Playful private mazes made by a master of illusion

Adrian Fisher is the go-to man for mazes, his playful labyrinthine designs gracing many of the world's most magnificent private and public spaces. Clive Aslet meets a master of illusion

Adrian Fisher in a Magical Mystery Mirror Maze he designed in San Diego, California
Adrian Fisher in a Magical Mystery Mirror Maze he designed in San Diego, California

It’s a crisp winter day when I arrive to meet Adrian Fisher at his house in Dorset, grass still hard with frost. A limb has been torn from the cedar tree in a recent storm. But it’s not quite as cold as it was earlier in the day, and just as well: it would have grounded the drone. Fisher is impatient to show me this piece of kit, now an essential adjunct of his business and creative life. For Fisher designs mazes. You can explore them by foot, get lost in them, hide around corners in them and say boo to your friends – but until recently only a balloonist or passing bird could appreciate them fully. Drones now provide an eye in the sky.

The 19th-century wrought-iron spiral staircase inside Adrian Fisher’s maze at his home in Dorset
The 19th-century wrought-iron spiral staircase inside Adrian Fisher’s maze at his home in Dorset

The drone whirrs, hovers alarmingly at head height, and Fisher catches it in his hand. It will be launched from the tower (main picture) in the middle of Fisher’s own small maze. Fisher has made mirror mazes, water mazes, mosaic mazes, paving mazes… A client has recently asked him to make a maze out of balloons. “It’s not such a bad idea,” he admits, as he marches confidently into his own labyrinth. “You can make walls of the balloons and light them – you can light through them. You can put them under a tent. In fact,” he says, warming to the theme, “you could project the light show onto the roof of the tent and play music inside.”

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His own maze, built 10 years ago, is of traditional yew, like the famous maze at Hampton Court Palace from which Harris and his cousin had to be rescued in Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. In the centre is an octagonal brick tower. “There’s a remarkable thing about this tower,” Fisher tells me, as he opens the Tudor-style door. “It doesn’t have any windows.”

The tower at the heart of Adrian Fisher’s octagonal yew-hedge maze at his home in Dorset
The tower at the heart of Adrian Fisher’s octagonal yew-hedge maze at his home in Dorset

Instead, there’s a wash of artificial light that eerily changes colour – from green, to orange, to blue. But that is soon eclipsed by a flood of natural light from above, as Fisher energetically cranks a handle and the lid-like roof rises up. We spiral up the 19th-century wrought-iron staircase that Fisher found in an architectural salvage yard and emerge on the battlements. We may only be 5m from the ground but it feels like the top of the world. The drone is released. On the control screen we see the maze, we glimpse ourselves, we take a tour of the surrounding landscape, we peer into the branches of the damaged cedar tree – Fisher is enraptured with his new toy. It’s easy to see why he is this century’s most prolific maze maker – “no other company has built anywhere near as many”. He loves ingenuity, and he has the capacity for wonder that more workaday types lose as they leave childhood.

The gate of a Fisher-designed cricket-themed willow hedge maze in Hampshire that reflects the owner’s love of cricket
The gate of a Fisher-designed cricket-themed willow hedge maze in Hampshire that reflects the owner’s love of cricket

Recent private commissions have included a Hampshire hedge maze, made out of willow, for a peer and retired banker who is mad about cricket. A Mars rather than Venus project, the design (when seen from above) depicts a cricket ball smashing the stumps, sending the bails flying. The theme is repeated in the gate. Ten miles outside Mexico City, an industrialist asked Fisher to create a puzzling hedge maze for the younger members of the family. “He especially wanted a 3D puzzle, and had manufacturing resources to build three towers and several bridges.” In Connecticut, a Contemplative Labyrinth was commissioned as a private memorial to a beloved son who died suddenly at the age of 26 from a viral infection. “The labyrinth is a circular continuous path that leads to the Tree of Life mosaic at the centre. The maze was positioned within a peaceful place in his garden surrounded by tall trees.”

A private hedge maze created for an industrialist just outside Mexico City includes a 3D puzzle, three towers, several bridges and a gazebo
A private hedge maze created for an industrialist just outside Mexico City includes a 3D puzzle, three towers, several bridges and a gazebo

Mazes have fascinated – sometimes baffled – the human imagination since the earliest of ages. The Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhat III built one for sacred crocodiles in the early second millennium BC. Herodotus considered its forest of pillars, only to be safely penetrated with the help of a guide – “greater than the pyramids”. Daedalus, mythical pin-up boy of all maze makers, supposedly created the labyrinth for King Minos on Crete around 1600 BC. It contained the Minotaur, a monster that was half man and half bull, slain by Theseus with the help of Minos’s daughter and a ball of thread. The word labyrinth is thought to derive from labrys, which described a double-headed axe from Crete (but later used throughout the ancient world) that may have had an association with sacrifices. Mazes retained a religious meaning into the Middle Ages when they were built into the walls and floors of churches. Floor mazes may have been completed by penitents on their knees. Turf mazes – the “quaint mazes in the wanton green” mentioned by Titania in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – were used in rustic games, of the kind banned by puritans and reinstated at the Restoration: hence, perhaps, the date of 1660 on the sundial in the middle of the turf maze at Hilton in Cambridgeshire.

