TLS Members e-Newsletter

Members eNewsletter
At least four times a year, TLS members are rewarded at their inboxes with a copy of the Labyrinth Society e-newsletter. It serves as a means of direct communication with the membership and provides an historical record of the Society.

Interview with Jeff Saward: Scholar, Explorer, Renaissance Man

Vanessa Compton (VC): Today I am interviewing Jeff Saward (JS), now an Honorary Lifetime member of The Labyrinth Society, serving on the Board of Directors for three years before taking on the invention, development, and day-to-day maintenance of the World Wide Labyrinth Locator (WWLL). He publishes both Labyrinth Pathways and Caerdroia and is featured on the TLS DVD in the History segment.  He is known worldwide as a master labyrinth historian. Welcome Jeff! 

VC: You’ve said that 1976 marked your first encounter with the labyrinth. Where was that?

JS: Living in England, you know about hedge mazes, because there are quite a few of them. Hampton Court and others are well known. As a child, family holidays were always spent visiting old stone circles and climbing over ruined castles and other historic monuments, and visiting stately homes and gardens. In April 1976, I was at an astronomy conference in Winchester, and one afternoon we had free time, so we went on a hike from the college where we were based up to the top of St Catherine’s Hill, which you could see from the college, with a big clump of trees at the top. On the very top of St Catherine’s Hill is the Mizmaze, a turf labyrinth cut into the ground. I walked around this thing, thinking, “This is obviously a maze, because I know what mazes look like. But, this isn’t a maze, because it doesn’t have hedges and it’s cut into the ground, and you can’t get lost in it."

Description: Jeff at Winchester Mizmaze 1976Saward at Winchester Mizmaze 76
Jeff Saward at Winchester Mizmaze 1976. Photo courtesy J.Saward

When I went back down through the town, I called at the tourist information and the library and the museum and made some enquiries about this thing up on the top of the hill. Everybody just sort of said, “Well, it’s the old Mizmaze.” “Well yeah, but what IS it?” I asked. And no one could actually answer that question! Over the next few months I started reading up about this, and bear in mind this was back in the mid-70s when there really wasn’t very much published information on the subject.

VC: There was Janet Bord’s book, was there not?

JS: That was actually published that same year, 1976, and was not available at that time. The only book that was available when I first started to search for information was Matthews. It was originally published in 1922 and the reprint that Dover produced in paperback in 1970 was available, so I soon tracked down a copy of that. There I learned not only about this maze at Winchester but also the fact that there were more of these things, scattered around the country.

VC: And that was before internet, unless you were in the scientific community.

JS: This was back in the days when, if you wanted to know about something obscure, you went to your local library and asked the librarian if they had any books on the subject, and then you would order those books, and maybe several weeks or months later you would get a little card in the post to say that the book you had ordered had arrived. It was a very different time, back then. I got a copy of Matthews, and that kind of fired up my imagination, and I thought, “I want to see more of these things.”

I studied chemistry and astronomy, but I went on to be a chemist, because frankly, it paid a whole lot better than astronomy! With a keen interest in organic chemistry, I ended up working in the oil industry for nearly 25 years, because back in the 70s North Sea oil was a big employer in town. This gave me the time and the wherewithal to go looking for labyrinths. When you worked shifts in the oil industry, you worked long hours and shift cycles, but you’d also get big blocks of time off. That’s why I did it for the best part of 25 years!

From 1976 onwards, I travelled round looking for those old turf mazes – we call them turf labyrinths now because we are pedantic, but back in those days they were called turf mazes – and I still think of them as turf mazes, as that’s what they’re traditionally called here. But first you had to find them! There’s a description in a book that says “on a hill top” or “it’s so many miles from such and such.” Some of them are not easy to find! If they’re not marked on good quality maps…there was no Google Earth or any of that kind of technology in those days. You actually had to go knocking on doors and get directions to find them. No GPS, none of that stuff.

Over the course of visiting all these places I gathered quite a lot of information from talking to local people, the landowners and so-forth. Some of that material, I thought, “this isn’t published in any of the books.” So in 1979 I produced a little booklet about turf mazes and had 200 copies printed at the local printers and they sold out within months. Then I had all these people writing to me saying, “Oh, did you know about the one that used to be at… and did you know about this and did you know about that?” so early in 1980 I started a little newsletter to keep all of those people who wrote to me in contact with each other, to share that information. And that was the first edition of what is now the journal Caerdroia. That was 36 years ago now. And 40 years in April when I first started on this quest.

