The Breamore Mizmaze: nature and contemplation

In which I climb a hill and find a labyrinth

It is a beautiful walk to take up to the downs.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest

Towards the end of her book Walking in the New Forest, published in 1934, Joan Begbie sets aside, for a few pages, her long walks through the Forest and turns instead to some of the villages and towns along its western edge. One of these is Breamore (pronounced ‘Bremmer’), a lovely and peaceful village of old houses and green spaces. It has a historically important Saxon church (St. Mary’s) and a fine Elizabethan manor house, originally built in 1583, which was restored after a fire severely damaged the interior in 1856. The Breamore Countryside Museum (with its must-be-visited tearoom) lies near the church. 

The village lies either side of the Salisbury Road, with a nineteenth century mill sitting on the Avon to the east. To the west is Breamore Marsh, an important site for nature that is also a surviving manorial green on which geese and cattle still graze: they were there when Joan visited in the 1930s, and they (or, rather, their descendants) were there when I walked by. Joan clearly liked Breamore, as did I, but she doesn’t linger long before heading up the hill, through woods and downs, to find the Mizmaze (which Joan calls the Miz-Maz). This quiet spot is not in the New Forest National Park, but just inside the edge of Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is at Breamore Mizmaze that we will begin, with an explanation of what a mizmaze is.

Free of the woods you come out on the downs and follow a line of dark yews to a big tree-covered mound, on whose top is a clearing. In the centre of the clearing is the Miz-Maz.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest

It’s a strange word, mizmaze, and especially when a mizmaze is more properly classified as a labyrinth. A maze has crossings and junctions, but a labyrinth follows a single winding path, rather like a coiled rope. The Breamore Mizmaze, a scheduled monument, is one of only eight surviving mediaeval turf mazes in England, and one of only two turf mizmazes. It is thought to be associated with the history of the nearby mediaeval Augustinian Priory of St Michael. The priory site is located about two and a half miles away, north of Breamore Mill. Three mediaeval stone coffins, found when the site was excavated in 1898, were moved to lie beneath the old yew tree in St. Mary’s churchyard in Breamore, and you can still see them there. Otherwise, little of the priory remains, apart from some markings on the land that can be seen from above, and smatterings of building materials turned over by moles as they dig their little earthen hills. 

Base map: © OpenStreetMap contributors. The dotted black line shows the route from Breamore up to the Mizmaze. 1. The Saxon Church of St. Mary’s, well worth a visit before or after climbing to the Mizmaze; 2. The entrance to the Breamore Estate – the gate is opened on to the footpath by pressing a blue button to the right; 3. Breamore House; 4. A lovely Sweet Chestnut with five trunks, presumably coppiced in its past; 5. The field in which I saw a hare. It’s about 1.25 miles from Breamore to the Mizmaze. If the Museum is open, park there (and do get some refreshments in the tea room).

The Breamore Mizmaze is not large, 84 feet in diameter. It was created by cutting into the turf to make the coiling design, exposing the chalky ground, so that the grass turf left in between the cuts becomes a single path, circling inwards to the central mound that is the goal. The design incorporates a Christian cross bisecting eleven concentric rings. 

The design of the Breamore Mizmaze. As I drew this sketch, I realised how the coils of the path fluctuate in their turning, sometimes approaching the edge and sometimes the centre of the labyrinth, before finally arriving at the grassy mound in its middle.

The first written record of the Mizmaze is from 1783, when it was re-cut on the orders of Sir Edward Hulse of Breamore House (the family still own and live there). However, turf mazes are notoriously difficult to date, given the need for maintenance through regular cutting. Here at Breamore, stories of its origin include that it was first cut by bored shepherds or by a former owner of Breamore House. However, it is generally believed that the Mizmaze was originally cut in the twelfth or thirteenth century by Austin canons from the priory, and that they used it for penance; the canons would crawl around the turf path on their knees, stopping to pray and reflect on their sins at various points, in an act of humility and reconciliation with God. It is also a place important to those with a pagan spirituality, who believe mizmazes were created by our long-ago ancestors for rituals and holy days. I found a simple chalk spiral etched in chalk on a tree near the Mizmaze: I wondered if it was the playful work of someone passing by, or perhaps of a modern-day druid paying their respects.

