02 September 2012

Saffron Walden challenges all the old jokes about Essex

The Market Place in Saffron Walden, dating from the 13th century, is fringed by 19th landmarks, including the Town Hall, Fountain and the Library (former Corn Exchange) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

For many of us, our images of Essex have been shaped by rough-cut characters in EastEnders, who all seem to have ambitions to move to Essex. Or our views of Essex may have been prejudiced by past jokes about “Essex girls.”

For others, Essex is all Clacton-on-Sea, Southend, beach boxes, piers and ice creams. Or perhaps our images of Essex have been formed by chocolate-box cover images of villages with peculiar names. Did you know that Maggots End really is a village near Bishop’s Stortford? And that Steeple Bumpstead – the butt of many a joke – is an actual village, but with no steeple on the parish church? Or that the village of Ugley, outside Bishop’s Stortford on the borders of Essex and Hertfordshire, has a pub called the Beautiful Ugley Chequers.

A few years ago, while I was studying in Cambridge, Frank Domoney, an old school-friend who lives nearby, met me at Sidney Sussex College and brought me on a tour of charming villages and market towns in Essex, including Duxford, Thaxted and Saffron Walden. Ever since, I had promised myself a return visit. And so, on my way to the USPG conference in High Leigh this summer, I took some time in the Essex countryside and visited the picture-postcard market town of Saffron Walden.

Although Saffron Walden is halfway between Stansted Airport (22 km) and Cambridge (24 km), I imagine the town has few Irish visitors or tourists. I caught the train from Stansted Airport to Audley End, two miles from Saffron Walden, and caught a bus into the town.

Pretty picture postcard town

The buildings and streets in Saffron Walden have remained unchanged for centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Saffron Walden truly is a pretty, picture-postcard, chocolate-box-cover English market town. The town centre is a conservation area with colourful timber-framed and gabled town houses and cottages dating back to the 15th century, with dozens of Grade I, Grade II and 27 Grade II* listed buildings. There are traditional pubs, antique shops, a market on Tuesdays and Saturdays, a parish church as large as many an English cathedral, a ruined castle, and a unique turf maze.

A pretty, picture-postcard, market town, with colourful timber-framed and gabled town houses and cottages (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Political and economic stability and the fact that major industrial growth by-passed the town ensure that many of the buildings, streets and features in the town centre have remained unchanged for centuries.

There has been a village at Saffron Walden since Roman times, and by the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 this was a place of substance. The first church here was built in the late 11th century, and a castle was built around 1136 by Geoffrey de Mandeville, 3rd Earl of Essex, who also built the priory that later became Walden Abbey, on the site of Audley End.

The prosperity of Saffron Walden begins when the town, first known as Chipping Walden, became the market for this area in the mid-12th century. In the early 13th century, a later Earl of Essex built a new church and gave the town a new layout, with a grid system of streets and a new market.

The town received its first charter in 1300, and the centre eventually shifted from the castle to the Market Square. Wool was the main trade in the Middle Ages, but by the late 1300s the saffron crocus was an important cash crop and by the early 16th century this was the centre for growing a flower prized for its use in medicine, as a condiment, perfume, and aphrodisiac, and as an expensive yellow dye. And so, prosperous Chipping Walden became Saffron Walden.

Oliver Cromwell visited Saffron Walden in 1647, when it was the headquarters of the New Model Army under Sir Thomas Fairfax. Yet throughout its history the town was neither sacked nor destroyed by fire. By the end of the 18th century, demand for the saffron flower had waned, and malt and barley became the main local crops.

Large parish church

The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin is the largest parish church in Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

I started my visit by attending the Morning Eucharist in the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, the largest parish church in Essex. The church replaced an earlier building and was built in the perpendicular style between 1470 and 1525. It is 56 metres long, and the spire, at 59 metres, is the tallest church spire in Essex.

The size of Saint Mary’s reflects the wealth of the town at the height of the saffron trade (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The size of Saint Mary’s reflects the wealth of the town at the height of the saffron trade. The church has impressive Gothic arches, decorative wooden ceilings, nine mediaeval brasses and impressive stained-glass windows. The spire was added in 1832 to replace an older lantern tower. The former Conservative politician, ‘RAB’ Butler (1902-1982), who was MP for Saffron Walden (1929-1965), is buried in the churchyard.

The Garter banner of ‘RAB’ Butler in Saint Mary’s … he was MP for Saffron Walden for 36 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From there it was a short stroll east to Walden Castle. The castle slowly fell into disuse in the Middle Ages and material from the castle was taken away to build local houses and the walls surrounding Audley End estate. All that remains today are the bramble-covered ruins of the keep tower and the basement.

Walden Castle slowly fell into disuse and into ruins in the Middle Ages (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Near the castle ruins, Saffron Walden’s Turf Maze is a series of circular excavations cut into the turf on the east side of the Common, the oldest of Saffron Walden’s open spaces. This is the largest surviving turf labyrinth in Europe, with a diameter of 30.5 metres and a pathway that winds round and round for about 1,500 metres. Although the first written records of the maze date only from the late 17th century, it may be 800 years old.

