These days, St Catherine’s Hill, which overlooks the ancient city of Winchester, is a peaceful place to hike. But over the last 2,000 years it has seen a lot of action. During the Iron Age a fort was built atop the hill, allowing Winchester’s settlers an outstanding position for defense and observation. In the 12th century the site was occupied by St. Catherine’s Chapel. This chapel was destroyed in 1537, but its remains form the hill’s iconic “Clump,” a collection of trees on the summit visible from across the city. The hill is dedicated to Saint Catherine, apparently because the circular fort resembled the execution wheel, or Catherine Wheel, that Catherine broke prior to her martyrdom.
On the side of the hill, just beyond the Clump, is Winchester’s mizmaze, one of only eight remaining English turf mazes and one of only two whose path is formed by grooves cut into the chalky ground as opposed to raised earth. Mizmaze is a local term for the rare turf patterns that, though maze by name, are more like a labyrinth. Labyrinths have a single convoluted path rather than a muddle of dead ends and junctions. Of England’s eight mizmazes, Winchester’s is the only one whose winding path forms a rectangle rather than a circle. Unfurled, these compacted paths would measure a staggering 2,047 feet long, requiring approximately 820 steps to navigate. Much like many of England’s ancient hill carvings, the Winchester mizmaze’s origin and purpose are uncertain. Its medieval design and proximity to the former chapel may indicate it was a meditative aid for prayer or penitence.
Traditional legend, however, tells of a student at the historic Winchester College who was, as punishment for disobedience, sent from the school to St. Catherine’s Hill one summer in the 18th century. During his banishment, the boy, inspired by classical Greek legend, staved off his boredom by carving a labyrinthine path, creating the mizmaze. Rather than simply occupying his time, the winding path is said to have disordered the boy’s mind to such a degree that he threw himself off the hill to a watery death in the River Itchen.
Know Before You Go
The hike to the mizmaze is challenging: the hill is steep and the terrain rough and chalky. A good place to begin the climb is the car park on Garnier Road, where you'll also find a cafe.