It is not true that you have to be fiendishly clever to negotiate a maze.

No: life is full of methods, or to give them their posh title, algorithms, which help even the simplest participant in these traditional puzzles.

We had one agenda item above all others when we visited Hampton Court, riverside snug of Kings, yesterday. Felix has already been this year, with his affable gaggle of schoolfriends and a teacher who looks like a princess. He had a blast; but he didn’t go into the maze.

I don’t blame his teacher. I wouldn’t have sent that happy rabble into a place where, conceivably, I might never get all of them back. The very thought of 30 eight year olds charging in random directions, arriving at the exit randomly or possibly not at all, strikes dread into my heart.

Still, Felix asserted, he would have liked to see the maze.

That’s all right, darling, I said, it’s an excuse to go back together. And we arrived breathlessly excited just before lunch yesterday, with a ready made eight year old tour guide raring to conduct us round the palace.

The gardens are breathtaking. The yews! They strike delight into any gardener’s soul, these time-worn souls which have been there since the beginning. Early accounts from as far back as 1669 mention the arbours of clipped yew; these days they are huge incongruous mushrooms worthy of an Alice In Wonderland set.

Yew forms the majority of the walls of the maze: though when the good Cardinal Wolsey planted its predecessor,  he chose a deciduous bush called hornbeam. This must have made negotiating the maze in winter jolly easy.

It was William III who had the whole bally lot bulldozed and a nice new design in yew instigated.

So, faced with the entrance of this most ancient of mazes, planted at the end of the 17th century, we had several options.

We could try the ‘wall follower’ algorithm. This entails keeping one hand in contact with the right-hand wall (it works equally well with left hand walls, I am told) as you walk will guarantee you get to the exit.

I think this must be the method used by the motley crew in Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat, who visit the maze on their travels: “We’ll just go in here, so that you can say you’ve been, but it’s very simple,” says one member of the group.”It’s absurd to call it a maze. You keep on taking the first turning to the right. We’ll just walk round for ten minutes, and then go and get some lunch.”

At some point half an hour later one of the party spots a currant bun some unfortunate had dropped on the floor, which everyone recognises from a path they took seven minutes previously.

There’s the ‘pledge’ algorithm: this entails choosing a direction and sticking to it, counting angles when one is drawn off course.

We didn’t have a protractor.

There’s the Hansel and Gretel Tremaux’ method for maze solving: drawing lines along paths one has already taken; but we had no chalk, and in any effect might risk accusations of defacing a priceless national treasure.

They get more and more complicated, these solutions: a depth-first search which works out solutions using the first vertex, a breadth-first search. There’s even the Azkaban solution, which makes decisions into boxes which carry different importances.

We found our perfect solution, though.

It is billed by Wikipedia as “a trivial method that can be implemented by a very unintelligent robot, or perhaps a mouse”

Called the ‘Random Mouse’ method, it involves charging with abandon down a path to see if it goes anywhere. When one meets a dead-end, one thinks: “Well, well, well. A Dead end. I think I’ll turn round and try another route.”

And then one repeats the whole process again ad infinitum, passing sundry currant buns on the way.

This worked perfectly for Maddie and Felix.

We charged around: we followed a few people; I admonished the children to walk, not run and watch other people’s body space; and somehow, after about ten minutes, there we were at the middle of King Billy’s maze.

It did not look historic. It looked a bit tacky, much as I expect the Olympic podia to look this summer. I would have liked a grecian urn, or a treasure box: instead there was a stainless steel monstrosity which declared that we had got to the middle.

Where’s the poetry….

As we walked away from the maze I sensed a certain amount of anticlimax emanating from 21st-century boy. It wasn’t quite what we expected, he admitted. This era bests all the old pleasures for little boys.

Still, he added: there were always Henry VIII’s kitchens to explore.

We cluttered off in their general direction.


41 thoughts on “Amazing

    1. We certainly had huge fun, Tilly, using it 😀 But we have a little friend who is destined to be a top mathematician who would have fun working it out the other way…horses for courses, I guess..

  1. Sounds like the fun is more in the chase than in the catching. I think that we always are more excited about seeking the unknown than actually finding it.

    In any case, Felix has the answer…to the kitchens for crumpets.

    1. Pies, Lou, pies beyond the dreams of avarice. It gave me new pie inspiration: I shall be cooking my pies Henry’s way from now on.

