The a - maze - ing peace

The late Roy Castle sang it best. If you want to be a record breaker, dedication's what you need

The late Roy Castle sang it best. If you want to be a record breaker, dedication's what you need. There is no shortage of that up at Castlewellan Forest Park, Co Down, where those sticklers for detail from the Guinness Book of Records have recently been working their way around what organizers say will be the world's largest, permanent hedge maze when it opens this summer.

The Peace Maze - the idea for the parkland puzzle was first mooted after the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1997 - spans a five-acre site, is surrounded by towering forests and sits on a small hill-top within sight of the sweeping Mountains of Mourne.

"It symbolises the long path to peace in Northern Ireland and over the coming years it should become established as one of the most popular visitor attractions in the province," says John Watson, district forest officer at the park. Not only that, but its arrival on the tourist map will hopefully see Northern Ireland become synonymous with a maze that doesn't conjure up images of HBlocks and hunger strikes.

Such a thematic project is rich in symbolic possibilities, a unique selling point which has not gone untapped by organizers as they gear up for the pre-opening publicity drive. Strolling around the almost completed maze recently, Watson's talk was of dead ends, going round in circles and solutions that seem impossible to find - but are really right under your nose.


Sound familiar? He could have been talking about the maze, or perhaps a certain, tortuous, peace process. "There are so many comparisons, it is the perfect way to commemorate the Agreement," he says.

It wasn't the original plan to seek entry into the record books. According to project co-ordinator, Beverley Lear, who came up with the idea while listening to reports of the Agreement being signed on the radio, the plan was "for a much smaller maze, but we decided not to go for second best".

The final product is expected to be bigger than both the Longleat Maze in Wiltshire - the UK's largest such permanent structure - and the Dole Pineapple Maze in Hawaii, which holds the current record. With 2.2 miles of hedge and 1.9 miles of paths, Lear is hoping that the Co Down labyrinth will provide a challenge for all ages and could even have a corporate use for companies wishing to run team building and stress management courses.

Watson is enthusiastic about the many features of the maze that represent different aspects of the process. "It has been designed on the basis that the more people interact and co-operate with each other, the easier it will be for them to solve the puzzle, just like in the current struggle for peace," he says. For this reason, the paths in the maze measure almost two metres across, allowing visitors to walk side by side as they search for the solution.

The yew hedges that form the maze "walls" will eventually grow to about 1.5 metres, so that participants can talk to each other over the hedge as they navigate the paths. The plants are native to Northern Ireland but had to be sourced in Kent, and it will take a few years for the individual plants to merge together. However, before that happens, the maze contains enough of a puzzle to hold the public's interest.

A schools competition held so that young people could have an input into the project received more than 4,000 entries from children across Northern Ireland, with ideas on how the maze should be designed. Some of their features which have been incorporated include a rocky road, a rickety bridge, stepping stones and a small drinking fountain because, as one schoolgirl pointed out: "Protestants and Catholics drink from the same source".

Those entering the maze will encounter a cracked mirror, breaking up their reflection into tiny pieces - symbolising disunity. School children also suggested that a peace bell be placed at the grassy central mound, the final point where those who solve the puzzle emerge.

The purpose of the bell is to offer encouragement to those still treading the twisting paths, when sounded. And that peace process stalwart - a bridge - was one of the final features put in place.

Funded under the EU's Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation and by Down District Council, the £1 million maze will be managed by the Forest service and is free of charge to visitors to Castlewellan park. Those behind the maze project say they would welcome more sponsorship to make final additions. According to Watson, the Peace Maze is expected to take the average participant just under an hour to complete. On a recent visit, it appeared that it is just challenging enough to be fun - but not so difficult that the infant yew plants are likely to be uprooted by sore losers frustrated at getting lost among the endless paths and hedgerows.

Or visitors could just take a tip from the increasingly frustrated (or lazy) hordes of maze-goers at Longleat. Reports last year revealed that many were not bothering to find the solution themselves, simply using their mobile phones to quiz maze staff for directions when puzzle fatigue set in.

The maze is due to open around the end of May. Check the exact date by ringing the park at 048-43778664