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Just south of the city of Winchester, a short walk from its ancient city centre, is St. Catherine's Hill, an Iron Age hillfort with a long history. Now a nature reserve of rare traditional downland, it is also home to one of only two mizmazes left in the country - an historic labyrinth cut into the turf. The hill and mizmaze are open to any visitor who can make the 220 foot journey up there.

A close up of the mizmaze
The Winchester Mizmaze

Winchester is a city with a long and venerable past. Once one of the most important cities in Roman Britain, the seat of Norman Kings and the heart of King Alfred's Wessex, it is now a small but beautiful city filled with heritage and places to visit. Long before the city though, it was the hill which was occupied, in use as a hill fort from about the 6th century BC.

The hill fort was initially undefended, until 250BC when defences were added, with a line of bank and ditch, which followed the contours of the hill. Archaeological surveys show traces of roundhouse dwellings, granaries and pits. The site was abandoned around 100 - 50BC after it was sacked, with the inhabitants moving to Oram's Arbour - now central Winchester.

A path going up St Catherine's Hill
It is a steep, but pretty, climb to the top

Excavations have provided some Roman pottery and coins dating from when Venta Bulgarum (Winchester) was at its peak, but there is no evidence of any further occupation of the site until the middle of the 12th century, when a Norman chapel was built on the hill.

Known as St Catherine's Chapel, it is this that gave the hill its current name. Little remains of the chapel, which was destroyed in 1537 and now lies now underneath a small copse at the top of the hill, known as 'The Clump', but there are some medieval earthworks such as ditches which are associated with it.

For many years, the hill was used by Winchester College as a playground, until purpose built playing fields were created for them in 1868. The Mizmaze is believed to date from their time using the hill, although no-one can be strictly sure of the date of the mizmaze - the archaeological records dates it to between 1647 - 1710. The primary theory seems to be that it was created by a pupil at the college who had been sent to the hill as a punishment, cut the maze himself by hand, then throwing himself off the hill and dying shortly afterwards.

The mizmaze in front of a copse of trees
'The Clump' is in the background and is where the Norman chapel once stood

Mizmazes are not mazes in our modern understanding of the word, but are actually labyrinths - a continuous path with no dead ends. This one is unusual in that it is in a square rather than circular shape.

They were historically used for religious purposes, with monks and pilgrims using them for contemplation or penitence, but by the time of the 17th century, when this one was probably created, it was more likely to have been used for recreational purposes. "Tolling (walking) the labyrinth" was certainly a hobby of the college boys and still takes place today.

The mizmaze was recut between 1830 - 1840 and was probably inversed at that time. The other surviving mizmaze, at Breamore, is a raised path whereas this one is a path cut into the turf. The maze is open and accessible to all. Due to its inversion, it is quite a narrow path to walk, which takes about 15 minutes in total.

Winchester as seen from a hill top
Views over the city and Winchester Cathedral

St. Catherine's Hill is now a nature reserve, and the best time to visit it is in the summer months. It is a 220ft climb, a mixture of wooden steps and narrow pathways, and it was very hot and tiring getting up there, but there are incredible views over the city to reward you. The traditional downland is awash with the noise of the insects and birds which all call it home and the grasses are filled with rare orchids and the 25 different species of butterfly which flutter in front of you as you walk.

Visiting the St. Catherine's Mizmaze

How to get to St. Catherine's Hill

Postcode: SO23 9PA

what3words: victory.cabin.preheated (mizmaze)

Public Transport: Winchester has a train station - you can catch a bus or walk to St. Catherine's

Parking: If you are driving, it is best to park in the St. Catherine's Park & Ride, which is right next to the bottom of the hill.

When is St. Catherine's Mizmaze open?

The site is open daily, all hours.

How much does it cost to visit St. Catherine's Mizmaze?

The site is free to visit but donations to the Wildlife Trust which manages the reserve are always welcome.

Are there any facilities at St. Catherine's Mizmaze?

There is a café at the bottom of the hill - The Handlebar Café - which is a fantastic local social enterprise. They serve snacks, cakes, drinks and are well worth supporting.

Useful tips for visiting St. Catherine's Mizmaze

Wear sensible shoes as there is some 'off-roading' required to get up the hill.

A cafe at the end of a path
A very welcome sight at the bottom of the hill - The Handlebar Cafe


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