The Shepherds’ Race, Broughton Green, Northampton

by Jo Cartmale

There was once a turf maze at Broughton Green in Northamptonshire. It was situated about halfway between the present village of Broughton and the village of Moulton, across the road from the ruined Church of St. John. It was described in an old guide book as being in a neglected state in 1849, and was spoiled completely in the Great War, by soldiers digging trenches across it. The site is now under the plough, but when it is possible to go up between crops, it is possible to dowse. I was able to follow it quite easily. It is said to be discernible from the air.

It was reported to be 37ft in diameter, and I found that the flat top of the hill was about this size. the greensward circle had been sunk about a foot below the surface of the green, as far back as memory could trace. A crazy path, rather more than a foot wide, was formed with trenches, three or four inches wide, cut on either side of it. I noticed a lot of small stones which could be the remnant of the path churned up by the plough.

The trial of skill consisted of running the maze from the outside, to the small circle in the centre, in a given time, without crossing the boundaries of the path. It was called ‘The Shepherds’ Race’. The ‘Treading’ of it was formerly a great feature of the 3 day annual Horse Fair in June, an event dating from a charter granted by Edward III in 1353. This date varies in different books.

In the novel ‘The Washingtons‘ by Rev. J. N. Simpkinson, dated 1860, there occurs the following passage: “He had just been ‘treading’ the Shepherd’s Labyrinth, a complicated, spiral maze, traced there upon the turf, and was boasting of his skill, how dextrously and how truly he could pursue its windings without a single false step, and, how with a little more practice, he would wager to go through it blindfold.”

There are quite a few references to it in old guide books and novels, but I was unable to find any reference to this particular maze having been used by the Church as a substitute for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem as had been suggested.

© 2005 Jo Cartmale & BSD EEG