The gazebo of the private hedge maze created for an industrialist just outside Mexico City
The gazebo of the private hedge maze created for an industrialist just outside Mexico City

In his office or “man cave”, Fisher begins to tell me how he found his way into his unusual career: a country childhood as the son of a doctor in the village of Throop outside Bournemouth; the maze that he planted in his parents’ garden… when, like a less colourfully dressed Willy Wonka, he abruptly changes the subject. “By the way, look at this.” He has rushed to his Phantom 4 drone. He’s talking about battery life, the three-way gimbal that holds it in position at heights of 120m and the memory card that he has just removed. “Now, this is the exciting bit,” he says, putting the card in a reader. “Where did we go?” The next 10 minutes are spent reliving our drone flight on the computer screen. He then Skype-calls project managers in Minorca and Buckinghamshire to demonstrate that the process of designing mazes takes place – appropriately enough for a thing of fantasy and imagination – in a virtual reality, shared by collaborators in many countries. The computer desktop displays over a dozen clocks, so that Fisher can keep up to speed with the different time zones in which he and his team are working.

The private willow hedge maze in Hampshire in the shape of a cricket ball smashing the stumps
The private willow hedge maze in Hampshire in the shape of a cricket ball smashing the stumps

Eventually I establish that Fisher began his professional life by working with Randoll Coate. Coate, who died in 2005 at the age of 96, started to design mazes in a fit of typically left-field originality after he had retired from the diplomatic service: a path he had taken after a wartime career spent interrogating enemy officers, capturing some of them during a daring commando raid on Norway and assisting Greek partisans (“everything about Randoll was colourful”). Coate’s first maze was built for his brother-in-law, the screenwriter Allan Shiach (who wrote Don’t Look Now): it took the form of a footprint, on a cramped site beside the old mill that Shiach had recently bought; one toe of the foot formed a small island in the adjacent river. This was followed by mazes at the Château de Beloeil in Belgium, Värmlands Säby in Sweden and the Archbishop’s Maze at Greys Court, Oxfordshire, laid in brick paths and inspired by a dream that Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, mentioned in his enthronement address.

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In 1984, Fisher, with the writer and gardener Graham Burgess, helped Coate design a Beatles maze for the International Garden Festival in Liverpool, at the centre of which was a yellow submarine. Not one but two mazes were bestowed on Longleat House, as was only appropriate given the flamboyant Marquess of Bath’s alternative lifestyle. They are modelled after the sun and moon. A military carving by Grinling Gibbons provided the theme for a maze at Blenheim, while the origin of the Fruit Tree Maze at Combermere Abbey in Shropshire was the walled garden. It seemed to be the perfect site, and when Coate was told that it was going to be made into an orchard, his creative gunpowder was ignited. “Splendid,” he cried. “We’ll have a maze entirely made of espaliered and cordoned fruit trees.”

“Randoll and I created 15 mazes together between 1979 and 1986,” remembers Fisher. But the collaborators had fundamentally different approaches to their art. While Coate delighted in intricate symbolism, to the extent that one maze might contain several dozen hidden motifs, only discernible when marked in coloured pencil on a plan, Fisher is thrilled by first-hand experience. “What I most enjoy is the mental tussle of meeting owners, finding what is in their mind and what the possibilities are. How would they use the maze, savour it, celebrate it – how would it add to their life? Every single one becomes very personal,” be it a memorial to a Jewish loved one in the shape of a six-pointed star, or a celebration of the Boston Red Sox hero Big Papi. Fisher’s own maze, he says modestly, “is rather nice to have a look at – quite fun. The grandchildren love it. All through the summer they dash from the swimming pool to the maze, hiding in it. We have cocktails and nibbles on the tower, as the sun sets. It’s a completely nonsensical adventure, but appeals to everyone.” For Fisher and his wife Marie (née Butterworth), “the garden is more significant than the house – it becomes a party machine. Every year we hold a Pickle Fest for the foster parents in Portsmouth that Marie used to work with. It’s like Glastonbury without the mud.”

Nonsensical the tower may be, but there is science as well as craft to maze-making. A glance at Fisher’s bookshelves shows his different preoccupations: there are sections on illusions, puzzles and the history of mazes; mathematics and design; art; mythology; and a long run devoted to spies, ciphers and codes. Fisher himself has written several books about puzzles and mazes, as well as devising regular brain teasers for newspapers and magazines. Mazes have also become, for Fisher, the foundation of an international business. In 2013, Adrian Fisher Design was one of 100 creative SMEs that UK Trade & Investment chose to back to help win high-value foreign contracts. “How many people in Dorset export at all?” says Fisher. “I’ve worked in 37 countries; my business is 90 per cent export.” Of the projects that he currently has on his books, only three are in the UK. Most are in southeast Asia.

This geographical imbalance owes something to the Asian love of complexity (think origami). So in Ningbo, the Fisher team are creating what is expected to be China’s largest maze; in the centre, there will be a tower – twice as tall as Fisher’s own – on which newlyweds will be able to have their picture taken. How can this be achieved, given that no photographer could get sufficiently far away from the happy couple without falling to his death? By drone, of course.

Another factor in this global success story is the mirror maze. Mirror mazes are a more sophisticated version of a fairground hall of mirrors. The vistas created by angled mirrors in numerous small compartments, lit in a succession of changing colours, are so confusing that it can take 10 or 12 minutes for a visitor to find the way out. (There’s a video on Fisher’s website that makes the point: two girls appear to be completely flummoxed by the mirror maze at PortAventura, a theme and leisure park south of Barcelona.) These tricks can also be put to educational use. Singapore Science Centre has commissioned a mirror maze of over 100 compartments to demonstrate principles of physics, such as how light works. I should think it will also be fun: Fisher can’t help chortling as he describes the deceptions he has devised. “It will be quite immersive,” he tells me. Clearly.

Doesn’t this offer a commercial opportunity? Given that mirror mazes are not site-dependent, why not reproduce the same maze in, say, Birmingham. Fisher looks at me as though I’m mad. Do the same thing twice? Make something without the mental challenge of working it out from scratch? Where would the fun be in that? 

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