The first 30 copies of the newsletter went out to the people who had written back to me as a consequence of the little booklet I’d published. Initially these were mostly in the UK. Very soon I contacted Nigel Pennick, who’d been publishing his own booklets on the same subject. Adrian Fisher was also starting his maze-building career at the same time. Within a few years I had made contact with fellow researchers elsewhere in Europe, particularly John Kraft in Sweden, Jorgen Thordrup in Denmark and with Hermann Kern, whose book was published in 1982, a major milestone at that time, this great big book, all in German.

I met Kern when he was in London in 1983, at dinner at the house of the late Randoll Coate, well-known maze-designer and former British diplomat. A conversation that took place that evening was one of the things that really set me on my path. At the time, there was this big question about the turf labyrinths in Germany. We knew about them, because there was documentation, old articles, but as far as anyone knew, they’d all been destroyed. There were a couple of items that suggested that maybe they still existed, but the problem was, of course, that back then, 1983, we’re talking about the height of the Cold War. These turf labyrinths that possibly still survived were the wrong side of the border, in East Germany.

I asked Hermann Kern, “These turf labyrinths in Germany, do they still survive?” and he said to me basically, “No no, they’re all destroyed. Nothing’s been written about them for many years. They’ve all gone.” And I said, “But what about these articles, in East German newspapers?” “Oh, that’s just propaganda.” He was West German, living in Munich, only a couple of hours drive away from where the labyrinths were, but of course there was this enormous line drawn on a map that separated them. So he didn’t know they were there – you couldn’t get East German publications in West Germany.

VC: How had you seen these articles?

JS: In a roundabout way… a friend in Cambridge had got some photocopies of East German newspapers which were some years old, but suggested that these labyrinths still existed. So I said to Herman, “Well, I’m thinking of going over to East Germany to see if I can find any of these turf labyrinths.” He said to me, “Oh, you’re wasting your time.” A couple of months later I did go to East Germany , which was extremely difficult in those days. It involved being interviewed by a uniformed officer of the East German military in order to get a visa to go. But I managed to go, and despite being tracked by the Stasi and things like that, we went to those villages and found the turf labyrinths in East Germany. We were the first Westerners to have been there since the Partition. It was a very strange time back then, 1983, the Ronald Reagan era, the height of that whole East-West paranoia, Cold War thing.

That taught me, if nothing else, of the politics of Europe at the time, and that you can’t take anybody’s word for it. The only way to be sure is to go and take a look at it yourself. And that really became my “mission mantra” for the research for this subject. You can read all you like about these things, but you’re just reading someone else’s opinion. The only way you can be sure is to go take a look. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. Go there, visit them, take the photographs, document what you find.

VC: You got a lot out of talking to people, getting local context and history?

JS: Yes, because quite often you go to these remote locations and villages, and speak to the landowner, the villagers, and you can gather first-hand information. Some of it might not seem too important at the time, but as the years go by and those people die, then suddenly that information becomes very valuable material indeed.

For example the Troy Farm turf maze at Somerton, here in the UK, I met the owners a number of times over the years, just calling in to see the turf maze there. They had gathered together a large collection of information about the turf maze at Somerton, including all the correspondence they’d had from visitors over the years, and when they sold the farm, I was given that pile of correspondence and notes to catalogue some years later, so I had the chance to see all of those letters from various people, including myself! But in amongst all that paperwork were old photos and little bits of information that people had given to the owners, about their maze and others. They had gathered and collected that stuff in just the same way I had, so to get the chance to go and look through all these things, you can find little snippets of information that you can put together – it’s like having a jigsaw puzzle where you have all the pieces but you don’t have the lid for the box! You have a rough idea of what the puzzle might gather to form from looking at some pieces, but until you’ve got most of the pieces on the table, it’s very difficult to see the whole picture.

