Stand still. The trees ahead and bush beside you are not lost.’ Wise words, Einstein – though not overly helpful. I weaved, dead-ended and backtracked among the yews of Cliveden maze. I found the plinth – engraved with Albert’s wise words – in its centre (success!). But how exactly do I get out again?
Lost and found
I felt no shame in being lost – the maze itself has been lost for years. The Grade I listed gardens at this elegant Buckinghamshire estate, perched on a hilltop above the Thames, were begun in 1680.
But it was in 1894 that Lord Astor, then-owner of Cliveden, sketched out and created a labyrinth here. It wasn’t maintained and was soon forgotten until Astor’s original plans were found in 2005. With the help of painstaking research and 1,100 yew trees – aptly the tree of immortality and regeneration – the maze has been reborn.
Opened in April, this historic plant-puzzle already looks good, and suitably impenetrable. Even Head Gardener Andrew Mudge, who dug out the foundations, got lost inside after the trees were planted. There’s no ‘quick exit’ route for cheaters, something Andrew felt strongly about: “Getting lost, having fun – it’s the whole point!” And it hasn’t been mapped by Google Earth, so you can’t get help from your snazzy smart phone.
There are a few clues though. People can sponsor the yews (£150 a pop), which are then marked with a brass name plaque – when I’d walked past ‘George Greenhill’ for the third time, I knew I was in trouble…
The maze is just one bloom in Cliveden’s bunch. The house is now a grand hotel, which you can have a tour of the interior on certain days, but the grounds are owned by the National Trust. They are a super sprawl of wildflower meadows and gardens-within-gardens, reflecting horticultural highpoints from throughout the estate’s history.
The Water Garden is fun, centred around a carp-filled pond, but I liked the Long Garden best: its Italianate styling has beautiful beds (this summer be dazzled by swathes of Verbena rigida), fakery (the main avenue is artificial grass, to withstand the frequent footfall) and antiquity – two unique, granite, 2,000-year-old Egyptian baboons.
The star attraction, though – topping the opulent seashell fountain, secreted follies, Roman sarcophagi and Thames views – is the parterre. This formal geometric garden is planted to the same design and with the same flower types as it was in the 18th century. Far more than a patch of pretty flowers, as Andrew noted, “Cliveden is conservation in action.”
How to get there
Leave M4 (exit 7) onto A4 or M40 (exit 4) onto A404 and follow signs for Cliveden. The nearest train station is Taplow (2.5 miles).
Find out more
Garden admission: £9/4.50 Adult/Child, Feb-Oct (£6/3 Nov-Dec). Open 10am-5.30pm.
Disabled access: shuttles run a circular route in the garden. The maze is wheelchair accessible.
Cliveden, Taplow, Buckinghamshire SL6 0JA
Eat dishes with historic links to Cliveden in the former glasshouse, using seasonal ingredients from the gardens.
The Olde Bell
High St, Hurley, Berkshire
Parts of this coaching inn date to 1135. Rooms have been revamped with cool decor, sink-in mattresses and a period style.