‘The fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England’ : Queen Elizabeth I 1574. One of the many glories of St Mary, Redcliffe is the nave ceiling, which boasts 1200 beautifully carved and gilded bosses. One is a splendid carved and gilded labyrinth, one of only two remaining medieval labyrinths in the country.
The labyrinth motif has been used since prehistoric times.
The earliest examples are rock carvings, but they appear in Roman mosaics, the floors of cathedrals in Europe, on village greens and hilltops, in remote Scandinavia, through India, the American Southwest and beyond.
Historic labyrinths in the UK mostly date from the late 19th century, when renewed interest in labyrinths combined with a wave of church building and restoration. Only two are medieval: a gilded roof boss in St Mary, Redcliffe and a labyrinth on Hereford Cathedral’s Mappa Mundi.
Labyrinths are popular again, so look out for modern examples too.
Hereford Cathedral is home to the Hereford Mappa Mundi, one of the world’s unique medieval treasures. Measuring 1.59 x 1.34 metres the map is on a single sheet of vellum (calf skin). Scholars believe it was made around the year 1300 and shows the history, geography and destiny of humanity as it was understood in Christian Europe in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. It also features a tiny depiction of a labyrinth, the only other medieval labyrinth in the country.
Close to the famous Julian's Bower turf labyrinth, this Lincolnshire church also has several others worth visiting. Set into the floor of the porch of St John the Baptist, Alkborough is a stone labyrinth created in 1887 by J Goulton-Constable, keen to preserve the plan of the turf labyrinth should it become overgrown. Inside, a smaller version appears in a window and on embroidered kneeling cushions. The village cemetery has a cross inset with a small labyrinth marking the grave of Goulton-Constable.
Beneath the west tower of Ely Cathedral is the only historic pavement labyrinth to be found in an English cathedral. Created in 1870 by Sir George Gilbert Scott it is 6.1m across and fits neatly within a decorative square frame. The unusual design was inspired by the former labyrinth in Reims Cathedral.
In this small Cambridgeshire village is a lovely country church with much to see. Set into the floor of St Helena & St Mary, Bourn is an unusual labyrinth formed of red and black floor tiles. Built in 1875, shortly after the labyrinth was laid in nearby Ely Cathedral it is a squared up version of the Hampton Court hedge maze.
The labyrinths found adorning the Watts Chapel in Compton, Surrey are without doubt some of the most remarkable from the 19th century labyrinth revival. Built by Mary Watts, the wife of George Frederick Watts, between 1895 and 1898, and with the help of local artisans, the chapel is sumptuously decorated inside and out with several labyrinth designs featured.
Set in the graveyard behind St Mark the Evangelist, Hadlow Down in Sussex is this curious labyrinth decorated memorial stone is in the form of a large cross, lying prone in a small enclosure. It commemorates Lt Colonel Wheeler, the 4th Viscount Hood, who died in 1911. The labyrinth is a unique five path design.
St Mary, Itchen Stoke is a jewel inspired by the chapel of French kings. This striking Hampshire example of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture is lit inside by richly coloured stained glass and has a unique labyrinth filling the floor of its apse, 5.1m in diameter, but partly obscured by a wooden altar. Formed from brown and green tiles, it is a scale replica of the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, although some of the details are simplified.