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.