the hedge at the next junction, where 20th century gardeners have cut an elegant archway to link two of the original pathways.
Are you tempted through? [left 6, right 8] Or will you ignore the arch and carry on round the bend? [6]

[6] Two of the paths from the arch follow opposite ends of a single hedge, recombining at another junction on the maze's perimeter. A motion sensor is hidden here, one of several installed a couple of years ago as part of a permanent "sound installation". Your passing might trigger genteel laughter, or some softly spoken quotation, or the clang of tiny cymbals - a randomly-generated sound at every location. Rest assured that the overall effect is enchanting rather than intrusive. And that any swearing you might hear is real-life frustration, not art.
Head north, away from the arch [7] Or go back [5]

[7] When Harris took a stroll around Hampton Court Maze in Three Men in a Boat, it was probably within this eastern section that he and the baying crowd got horribly lost. There's one pathway in particular where, no matter which wall you try to follow, the maze will always bring you back to the same spot. Bring along a penny bun and drop it in the right spot, and this truth is easily proved. But Jerome K Jerome was undoubtedly exaggerating the maze's difficulty for comic effect - eternal entrapment is an entirely improbable outcome.
Back west? [6] Down south? [8] Or away to the east? [9]

trim that hedge, boys[8] If you've brought a toddler with you, they're probably gurgling merrily by now. You'd better run after them before they totter headlong down the next leafy canyon and disappear round yet another corner.
Back west? [6] Up north? [7] Or away to the east? [9]

[9] At this point your sense of direction will be screaming that you must, surely, be going the wrong way. The centre of the maze is far behind you, and you really ought to be heading back. So when a new path appears leading even further away from the centre, you'd be forgiven for ignoring it, wouldn't you?
Take it [10] Ignore it [7] or [8]

[10] A single decision stands between you and salvation. One of the two paths ahead looks like the correct route but is in fact a dead end. And the other looks like a dead end but is in fact the correct route.
You know which way to go [11]

[11] Look, the mazekeepers really do have a big green stepladder, over there on the other side of the hedge. Presumably they clamber up and bark directions during periods of labyrinthine crisis, such as when a school party is in danger of missing their coach home. But no assistance is needed from this point on. A small green sign is now visible ahead, blatantly announcing that the "centre" is just around the corner. They've had to erect it here in case disoriented punters stop at the gate labelled "fast exit" immediately beforehand, and pass out through the turnstile without ever reaching their goal. It would be a crying shame to miss out.
On to the centre! [12]

centre of Hampton Court Maze[12] Is this the central courtyard, or is this a concrete patio knocked together by some Channel 4 lifestyle programme? Bland wooden trelliswork holds back a ring of replanted hornbeam. To left and right, where two tall trees once cast a welcome shadow, sit clumps of squat stools awaiting weary backsides. And, in the very centre of the centre, an upturned conic pedestal bears the legend "We found the Maze Centre at Hampton Court Palace 2007" (with the final "7" daubed on in thick temporary paint). You might want to ask those two foreign students over there to take your photograph, before they ask you. Smile - you’ve just solved a classic 17th century puzzle.
Bet you want to go back and solve it again [1]


Originally butchered by over-zealous sub-editors in Time Out Magazine London [12 September 2007]


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