The Mazes of Minotaur: The Ins and Outs of the Labyrinth Business

First published in Games Magazine

So you’ve decided what the backyard needs: a maze. But designing one is a convoluted task. Where do you turn?

To Minotaur Designs, the world’s only professional landscape maze makers. In the last 10 years, Englishmen Adrian Fisher, Randoll Coate, and Graham Burgess have constructed a dozen walk-through mazes in Britain and Europe for private landowners, public parks, and amusement centers.

The company takes its name from the mythical beast that devoured victims lost in the labyrinth at Crete. But the hedge and brickwork mazes of Minotaur Designs are far less intimidating, built only to entertain and enlighten.

In the process, the trio adds fresh twists to the ancient art. For example, look at their Beatles Maze, built for the 1984 International Garden Festival in the Fab Four’s home city of Liverpool. At the center of the 100-foot maze sat an 18-ton yellow submarine. (The submarine is all that remains of the festival. The rest was demolished when the vent was over.)

To reach the ship, visitors followed a winding brick path across the surface of a pool of water. The sinuous path seems at first to be shaped like an apple, trademark of the Beatles Apple Corps label. A second look, and the path became a pair of ears. Near the center of the maze, visitors had to leave the path to walk on stepping stones in the shape of musical notes.

Equally novel is the Lappa Valley Railway Maze, in Cornwall. It’s shaped like a locomotive of the early 19th century – but eight times as large. Hedges within the maze form a flywheel and interacting cogs. To solve it, walkers must follow the correct sequence of power through the engine, from the pistons, to the connecting rod, to the driving wheel, through the meshing cogs, around the flywheel, and finally to the small driving cog at the engine’s center.

More personal is the garden maze at the home of Alan Scott in the Coltswold Hills. “Scott said he wanted to leave his mark on the land,” says Randoll Coate. “We took him literally, so the maze is in the shape of a giant foot. Actually, it’s a composite. We traced the left foot of each member of the family and merged them.”

“Imprint,” as the maze is called, was planned for the Scott children and so is filled with the shapes of birds, rabbits, frogs, foxes, snakes, and other creatures hidden in the layout of the hedges. For balance, Minotaur added symbols of man, including the alphabet, the elements, the planets, and the signs of the zodiac.

Thrown in for extra measure are allusions to Minoan myths, which are put into each of Minotaur’s mazes, no matter what the theme. “The Minoans were the creators of the labyrinth, after all,” says Coate.

The men of Minotaur are in the forefront of a small boom in mazes, an art form that faltered in the early part of this century. In the last 20 years, through, interest in this elaborate form of landscaping has heightened. Last year, 11 new mazes in Britain alone opened to the public. Six of them were Minotaur creations. Britain now boasts 69 mazes, 54 of which are open to the public. One of these, at the Braemore Countryside Museum in Hampshire, is the winner of the 1984 maze design contest – judged by Minotaur -which attracted 500 entries.

Why the resurgence? “It’s a reflection of the times,” says Adrian Fisher. “People have more leisure time and more money. They want to spend both of them on something unusual, valuable, and tangible. A maze meets all the requirements.”

Coate sees mazes as a picture of our world, resembling the contours of cities, highways, fingerprints, even the coils of the brain. “A maze reflects the complexity, but brings it down to manageable proportions. What else is a microchip by a maze in miniature?”

The mini-craze for mazes also has another, more mundane, cause. Britain is dotted with the estates of landed gentry who – having fallen on hard times – now charge tourists admission to visit their ancestral homes. Some owners boost attendance by building safari parks and theme museums. Others choose mazes, paying from $7,000 for a small garden maze to more than $35,000 for the largest hedge mazes. According to Fisher, the mazes pay for themselves within a year.
Fisher and Coate, the founders of Minotaur, were introduced by a mutual friend in 1979. They are an unlikely pair. Fisher is tall, dark-haired, and lanky – an energetic entrepreneur in his mid-30s. Coate is a small, quiet, white-haired man with the refined manner of a retired diplomat – which he is. What they share is a passion for mazes, which each had pursued alone before joining forces.