Description: Early Ferré and Saward at Waycross 2015. Photo: L.HowlettFerré and Saward early days. Photo Howlett
Robert Ferré reminiscing on early adventures with Jeff Saward,
Waycross 2015. Photo: L. Howlett

I’ve worked with all these people over the years who have been doing their own research: Hermann Kern, the Scandinavians, and others elsewhere around Europe. When you first start getting interested in this subject, you’re only really seeing one dimension of it. It’s the beauty of playing this game for so long, you finally get the opportunity to take a step back and see how things have developed. I consider myself fortunate to be in a position where I can look at how the modern labyrinth revival has developed over the last 40 years, because essentially I came in on that subject right at the very beginning. It’s a complicated situation because being involved in the subject you can’t help but influence it and a good scientist of course always steps back and tries not to interfere with how things develop. But it’s a privileged position to be able to just sit one row back and watch what’s happening. And also then compare what has happened with the development of labyrinths over this last 40 years with what may have happened in episodes of labyrinth time in the past.

VC: Always bearing in mind how much modern information technology has changed how we know things and learn.

JS: And how quickly modern labyrinth development has happened as a result of that technology. But it also allows you to look back at previous episodes and think, “What was the driving force there?” Quite often when you look back, there are technologies involved. So look back at the interesting labyrinths in the 15th, 16th, 17th centuries, a period when there were lots of labyrinths being built, and you realise that the mechanism, the vehicle, that was allowing labyrinths to spread and develop then was the invention of printing. For the first time there were books that could be put on a cart and taken to the next town or the next country to spread ideas rapidly. Then there was a lot of interest in labyrinths in the late 19th century, and once again it was books that were the driving mechanism, but essentially it was the spread of education, and the consequential mass production of books, the mechanisation of printing, that made that information available. The spread of education that meant there were public libraries where you could go look these things up, you didn’t have to be some wealthy landowner to be able to afford to buy books.

Having watched this for 40 years you can start to pick out those “aha!” moments where you can look at things that happened and think, “Yes, that makes sense now” even if at the time you don’t see it.

VC: An instance of “I used to think… but now I know”…?

JS: Some of that. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing. For instance, in 1991 we had the “Year of the Maze” here in the UK [to mark the 300th anniversary of the creation of the famous hedge maze at Hampton Court Palace], a tourism theme being promoted that year, where lots of mazes got lots of publicity. There were new mazes built, but also old mazes being restored. At the time I thought it would just be the UK Tourist Board having a bit of fun, but it actually generated considerable interest, and therefore a number of books were published on the subject. Some came out in 1990, others in early 1991, all to coincide with this Year of the Maze. Nigel Pennick and Adrian Fisher had books out, there were a number of small booklets, guide books, and Sig Lonegren’s book was published. I’d known Sig for many years, so I created many of the illustrations for his book. And Sig’s book turned out to be extremely influential – it’s still in print to this day. How many people have read it? Hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands of copies have been sold.

VC:  I think of the labyrinth revival as having two roots: one was the earth energy/dowser root and the other was the church-based root. Would you comment on that?

JS: Then of course here in Europe you have the historical/archaeological root as well. If you look at Scandinavia, for instance, there are lots of new stone labyrinths that have been built. You can see the roots of it in the 60s and early 70s, and it’s the historical influence that’s created lots of copies and replicas and restorations. That applies to the UK as well, because of the old turf labyrinths. It’s even true with some of the labyrinths in churches in Europe, the pavement labyrinth that was put in Cologne Cathedral in the 1970s, that’s based on the medieval labyrinths.

I think there are three strands to it. One of those is the artistic thread: you’ve got artists that are working with labyrinths, with the symbolism of the labyrinth, and that generates interest, in this modern labyrinth revival. You’ve got the spiritual aspect of it – and that ranges from the High Church spiritual through to the earth mysteries, dowsing, New Age – they’re just different ends of the same spectrum. And you’ve also got this historical thread as well. Those are the three main lines of influence and interest in the modern revival. You can see their hands at work. They tend to take their influences from different directions, particularly in the spiritual section. The Church tends to take the Medieval cathedral labyrinths as their inspiration, whereas the New Age dowser-y crowd prefer the Classical labyrinth – they’re a more kind of elemental form of labyrinth and not quite so tied up with that Medieval Christian heritage. Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate those things at the time; they’re the things you can only see when you take that step back and look at the bigger picture.

If you go back to the final day of 1991, when they laid a canvas labyrinth in Grace Cathedral, who would have thought that day, or even the week after, when they got some coverage in the local newspapers in San Francisco, that that one event would have such far reaching consequences for the revival of labyrinths? It’s the fact that we can look back and see those little points, those things that happened, that labyrinth that that became so influential, that what allows you to make sense of what’s happening. You really can’t see those things when you’re there in the moment.