      The Palace was fabulous. Just beautiful: designed to unfold before the eye with untold delights. We had a whale of a time!

    1. As you say, Jim, problem solved: but I’m willing to wager a mathematician or two has stood there, up to his ankles in maze, calculating angles and vertices for all they are worth…

  2. My Felix discovered the maze this past autumn. We have corn mazes a plenty in our area, and he was “in charge” of navigation.

    His favorite part? Finding the same people over and over again. “Look Mama! It’s those people again!” he would exclaim with glee.

    And while we didn’t have King Henry’s kitchens to run to, we have goats to pet and apple cider donuts.

    1. Corn mazes: something completely outside our experience, Cameron! I bet those are brilliant, too, because they really do tower. I love the thought of Felix trumpeting the appearance of other mazers 😀 Goats and apple cider. Nothing better to tempt a small boy out of the maze at closing time.

  3. Since I have difficulty finding my way around the block, I stay out of mazes for fun and sport. tee hee. I’d be wandering still, Kate, though that Hampton kitchen sounds like something to see.

  4. I love the fact that you explored the maze with them Kate – it sounds like a lot of fun, even if getting to the middle was not too great 🙂

  5. My family have always been suckers for mazes, 50% choosing the “wall method” and 50% chosing the “random mouse” method. Great fun 🙂

    Ah I remember Hampton Court. Anyone for real tennis?

    1. The real tennis court was a rum affair, Jan. I don’t know the rules; but when we walked in the guy inside began hurling tennis balls in our direction and the slammed on the protective perspex so that we all jumped! It had a real Alice In Wonderland feel to it 🙂

      1. Ooo-er! Sounds interesting. I have a feeling we looked at it from a viewing gallery. It’s a bit like squash in that you’re allowed to play the balls from some of the walls – so maybe that’s what the guy was demonstrating…? You understand I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here… 🙂

  6. I would have gone for the garden for sure and the “run as fast as you can in one direction then turn around and run back’ is by far my most favourite solution to a maze too! c

  7. I have a little fear of mazes, but like many fears, also a fascination. The closest I’ve ever encountered was a modest corn maze…I have a dreadful sense of direction so I really do fear I’d panic. And I don’t think I would hold onto the algorithm…I’d probably forget! The yews are magnificent and I’m glad you referenced Alice in Wonderland…I can sense that from your description. What a wonderful experience for you all. And I hope you’ll tell us more about the kitchens 🙂 Debra

    1. Kitchens, apartments; the whole thing was just wonderful, Debra. I have avoided an account of the whole trip – perhaps I felt I might become a Hampton bore….but maybe I’ll post a little extra post if I have time, just for information’s sake 🙂

  8. Another one on my to-do list. The only maze I know of locally is one done in wheat, in the Midlands. From the plan, it is very well suited to losing an army or two.

  9. I always forget how close those mazes are until I see pictures. I’ve always thought it would be fun to have moonshine or something similar in the middle, keeping everyone desperately seeking refreshment for most of the day.

  10. LOL, in my part of the world, they do this before the harvest with corn! Ever since David Bowie’s movie, Labyrinth, I’ve always wanted to visit such a maze. Your fun tale took me back to that longing; I’m so bummed that it was more tacky than mythical, sigh ~

  11. Wonderful experience that a great mom is providing her kids Kate! I was there with you with my boys while reading. and then to say, Where’s the poetry? Alas, it is National Poetry month her and perhaps I shall be inspired by a yew hedge.

  12. There is a maze at Blenheim palace and I get lost in it…(turn me around three times and I get lost) it is in the pleasure gardens, which is an interesting mixture of giant chess / draughts / other floor puzzles etc…. and the maze i in two halves… in the middle one climbs a platform to watch those who are struggling and to try to discern the pattern for the exit. Felix may like that?!

    And we have a farm or two locally which grow mazes from maize, one of which we went into for a little jaunt before lunch years ago, and an hour and a half later I had to call for help. The boys were small and fractious. A lady with a tall flag had to come along and show us the way out. Never again!

    Have you read Carol Shields Larry’s Party?

  13. How utterly fascinating, Kate – there’s something rather mystical about hedge mazes – have been in the Enchanted Maze Garden down in Melbourne, which is a lot of fun (well, for a 20th century girl :))
    Who would’ve thought there were all these methods for finding one’s way. I guess, when all else fails, there’s the standing-on-the-shoulders method 😉

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