Gardening column: mazes and labyrinths

09 November 2018

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“LOSE yourself in a maze; find yourself in a labyrinth.” Over the summer and autumn, I heard several visitors at work quote this, or words to that effect, as they pondered the perennial meadow maze in the heart of the walled garden. It consists of concentric rings of grass paths incompletely separated by rings of flowery mead, created last spring by stripping off the turf and sowing a seed mix. The resultant growth is seemingly a delight to all ages.

Apart from being a playground for the young and the inner child within us all, a labyrinth can be a serious meditation tool. At Minsteracres Retreat Centre, near Consett, in Co. Durham, there are two grass labyrinths: one in the peace garden, and one near the main house. The latter was designed by Michael Grogan. At its centre is a shiny stainless-steel gateway, and the journey towards this reflects our inner journey, letting go of all that blocks our way to God.

In the gateway, you turn outwards, at the same time seeing yourself in the mirror. But you also see creation, the trees, the sky, and the birds. It is a moment to give thanks before starting your journey outwards, back into the world.

The labyrinth is used by individuals, but also as a teaching aid during retreats. A gardener and lay member of the community, Lya Vollering, has often used it with the family and friends of substance misusers. People who find “religion” difficult in a formal setting find that the labyrinth helps them to get in touch with themselves, with nature, and with a “higher power”, Lya explains. Weather permitting, she encourages them to walk barefoot, “to feel the earth, the grass; to be grounded”.

For thousands of years, people have been travelling to Chartres to walk the famous labyrinth in the nave of the magnificent cathedral. There is now a splendid version in rural Devon. The Society of Martha and Mary run a retreat centre, Sheldon, near Exeter. In 2011, the Community built a labyrinth, matching Chartres in scale and design, using 100mm basalt blocks to delineate self-binding golden gravel paths. The Warden at Sheldon, Sarah Horsman, tells me that it tends to be used by visitors in an informal way. “People find it, people walk it, and internal stuff happens — sometimes profound, often surprising. In our one-to-one sessions, people often refer to the experience of walking it: insights gained, perspectives shifted, God showing up unexpectedly.”

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The materials and preparation for the build of the Sheldon labyrinth cost about £10,000, and the result is impressive; but a maze/labyrinth need not be an expensive or even permanent feature. Using two forms of soft landscaping works well. I would suggest 1.2m-wide paths and 1m-wide “walls”. At its simplest, this can be mown paths through long grass, the latter being given a strim in late summer and again in late autumn.

Marking out the design using line-marking spray paint and a cord from the centre to create concentric circles is a job for a small team, but a whole community can help to plant daffodil bulbs in the no-go areas.

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