Unique decorative work

In Castle Street, which runs north of the castle and the church, and on Bridge Street, at the west end of Castle Street, there are houses with many fine examples of elaborate, decorative moulded plasterwork or pargetting.

Castle Street was part of the new town plan of the 1230s, but most of the timber-framed hall houses here now date from around 1500. Some of the houses are Grade II* listed properties with many examples of ancient and modern pargetting. There are some unusual Wealden houses, and the easiest to pick out is being No 49 and 51. This style of hall house under a single roof is normally associated with Kent. The house also has sliding sash windows which are commonly found in houses in Saffron Walden.

By the 1800s, this was the poorer section of town, with many of the houses divided into small cottages. Clear breaks in the roof lines are clues as to the extent of the original houses.

The former Youth Hostel, a timber-framed building with an overhanging jetty, is the oldest inhabited building in Saffron Walden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

At the west end of Castle Street, on the corner with Bridge Street, the former Youth Hostel is the oldest inhabited building in Saffron Walden. This timber-framed building with an overhanging jetty is now being renovated as a private home.

This Grade I listed building was built as a combined shop, home and warehouse in the 1490s. There is a fine doorway into Bridge Street and a carved dragon post on the corner. The sack hoist in the roof was added in the early 19th century when part of the building was converted to a malt house.

The Close is a late 15th century timber-framed house with an unusual 17th century ‘Spider’ window (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Across the street from the Youth Hostel stands The Close, a late 15th century timber-framed house with an unusual 17th century ‘Spider’ window.

The houses on Bridge Street include many fine examples of elaborate, decorative moulded plasterwork or pargetting (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

At the north end of Bridge Street, the Eight Bells is an old pub rich in old world atmosphere. The range at right angles to the road is 15th century, while the street frontage is a late 16th century addition that features a continuous first floor jetty or over-sailing developed to create bigger rooms above the ground floor.

The Eight Bells on Bridge Street is an old pub rich in old world atmosphere (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Eight Bells is one of Saffron Walden’s few buildings with both first and ground floor windows in their original positions. The facade is hung with the trademark bells that give the Eight Bells its name.

Nearby, Bridge End Garden dates from the 1840s and was originally laid out by Francis Gibson, a local Quaker brewer and banker. The Fry Art Gallery was built in 1856 by Francis Gibson for his art collection, which was inherited by his daughter Elizabeth Fry.

The Cross Keys, a 15th century timber-framed former house and shop with later additions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Further down Bridge Street, on the corner of King Street and High Street, the Cross Keys is a 15th century timber-framed former house and shop with later additions. The roof was raised in the early 19th century and new windows added on the ground and first floors on the King Street frontage. The plaster on the entire timber-framed section was taken off in the early 20th century and some first floor windows were reinstated. Two of the original 15th century shop windows can be seen on the ground floor at the corner of King Street and High Street.

Victorian Market Place

The Library, the former Corn Exchange, was designed in an Italianate style and built in 1848 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Many historical buildings are clustered around the Market Place, which is dominated by Victorian buildings. The former Corn Exchange is now a library. It was designed in an Italianate style by Richard Tress and completed in 1848.

The Town Hall was a gift to Saffron Walden from the Gibsons, a Quaker banking family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Town Hall, with a stone portico and timber-framed additions, was designed by Edward Burgess and a gift to the town from the Quaker banker George Stacey Gibson, in 1879. The Gibson family also erected the Fountain in the Market Place.

A large late 15th century hall house on the corner of The Rows, the mediaeval and Tudor shopping centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

No 9 Market Place, now a guesthouse, is a 400-year-old former farmhouse in the heart of the town, decorated with parget swirls. Beyond the Market Place, there are more small businesses in the Rows, the town’s shopping centre since mediaeval times.

The Old Sun Inn, now an antiques shop, dates from the 14th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Going back up towards the church from the Market Place, at the junction of Market Hill and Church Street, there are timber-framed buildings on all four corners. On one corner is the Old Sun Inn, an old pub with some of the finest example of 17th century pargetting. Now an antiques shop, it is part of a range of Grade I listed houses and shops dating from the 14th century. The plaster work includes incised repeat patterns, some free-hand designs and later bas-relief of birds and fruit, dating from 1676. Opinion is divided on whether two figures on the end gable – at present covered in cladding and scaffolding – are Tom Hickathrift and the Wisbech Giant or Gog and Magog.

Musical memories

On the way back to the train, I passed by Audley End. One of the most magnificent Jacobean houses in England, it is known for its summer outdoor concerts and operas.

But Saffron Walden has other musical associations too. The tune ‘Saffron Walden’ is often used for the hymn Just as I am (Irish Church Hymnal, 586). The tune was written by Arthur Henry Brown (1830–1926), for almost 40 years the parish organist in Brentwood. A prolific composer, he named many of his hymn tunes after his favourite places in his native Essex.

I shall be singing the praises of Saffron Walden for some time.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in September 2012 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).

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