Street Tales: The Shepherd's Race

Tuesday 01 November 2016
reading time: min, words

We delve a little deeper into the history of Nottingham's streets to tell you the tales they never would have taught you at school...


“The nine-men’s morris is
filled up with mud. And the
quaint mazes on the wanton
green for lack of tread are
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – William Shakespeare.

The Shepherd’s Race – or Robin Hood’s Race – was a turf maze, and is perhaps the most curious and least understood ancient monument in Nottinghamshire. It has long since disappeared, but the debate over its origin and use continues.

Shakespeare’s verse suggests that turf mazes were a familiar sight in the sixteenth century English landscape. Often located on village greens and commons and close to a church or chapel, there are now only eight examples in existence. They were created by cutting a serpentine path into a level area of open grass, with the path commonly being the turfed area between narrow channels of bare earth. Although generically referred to as mazes, strictly speaking they’re labyrinths: a single path leading to a centre point and back out.

Their purpose seems to have been to run, dance or walk the path to the centre and back out – known as ‘treading the maze’. The Shepherd’s Race was cut into flat ground near the summit of Blue Bell Hill – Thorneywood Mount – in St Ann’s. The hill was part of Sneinton Common, given to the parish as ‘common land’ by the Pierrepont family. It is described as being 34-35 yards across, covering an area of 324 square yards, with a single path 535 yards long. These proportions make the Race one of the largest examples of its kind.

Had the Shepherdʼs Race at Nottingham survived, without doubt it would have been one of the finest examples of its kind. It is strange, then, that it has always been a footnote in history, an appendix to notes on the more famous St Annʼs Well. Because of their close proximity – around 300 yards – the Race and Well were always considered part of a single ritual site. However, there is little actual evidence for this.

The origin of the Shepherdʼs Race is speculative. Two eighteenth century antiquarians pass comment on the maze. William Stukely, ‘the father of archaeology’, declared it to be of Roman origin. Charles Deering disputed this and declared, “It is evidently, from the cross-crosslets in the centres of the four lesser rounds, and in that there are no banks raised but circular trenches cut into the turf, and those so narrow that persons cannot run in them, but must run on top of the turf, it is of no Roman origin and yet is more ancient than the reformation.” Although a wonderful description, Deering is contradicted by plans that clearly show the path to be the bare earth between the turf walls. One modern author on the subject states that it was cut in the fourth century and modified by the Knights Templar for use in their rituals.

Although its inception may be in dispute, The Shepherd’s Race’s demise is not. Following the Enclosure Act, the maze was ploughed up and the area planted with potatoes on 17 February 1797.

Nottingham Hidden History website.

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