Breamore Mizmaze is surrounded by a grove of yew trees. Whether there were yews there when the canons first cut the maze is not certain, but they belong there now. Visitors are not allowed to walk on the Mizmaze for its protection – it’s surrounded by a low fence – but it is the yews that stand sentinel. I walk slowly round its edge. The even spacing of the spiralling turf and chalk, blessed with wildflowers – dandelions, daisies and violets – is calming. 

An orange-tip male butterfly, resting in the sun near the Mizmaze, showing the distinctive mottling on the underside of its wings. Females lack the orange tip, but share the mottled patterning, which is the best way of distinguishing them from other white butterfly species.

I cannot imagine this as a place of penance. Reflection, yes; joy, definitely. But I do understand how a quiet space such as this leads to thoughts of humility and reconciliation, in my case with the natural world. The clearing surrounded by the spreading yews is full of life, and of quiet resonance. If I were to walk my own small pilgrimage along the winding turf path on this spring morning, my feet would be stepping through soft grass and wildflowers. I would see the pink of herb-robert and a bee-fly nectaring among the white wild strawberry flowers. If the breeze was in the right direction and the sun warm enough, I might catch a honey scent of bluebells from the woods down the hill. Bees would be flying low on humming wings, and an orange-tip butterfly would land on a green leaf and spread its wings to soak in the warmth.

A sea of bluebells in Breamore Wood on the way up to the Mizmaze in early May

I wonder how an Austin canon, performing his penance as he crawled round the Mizmaze, would have felt on a similar spring morning all those years ago. Would he have noticed the daisies and wild strawberry flowers, the bee-fly, the bees and the orange-tip butterfly, and would his soul have been calmed by a scent of bluebells ? Would a delight in the natural world around him have formed a part of his contemplation? I like to think so.

The canons would, I imagine, have walked to the Mizmaze from their priory, over two miles distant across the Avon. Once they reached the Saxon church, the way they would have taken was probably very similar to now; through woodland and then onto the downs above. Now, the path goes by Breamore House (built after the priory was destroyed during the Dissolution), and in May passes through woods resplendent with birdsong and the sight and scent of bluebells. As I walk up the hill on my way to the Mizmaze, spring flowers are beginning to bloom, and I keep a list of the ones I see and recognise, among them bugle and red campion, wood anenome and yellow archangel. There is a wonderful sweet chestnut tree with five trunks. A hare passes by a field gate and stops to stare at me for a second or two before loping off behind the hedge. By the time I get to the gate, it has gone. A ragged small tortoiseshell butterfly, worn after its winter rest, lands on the ground to warm itself, while a fresh orange-tip speeds by. Other walkers point out a bat whizzing backwards and forwards in flight despite the broad daylight (the night before had been very windy, so the poor creature was probably making up for lost feeding opportunities).

Clockwise from top left: Buttercup sp., Greater Stitchwort, Ivy-leaved Toadflax, Red Campion, Cowslip, Common Dog-violet, Bluebells

The mediaeval canons, too, would have seen much of this as they walked up the hill to the Mizmaze in the season of spring. In fact, they would have seen far more, in those days when nature and wildlife were so much richer and more plentiful in Britain. It surely must have brought them joy. 

Today, we also have to reach the Mizmaze on foot from the bottom of the hill, on our own pilgrimage of sorts. I wonder if the land still feels the Austin canons’ steps as it now feels ours, and those of all the others that have walked this journey, whether for interest, for penance, for belief, or simply to feel the wind of the downs on their faces and stand in contemplation and contentment by the Mizmaze, with the flowers, bees and birds for companionship.

I think of the moles digging up the crumbling stones of the old priory. We all leave traces, of one sort or another.

Joan Begbie would have liked the story of the moles. After leaving Breamore, she goes on to visit Rockbourne, but I’m off back down the hill, to my car and home, refreshed and content. 

If you want to find out more about visiting Breamore, then you could start at the Parish Council website. Breamore House has its own website, which also covers the Countryside Museum (please check opening details amid COVID restrictions). An article, English Turf Labyrinths by Jeff Saward, gives some background to turf mazes/labyrinths in Britain, including a short section on the Breamore Mizmaze.

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