VC: You’ve been at it for a while – do you get a sense of “Oh, this might be significant”?

JS: Sometimes you do, but I’d wager that just as often you’re wrong. What makes that thing significant is out of your hands. It depends on how the public or the users react to it. People write to me and say, “Our labyrinth has become overgrown or has been destroyed or the city’s torn it up – what a great disaster this is!” “The end of the world as we know it,” to quote REM. But the reality is that labyrinths come and go all the time. When you look back at episodes from the past, at any one particular geographic location, where a number of labyrinths have been built, only a handful of those will have survived. Some survive because they are well-built, well-designed, and in the right place, and others survive quite by chance, because somebody has bothered to look after them. I don’t know if there’s any real way to know at the time or in advance which ones they are going to be. You can hazard a guess, but sometimes it’s a real surprise which ones actually make it. Influences are beyond anyone’s control. Sometimes it’s just good luck.

VC: That’s a good point because labyrinth keepers worry about such things. I remember one of Lauren Artress’ teachings, her saying, “Give a lonely labyrinth some care in your heart.” I wondered what that really means. Is it just one person plugging away until the committee gathers around him or her, or maybe that labyrinth just really is in the wrong place, whatever that means.

JS: Sometimes, with the best will in the world, you can inadvertently build your labyrinth at the end of a large construction site, with a freeway heading towards it. Other times you look at how a small labyrinth somewhere has become part of the culture of a location. Look at the turf labyrinths here in England for instance, and the fact that something as ephemeral as a turf labyrinth, which is just a trench dug in the ground, can survive for three and four hundred years because it becomes a symbol of the identity of that village, and that village collectively cares for and repairs that monument. Why is that? I don’t think you can put your finger on it, it just does! It’s quite a miracle that it does at times, but among these groups of labyrinths, there’s always that percentage that survive, just by good fortune sometimes.

VC: I suppose we’re trying to identify those factors, so we know our efforts are not wasted, but perhaps you wouldn’t use those words at all. You might say “waste” is just a judgemental term that has nothing to do with how humans unfold in their culture.

JS: You never know. It’s difficult to define why one labyrinth survives and another doesn’t. Sometimes it is good placement. Those that are placed in the floors of the cathedrals should stand a reasonable chance of surviving, but if tastes change and someone decides that a pretty decoration on the floor is a distraction, then they rip the floors up and put in plain flat marble.

VC: Could you say there’s a whole other field of study about why these things survive? Sounds like your interest has been that they survive, and here’s where they came from, which would be an historical or archaeological interest. I’m trying to pin down your scientific perspective here. Can you comment on that?

JS: That interest in cataloguing and recording labyrinths was a logical step for me. Yes, you could get philosophical about the meaning of them and what’s happening to them, but much of my work over the years has been scientific, with a small ‘s’ at any rate. It’s been about documentation, because when you look back at the history of labyrinths, most of the big things that we don’t know are due to a lack of documentation. Look at the labyrinths in the cathedrals in the Medieval period. Some of the labyrinths have survived, others we know were there, plans and diagrams and things, but at the time, nobody bothered to write down what they were being used for! Consequently, we don’t know. So for us now, to document and record is a very important task, something that we have to do for future researchers.

VC: So that brings us to the very interesting subject of what’s next for you? Your wish list?

JS: Good question! Having been working on this for 40 years, there are groups of labyrinths that still need further work done on them. I’ve been working particularly in the last few years with some of my colleagues up in Scandinavia, to start documenting and publishing some of the current thoughts on the history and use of labyrinths in the far north of Europe. We’re at a very important time in that study. There have been some papers published, there are some books coming out, there are a few conferences planned. We might be at a point where finally an understanding of the purpose of the labyrinths in the far north of Europe, and some sense of their age and their history can be firmly established. To be a part of that process…it doesn’t provide closure, because all you’re ever doing is putting forth theories, but when you get to that point, when it finally seems to make sense of lots of disparate traditions and ideas that surround this large group of labyrinths in the north of Europe – that feels good!

Another project I want to do at some stage is to finally publish a catalogue of all of the labyrinths here in the British Isles, all the historical examples, because there’s been so much speculative material written about those over the years. There’s actually a lot of good information; it’s just a matter of pulling it all together and writing it all up.

