8:39am Thursday 14th April 2011
By Val Bourne
Rich Victorians loved to amuse themselves and their house guests in their homes and gardens.
They didn’t come much richer — or grander — than William Waldorf Astor (1848-1919) the American owner of Cliveden House, near Taplow, in Berkshire. He designed and built a maze in 1894. However, it fell into disrepair in mid 1900s and was largely forgotten about until The National Trust, which now owns and maintains the Grade I gardens, discovered his original drawings in 2005.
A decision was made to recreate Lord Astor’s maze in almost exactly the same spot and it opened to the public on Friday, April 8, when Alan Titchmarsh and the present Lord Astor did the easy bit and cut the ribbon. But the project had taken two years of precision planning, clearing, levelling and planting.
Andrew Mudge, Cliveden’s head gardener, had the challenge of finding more than 1,000 two-metre high yew trees. They arrived from Holland (the only place they could be found in any quantity) in four 40-foot lorries and each one weighed 60kg. They had enormous root balls and it took three of the gardeners to position each tree into the correct position last October. Twenty days of frantic planting followed. Now the maze looks very settled. It’s possible to sponsor a tree for £150 and several already have brass plaques bearing names.
You can’t see over the top unless you’re really tall, and the hedges are enclosed in metal railings to stop small children (of all ages) from cheating when they lose their way. Eventually the yews will perform an impenetrable barrier. It is possible to peek through now, although it didn’t help me to get to the middle. I encountered lots of dead ends before I finally emerged at the stone plinth bearing an Einstein quote that reads: “The trees ahead and bush beside. You are not lost. Stand still.” Getting out was no easier and it’s surprising how far you can walk once inside.
Lord Astor liked mazes and when he acquired Hever Castle in Kent in 1903 he built another one. He dedicated it to Anne Boleyn, who had lived there. Hever’s maze is still in good shape and it measures 80 feet square. There are almost a quarter-of-a-mile of paths and most people find themselves toing and froing as they meander round.
The NT, which was given Cliveden in 1942, is busy restoring the garden to its 19th-century glory. It is open daily from 10am till 5.30pm and there are informal areas, where children can happily play, as well as grand garden features. The Long Garden is so popular that artificial grass is used on the path between the box parterres. This pink and silver planting scheme was designed by Norah Lindsay, who once lived at Sutton Courtenay. The garden’s archive contains a rare planting plan drawn up by her. Soon it will be reinstated. Grand Roman, Egyptian, Italian and Venetian statuary is positioned around the gardens, but perhaps the high point is the view over The Parterre from the Terrace. The new maze is sure to be a popular addition in this grand garden that caters for all.
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