The origins of labyrinths are unknown; their invention has been attributed by Greek mythology to Daedalus and by other sources to King Solomon. Carvings of labyrinths have been found on petroglyphs in the Caucasus and on a tomb in Sardinia dating to as early as 2500 BC; however it is not yet known where these designs originated or what they symbolised, the most often suggested theory is that they may have been based on cosmological observations.
The obvious design potential of labyrinths has lent itself to many decorative purposes for thousands of years. Its adaptability and dynamic nature and the many examples of labyrinths set in natural landscape inspired their use in formal garden designs particularly in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. However, in their transition into a decorative and amusing garden design, their metaphysical and ideological meanings were diluted, and their design often became confused with mazes. In a maze there are many intersecting paths and blind alleys purposely arranged to confuse the walker as opposed to in a labyrinth in which there is only one path leading to the centre and back out again.
The mazes incorporated into garden design were often enclosed with hedges or with herbaceous borders and frequently surrounded a building or folly forming a central feature. The interest in formal labyrinthine and maze garden designs waned towards the second half of the 18th century and many disappeared under the new fashion for less formal and contrived gardens.
There were several reasons for the decision to incorporate a labyrinth into the gardens at Holker. Firstly a curiosity about Labyrinths, their uses, their origins and their symbolism. They are of particular interest in the fact that they emerge from the mists of ancient history to find universal interpretation. From early mythology to the present day they have been used in a myriad of different ways varying from dance tradition to magic, from battle formations to fertility rites and they have been incorporated in various forms into all major world religions. Their designs are interesting and aesthetically pleasing and it was felt that by incorporating a labyrinth into the wild flower meadow it could act as a link between the formal gardens at Holker, the parkland and the natural landscape beyond. It was important to site it in a position that was peaceful; neither too exposed nor enclosed, so it is set against a backdrop of the gardens and ancient parkland trees with views of the lake hills and, in winter, glimpses of the bay.
To construct a labyrinth involves complicated and meticulous calculations and the designer Jim Buchanan, who has designed labyrinths in many different countries, was commissioned to help with the Holker labyrinth. He worked together with Grania Cavendish in planning the layout which was inspired by a design taken from a Hindu temple in northern India with the addition of a slightly raised asymmetrical centre and the twelve slate monoliths which echo the Cumbrian tradition of stone circles.
As with so much at Holker, local materials have been utilised; in this case, the slate monoliths, the stone seats and the dressing on the pathways come from Cumbrian quarries that remain an important part of the family business.
Labyrinths are of enormous interest and can be interpreted and used in innumerable different ways. With the increasing number of visitors to Holker we wanted to create an addition to the gardens that would provide a peaceful place for reflection, that would be aesthetically pleasing and of interest and curiosity to as wide a range of our visitors as possible. It is also hoped that visitors who take time to walk the labyrinth will benefit from, and enjoy their experience.