The future years are really to summarise all the work I’ve done, and start to finally produce some publications. With the internet now it’s not too difficult to put that material onto a website and make it widely available. To finally gather together some conclusions for all the work I’ve been doing…and carry on watching! Labyrinths don’t just sort of quit, you know, they’ve been around for 4000 years or so. To have been sitting and watching for 40 out of those 4000 years – what’s that, 1%? – might not sound like much, but it’s still a good position to be in: to be able to take that view, to have that perspective where you are standing back from it, after all those years.

VC: Well, I know you have other interests that you have followed extensively: just to see your collections of fossils in the display cabinets at your home is astonishing. Can you comment on those interests, and whether there’s a relation between them?

JS: It’s another one of those childhood obsessions. When we were kids, we were often at the seaside, poking around and picking up stones on the beach, and those stones contained fossils, particularly down along the south coast of England. Many years ago, more than 25 years, what had been a childhood interest became a slightly more scientific interest: fossil collecting, particularly here on the Essex coastline. There are a number of outcrops that are not at all well-known and at that time, quite poorly documented, so I started collecting the fossils with a few friends and we’ve been carrying on that work ever since. As a consequence, I have written a number of scientific papers particularly on fossil crustaceans and named four new species of fossil crabs and lobsters.

It’s an extreme kind of fossil collecting – some people go out for walk, others go sit on beaches – but I go walk the tidal mudflats on the lowest tides of the year, picking up the fossils. It’s what I do to get away from the world, don the waterproofs, headphones on, hood up, go out in the nastiest weather; I’ve very rarely seen anyone in those kinds of places when I’m out there. So that has run as a parallel interest and I am quite well known within that subject as well.

VC: It speaks to me of keeping the focus on a topic, and going really deeply within it. How you are about crustaceans, you are about labyrinths.

JS: Yes, it boils down to that notion of, if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. If you’re going to get interested in a subject, do it properly. Learn something from it, and pass that learning on to others. The publication of the journal, 36 years now, from what started out as a little newsletter to keep a handful of people in contact with each other, grew over the years into something more magazine-y and then developed into more of an academic journal, as the knowledge of the subject, and the need to gather and publish that knowledge has developed over the years. That has been a guiding principle… it’s all very well to find out about these things, but you need to share the information. Otherwise that information can easily die with you!

VC: We’re getting here into the area of your legacy, eh Jeff? What form did you want it to take?

JS: We all have to face that. All of the publications I’ve produced over the years, there are copies of them lodged in various copyright libraries. There’s a full set in Cornell University in America, two sets here, in the British Library and Cambridge University, also a couple of sets in a museums in Scandinavia as well; so that’s been lodged, and I’ve written a couple of books myself, edited a number of books for other authors, and of course working on the English translation of Kern was an important piece of work. At the time it seemed like just a fun project, but with hindsight you realise just how important a piece of work that was.

VC: That’s everybody’s go-to must-have source.

JS: It is THE source of information, but now it’s getting out of date – the original book was written 35 years ago, and even the English language edition is 15 years out of date!

VC: I remember throwing my money down to support the translation.

JS: Yes, that was 2000. To have been the historical editor for that book, with hindsight, was one of the more important things I’ve done. At the time it was a pain to deal with the endless emails, the complicated translation, and the corruption of the files, because this was back in the fairly early days of internet, more than 15 years ago, so we were plagued with incompatible file formats and the different language versions of Word.

VC: We’ve talked a bit about your projects, but where would you like to see the labyrinth field go? Where would you tell your students to look? What are you curious about?

JS: India! The Indian sub-continent has an incredible legacy of labyrinths, and we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface. There are many old labyrinths which have not previously been reported, being discovered at an increasing rate. There’s a lot of information to be found there. The question of how labyrinths got to India and when, is unknown. We do not know the answers to that one. It’s the next frontier. Much of the material in Europe, which a generation ago was all very coloured by romantic images of what labyrinths were, and all kinds of rather dodgy theories, we’ve kind of made sense of a lot of that material. It’s the same with the American labyrinth tradition, down in the American southwest. That’s much better understood now than it was a generation ago. But the Indian sub-continent—there are labyrinths from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, and all the way down into Sumatra and Indonesia. How and when those labyrinths got there is very poorly understood and that really is the big frontier, to work that one out.

VC: A quest that makes life worth living! Jeff, I want to thank you for taking the time to share your stories with us today. This has been fascinating!