7th December 2022
A short walk from Breamore, no more than a mile, takes you to a turf maze cut into the chalk at the eastern edge of Cranborne Chase AONB.
Writer Amanda Scott has been beguiled by the Breamore Mizmaze since she first visited it a few years ago. Here, she tells us a little of its history and describes a walk to the mizmaze – with particular thanks to Anthony Light and Gerald Ponting for their excellent synopsis in “A Walk to Breamore Miz-Maze”, and also Chase & Chalke’s self-guided walk ‘Whitsbury to Breamore – W27.
At the top of a hill between the villages of Breamore and Whitsbury you will find, cut into the chalk, a curious feature. A mizmaze: even the name is intriguing.
It curves in a continuous sweep of eleven concentric rings, like a loosely coiled rope. Surrounding the mizmaze a grove of yews stands sentinel. This place feels ancient.
A Short History of Mizmazes
What is a mizmaze? Well, for a start, ‘maze’ is a misnomer. That coiled design – you walk a winding but unbranching path until reaching the centre – is more correctly a labyrinth. The name ‘mizmaze’ has, however, stuck.
There are only eight extant mediaeval turf mazes in England, of which only two are called a mizmaze; the other sits on St Catherine’s Hill, near Winchester, where the pathway is traced by the cut chalk. At Breamore it is the turf between the cuts that forms the design. You cannot walk on the Breamore Mizmaze (for its protection), but you can trace with your eyes the route of the grassy path from rim to middle. It is very mindful.
Who first cut the Breamore Mizmaze?
It is difficult to date a turf maze because it has to be recut and maintained. Some folk firmly contend it is pre-Christian and truly ancient. After all, this is a landscape of elder days. There is, however, no hard evidence to support a pre-Christian origin. It is far more likely, according to historians, that the mizmaze is mediaeval, cut by the friars of a nearby Augustinian Priory.
This priory (established in 1128 to 1133) was sited two miles to the east, within a bend of the Avon, and owned much of the land hereabouts. If the friars did cut the mizmaze, then it was as a place of penance. They would have shuffled round its spirals on their knees, an echo of penitential practices documented elsewhere.
An alternative origin theory is that the mizmaze was cut by the landowners who built Breamore House in 1583. I prefer the link to the Augustinian priory as an explanation, though for no better reason than it makes a good tale that we are following in the friars’ footsteps as we ourselves walk to the labyrinth on the hill.
Walking to the Breamore Mizmaze
The Augustinian priory is long gone – it was dissolved in 1536 – though moles sometimes dig up scatterings of mediaeval building materials. The site is now on private land, so we join the friars as they reach the Saxon church of St Mary’s, Breamore.
It is worth pausing at the church. Under an ancient yew in the churchyard lie three old stone coffins, side by side. Swifts, which nest in the church’s eaves, cleave the sky in summer with their cries while wildflowers bless the coffins below. In all seasons, the hollow yew protects those that lie among its roots. It is as if the coffins have always rested here. In reality, they were moved to St Mary’s, with which the priory had close links, after their discovery during excavations of the priory in 1898. These, then, are the coffins of friars.
Our walk leaves the church. The way passes through the gates to Breamore House, which open onto a public footpath.
We go through lovely Breamore Wood, once a deer park and now a testament to the commitment of the Breamore Estate to nature conservation. In May, bluebells fill the woods with colour and the air with honey-scent. In late autumn, fungi hold court, from the gentle folds of Hairy Curtain Crust to the clustered blobs of Black Bulgar.
We pass a coppiced Sweet Chestnut, with five sturdy trunks reaching for the skies from its single base.
The wood ends and the landscape opens to downs and fields. Look for hares here (I almost always see them) or for birds of prey – buzzards, red kites – gliding above. You are now walking on South Charford Drove. Look on a map and you will see that to the north lies North Charford Drove; to the west, lined with trees that are golden in autumn and green in spring, is Long Steeple Lane (Old English ‘stepple’ means boundary; the lane marks the boundary between Whitsbury and Breamore parishes [Light and Ponting, 2000]). These are drove roads, dating back to at least the mediaeval period, that once crossed the landscape with a purpose, to drive sheep to market or between pastures. Imagine the hills echoing with bleating, dogs barking and the drovers’ calls.
A grassy path leaves the droveway, leading to the mizmaze with its guardian yews. In spring and summer there will almost definitely be others joining you there. In autumn and winter you may well be alone, with only the grassy labyrinth for company. Here the friars performed penance, said prayers. Earlier peoples trod this ground. Now it is we that linger.
Leaving the mizmaze and taking a few steps north you will be greeted by what is, in my opinion, one of the best views in this part of the Chase. You can see from beyond Whitsbury in the west to Pepperpot Hill in the east, the latter some five miles distant. The escarpments gently rise and fall, crossed by hedgerows and old lanes. This landscape would once have been visible from the mizmaze itself: the yew grove is a recent addition, only a hundred years or so old.
Breathing in the wind and scents, it is easy to imagine the centuries-long lineage of people who have worked in and revered this place.
The land is, after all, a palimpsest; its layers are not only those of soil, rock and vegetation, but also of the toils and footprints of those who have walked here before.
This is particularly true of the history-steeped landscape of Cranborne Chase. Stay still a while, and you may catch an echo of other lives – past and present, human and other-than-human – glimmering at the very edge of sight and hearing.
The Breamore Mizmaze is a goal in itself and many visitors, like the friars before them, turn about and return the way they came. It is possible, though, to make of it a longer walk, returning via Whitsbury. If you do decide to walk on, then a wonderful 5.75 mile circular route is described in the AONB’s self-guided walk W27 , starting from Whitsbury rather than Breamore. You will find an Iron Age hill fort and old droveways, smell comforting horse scents as you walk past racing stables in Whitsbury, and discover the little thirteenth century church of St Leonard with its downland views.
Whether turning back or walking on, you will end, sooner or later, back in Breamore, still thinking of the mizmaze, droveway-crossed hills, penitent friars, and the hares on the downs.
References and Further Information
Anthony Light and Gerald Ponting (2000). A Walk to Breamore Miz-Maze. Charlewood Press, Fordingbridge (available to buy from the Breamore Countryside Museum and Farm Shop, or reference copies can be found in local libraries).
Jeff Saward (2017). English Turf Labyrinths. Labyrinthos available here
‘Whitsbury Wander’ Circular Walk from Whitsbury to Breamore (Walk W27). Chase & Chalke Landscape Partnership available here
Amanda Scott is a blogger and writer who likes nothing better than exploring the nature and history of the world around her. She blogs at: https://newtalesoldforest.com