The historic maze at Grade II-listed Glendurgan Garden in Cornwall – once described as ‘a small piece of heaven on earth’ – is ready to delight many more generations of visitors after the completion of a four-year restoration project.
The cherry laurel maze was originally planted in 1833 by Quakers Alfred and Sarah Fox to entertain their 12 children. Designed as ‘a series of irregular, winding walks that remind us of life, where we may go wrong in a multitude of ways, but right in only one’, it was inspired by the maze at Sydney Gardens in Bath, which sadly no longer survives.
But the Foxes never imagined that, nearly two centuries later, more than 85,000 people would be exploring their living puzzle’s winding paths every year – and by 2015 it became clear a major renovation was needed to ensure its future.
The wet Cornish climate and intense use had caused the surfaces of the narrow paths to deteriorate badly. More importantly, the hedges themselves – many of them the original 19th-century plantings – had begun to suffer and die after successive wet years created water-logged soil.
Site Manager Tony Finnigan said: “We quickly realised that investment was needed to bring the maze back to good health and ensure its future was secure for generations to come.”
John Lanyon, Head Gardener, added: “The maze is special and the garden team take great pride in caring for it. The cherry laurel gives it such a lustrous look, and unlike many mazes it isn’t part of a formal garden. Its setting on the side of the valley means you can watch people going around it, which adds to the fun.
“The vision behind the renovation was to upgrade and refresh this much-loved feature of the garden, so that it remains in good condition for another 200 years.”
A restoration plan was created to upgrade the paths, install drainage and metal edging, replace the central summer house, and replace all 173 of the failing wooden steps with a durable stone alternative. Work began in 2018 and was carried out over four consecutive winters when the garden was closed, so that visitors could continue to enjoy the maze from spring to autumn.
One of the key challenges was working out how to fit metal edging to all the paths, measuring 706m in total.
John continued: “Working with a local metal fabricator we built what looked like a mini railway system. Once each bespoke section was designed and bent to shape, it had to be sent away to be galvanised. It wasn’t an easy process as some of the junctions have multiple paths coming into them.”
The bottom third of the maze rests on a bog of saturated clay, so a key task was to install drainage to prevent damaging water build-up and flooding. A bonded gravel surface was also installed, giving a more robust surface better able to cope with high volumes of visitors, and protecting the roots of the plants.
John said: “Previously, most footfall walked directly on the roots of the plants – now, the impact is all taken by the paths. This will mean much stronger plants. The maze is now in good condition from top to bottom – in fact, it is now so good we may have to trim sections of it twice this year.”
The plants themselves were pruned to remove older woody sections and allow more vigorous material to grow through, and feeding has helped improve their condition.
Crowning the maze is a new octagonal oak summer house, complete with thatched roof.
The £140,000 restoration was funded significantly by donations, legacies, raffle ticket sales and support from Barclays Bank.
John added: “I am incredibly indebted to everyone who has made donations, both large and small. Collectively we have all helped make the refurbishment of the maze happen. I am so proud of the team effort.”
National Trust Head of Gardens and Parklands Andy Jasper concluded: “With its rare trees and shrubs, wonderful setting and ornamental features like the spectacular maze, Glendurgan Garden is a hugely important part of our horticultural heritage. There is such a rich sense of discovery as you journey through the valley to discover its botanical treasures, and the maze takes the garden design to another level of magic.
“Since it was gifted to the Trust in 1962 our gardeners and volunteers have worked tirelessly to preserve and enhance this distinctive garden for future generations to enjoy, just as the Fox family enjoyed it in their lifetimes.”