King Minos built one. Theseus solved one. Arthur Evans couldn't find one. At Hampton Court, a slightly threadbare specimen continues to delight and frustrate visitors in equal measure. Mazes, though, are not just history. Thanks in part to the brilliant conceits designed by maze master Randoll Coate, they are still uncoiling all over Britain. In 1975, Coate installed a giant hedged footprint at Lechlade in Gloucestershire. Although on the ground the shape is difficult to make out, from above, the imprint of Colossus stands out dramatically in the surrounding countryside. A river swirls round one end and, as the plan outgrew its site, an island was made in the river to accommodate the big toe. Two years later, Coate made a second foot maze at Bicton in Devon, this time using upright wooden logs, with a roundabout hidden in the heel.
One of his last works was the eye-shaped maze that he designed for a huge walled garden at Combermere Abbey on the borders of Shropshire and Cheshire. Its owner Sarah Callander Beckett thinks it is the only maze in the world made entirely from fruit trees - gooseberries and currants round the outside, apples and pears lining the fiendish route from the gates of the walled garden to the conical glasshouse against the far wall. The soft fruit is grown as cordons, the apples and pears as espaliers, some on MM106 rootstock, the rest on more dwarfing M27.
The trees, beautifully trained on posts and wires, now provide continuous curving f screens round the grass paths of the maze. The circle in the centre of the design is the iris of the eye (also "the apple of my eye" as Coate, who died last year, pointed out). Incorporated into the sweeping loops and spirals of the maze are the three recurring symbols of all ancient mazes: the tree of life, the labrys or double-headed axe used in Minoan ritual, and the horned head of the Minotaur himself. If you take the right path and don't make any mistakes, you'll have walked half a mile before you reach your objective.
I walked far more, because I was constantly backtracking to smell the gorgeous scent of 'Fiesta' and 'Spartan' apples or to stroke their shining striped skins. The fruit expert, the late Bert Davis, advised on varieties and rootstocks and chose the 10 different apples that are planted in the maze. 'Fiesta' was bred in the Seventies at the East Malling Research Station, and although the famous 'Cox's Orange Pippin' was one of its parents, 'Fiesta' is easier to grow and much less prone to disease. Picked in late September, it will last through until the end of the year if you have a coolish, dampish place to store it. It crops heavily and looks gorgeous on the tree.
The maze, said Callander Beckett, came about almost by accident. She took over at Combermere Abbey after 10 years as PR director of Laura Ashley's fashion and design empire in New York. She was then 38 years old and used to taking difficult decisions. "I'd been at Laura Ashley when things were going really well, but I'd also had to learn how to cope when the tide starts turning against you." She'd been brought up at Combermere and when she arrived back from the States, the place was still totally private, opening its gates only for the annual church fête.
Her mother, who had farmed the estate for many years, had built up a fine dairy herd, but was not particularly interested in the gardens, laid out as part of a huge makeover in the 1820s for the first Lord Combermere. The work was carried out in the Gothic style by the fine architect and garden designer John Webb, who covered up the old abbey with a smart new castellated front and dammed streams to create a huge lake that curves round the house and its elegant stable yard.
Looking at Combermere on her return, Callander Beckett felt the place had huge potential, but was going to have to work hard to earn its keep. The old buildings round the cobbled stableyard were transformed into holiday cottages and Coate first came to Combermere with the idea of laying out a cobbled meditation maze here in the yard. But at the same time, she was looking for new ways to use the three vast but derelict walled gardens at Combermere Abbey. They'd become, she says, "a pheasant's playground", clogged up with sycamore seedlings and rearing pens.
They are vast spaces, five walled-in acres, set out in three separate enclosures surrounded by tall brick walls. Now, after 10 years hard work by the Combermere gardeners, you can look from the back of the stableyard through the entrance gates down a long central Bredon gravel path that connects all three gardens. The vista ends with the semicircular remnant of the original glasshouse, which lies beyond the maze. Pleached hornbeam lines the first part of the path, with cherries taking over in the second enclosure. A final enfilade of 'John Downie' crab apples leads to the start of the maze.
One of the walled gardens was offered to Reaseheath, the local horticultural college, as an outdoor classroom devoted to fruit, and Bert Davis, who taught at Reaseheath, came to look at it. Coate saw it too and somehow, the two ideas became one and the fruit maze was born.
As a feature, it's triumphantly successful, but only because a huge amount of effort has been put into the proper pruning and training of the fruit trees. Now that they are as big as they need to be, pruning will be easier. The varieties have been well chosen and, wandering round, I thought both 'Spartan' and 'Sunset' looked as beautiful as any flower could at this time of the year. 'Sunset' is well named, striped with red on a golden, slightly russety skin. Like 'Fiesta' it's a 'Cox' seedling, but easier and more rewarding in a garden. The fruits are smallish, but if you've got children, that's an advantage. It's ready to pick by late September and will store until the end of the year. E
The gardens (still under restoration) at Combermere Abbey are open to groups of 15 or more. Call 01948 662880 to arrange a visit. Next year there will be a regular programme of events in the garden, as part of Cheshire's Year of Gardens '08. For details, see www.combermereabbey.co.ukReuse content