Coate’s expertise is in plotting the master design of a maze. He is a trained artist who thinks of maze-making as a return to his earliest interests. “As a small boy, I tried to see how many lines I could get onto paper without any of them crossing.”

His designs have progressed far beyond those simple swirls. A product of traditional British education, Coate drops classical references as casually as most people talk about this season’s TV shows. That learning is reflected in his designs, which are filled with hidden figures, symbols, characters, and scenes from history, mythology, and the Bible.

None of Minotaur’s mazes is totally abstract. “A story is vital,” explains Fisher. “Without a story behind the maze, no one will come to see it.”

But transferring a design to three dimensions can be a challenge. “On paper, some lines take you in a circle,” says Coate. “That doesn’t matter when you’re tracing a path with your finger. But when you are walking a maze, you can’t keep walking in a circle. But then again, if you move one line to eliminate the circle, you lost the whole effect of the symbols.”

That’s where Fisher steps in – to help solve the mathematical aspects of the puzzle. “Each design has a different geometry,” Fisher explains. “Once that’s solved, the design solves itself. By manipulating the junctions, you can take one area of the maze and double the time it takes to complete it, or triple it, or halve it.”

Fisher has developed a computer program that estimates the time it will take to traverse a maze, based on its area and number of junctions. But formulae alone won’t make it work. “When finished,” says Fisher, “the final flavor of the maze should combine geometry and rhythm.”

Not to mention the appropriate greenery. Before any hedge is finished, Guy Burgess is called in. A thin, bearded landscape designer with a serious demeanor, Burgess joined Minotaur in 1983, when the others realized they needed an expert on horticulture.

His biggest challenge so far is the 192-foot long maze at Floors Castle in Roxburgh, Scotland. The complex design delineates the Castle’s history. “The history of the Dukes of Roxburgh has all of the elements of a chess game,” explains Fisher, “so we used chess as the overall theme.”

The hedge is planted in green beech, but specific symbols – chess pieces, the skyline of the castle, the Duke and Duchess’ coat of arms – are traced in red beech.

The most important historical event to occur at the castle is also commemorated. In 1460, James II of Scotland used the country’s first cannon to bombard Roxburgh during a siege. During the assault, the cannon exploded, and the hedge shows the cannon balls and hot metal flying in all directions.

Hedge mazes take as long as eight years to grow and demand constant pruning and attention to retain their shape. That’s a drawback for investors needing a quick return on their money. As a result, most of Minotaur’s commissions are for brickwork mazes. These offer fewer stylistic constraints and can be ready for visitors as soon as the last stone is laid.

Their latest brick maze, built in Bath, reflects the city’s Roman and Georgian Influences. The maze is a symmetrical ellipse with a quarter-mile of stone paths winding through a 70×90-foot area beside the Avon River.

There are two ways to solve it. Go straight ahead at each intersection, and you’ll walk over every pathway once. Or take a shorter route, paradoxically, by turning away from the center at every intersection. Either way takes you to the center, a 15-foot wide mosaic made by Coate from 92,000 pieces of Italian marble. Symbols in the mosaic refer to Bath’s ancient history; the outline of the maze reflects Georgian style, while the paths themselves for a Roman design.

With the exaggerated attention paid to the style and theme of Minotaur’s creations, it isn’t surprising that Fisher believes “mazes are more an art form than a puzzle. With a maze, you are trying to capture the spirit of a place. If we can create a spot where people can lost time and space, then we’ve succeeded.”

Certainly, there’s little doubt that Minotaur will continue to succeed as a business. With admirable foresight, Britain has already declared 1991 to be “The Year of the Maze,” ensuring the continued growth of this art form. “A maze is something you build for a celebration,” says Fisher. “And there are so many opportunities for celebration.”