Beechbrae Labyrinth

Birthing a labyrinth always takes longer than you think it will. In fact, true to Hofstadter’s Law, it always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law. Beechbrae was no exception.

Beechbrae is a woodland-based social enterprise and charity located near Blackridge in central Scotland with good transport links to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Beechbrae comprises a community garden, orchard, and 35 acres of woodland. The charity runs a variety of nature-and woodland-based wellness activities to help people connect to nature.

Beechbrae’s project manager contacted me in July 2019 to discuss the possibility of creating a labyrinth in the woodland. The site they had earmarked was towards the edge of the wood where there was a small clearing containing a few sickly ash trees. These were suffering from ash dieback and would have to be removed. After dowsing the area, I identified a suitable location and took some measurements of the projected available space.

When building a labyrinth, I like to spend some time communing with the space and exploring the area to get inspiration for the design. The access path into the glade was already cut in a north/south direction, so it seemed a natural alignment for the labyrinth. The ground would need some levelling, and I advised laying a geotextile membrane to prevent weeds. At this stage we weren’t sure what form the final labyrinth would take, and Beechbrae still had to secure funding to build it, so after some discussion about dates and payments, I went off to come up with a design.

From my measurements, it seemed that there wouldn’t be enough room for a 7-circuit design, so I played with some 5-circuit variants. Beechbrae had requested that the labyrinth be accessible to wheelchair users, so that was suggestive of a ‘Baltic wheel’-style layout with a quick exit path from the centre. My first design was a symmetrical, concentric 5-circuit layout with overlapping entrance paths, the whole looking a little like a round hand mirror with oval handle, reminiscent of Pictish design.  The ‘edges’ of the handle were the two entrance paths, leaving a vesica-shaped area between them that would be an ideal position for a standing stone and some planting.

A few months went by, and Beechbrae, having secured some grant funding, had the dead trees removed and prepared the ground for the labyrinth with geotextile membrane covered with Type 1 ballast. The resulting area was too narrow to accommodate my original design, so it was back to the drawing board. I played around with some variations, desperately trying to retain the 5-circuit layout, but eventually I had to concede that it couldn’t be done and started thinking about 3-circuit variants.

Then the covid pandemic came along and put a complete stop to further development for over a year. I kept in touch with Beechbrae about design possibilities and went through 4 or 5 different alternatives before inspiration provided the final design, a circular variation on a basic 3-circuit labyrinth with a quick exit path. Twisting the centre round to one side allowed me to keep the twin overlapping entrance paths and provided the opportunity to create a more meaningful alignment for the labyrinth.

The final design

We had planned the construction for the weekend of October 30/31, 2021 – Samhain in the old Celtic calendar. This felt hugely significant as it would be the 9th birthday of Beechbrae. With some minor adjustment, I could align the goal of the labyrinth to the Samhain sunrise, marking a new phase of development at Beechbrae.

The first day of construction dawned bleak and a little drizzly but didn’t deter a small group of volunteers from turning up to bring the labyrinth to life. The first stage was to mark out the plan using string and line marking paint. I had visited the site at night the week before to perform the ‘Drawing Down the North’ ceremony where the north-south axis of the site is established by sighting on the north star and marked with stakes. All that was required now was to lay some string to delineate the axis. Next, we plotted the east-west axis by using a Druid’s Cord to make a 3-4-5 Pythagorean triangle, allowing us to align the e-w axis perpendicular to the n-s one. After that, things got a little more complicated.

Making a right angle using a Druid’s Cord

You can easily mark out a labyrinth without requiring any complex geometry. However, due to the design of this one, it was essential to know where the centres of various arcs were located, so I had drawn up a CAD plan to establish these points. Pretty soon, I had them triangulated and staked out, allowing me to draw in the arcs connecting the various segments of the labyrinth. Before very long, and with only a small hiatus caused by my can of paint seizing up (luckily Beechbrae had some orange marker paint on hand), the markup was complete and we got started on the real work of digging out the walls and filling them with mulched bark. Two doughty volunteers also hauled over nine rather weighty standing stones that were installed to mark various significant alignments and create an entrance ‘gateway’.

Digging out the ‘walls’ and filling with bark chippings

The digging and mulching continued the second day, and by the sunset we had a completed labyrinth – well, almost. The edges still required further landscaping work and we still had to plant the walls with several hundred bulbs, which happened with the aid of some more volunteers a couple of weeks later. So, although the labyrinth is technically ‘finished’, it will be a few more months before we see it in its full glory in the Spring. And I quite like the idea of a ‘seasonal’ labyrinth.

The labyrinth with candles for opening ceremony
Samhain opening ceremony (picture: Beechbrae)

Here is a montage video of the construction:

The Beechbrae labyrinth is listed on the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator.

Grahame Gardner
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