Sunday, 2 September 2012
I moved out of Tuscany on Saturday [1 September 2012] in to the Liguria region and caught the train from La Spezia towards Genoa to visit the Cinque Terre, a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera, with five pretty picturesque villages that are part of the Cinque Terre National Park.
The area is a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was included in the 2000 and 2002 World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund.
The area known as Cinque Terre or “Five Hills” is made up of the five villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. There are few roads into the Cinque Terre, and the one road that is accessible to cars is into Vernazza. So we caught the train first to the most northerly and the largest of these villages, Monterosso al Mare.
Walking from the train station along the path above the beach at Monterosso in the sunshine was a far more satisfying and reinvigorating experience than the disappointing visit to Viareggio a few days earlier.
Monterosso has an old town and a new town, linked by a single tunnel serving pedestrians and the few cars in the town, which was briefly excluded from the Cinque Terre trail in 1948-1949 because Italian officials at the time thought it was too large to be part of the historic trail.
We began our visit at the parish church of Saint John the Baptist (1282-1307), which suffered badly during heavy flooding and mudslides last October.
The façade of the church has four small marble columns and a main portal surmounted by a fresco portraying the Baptism of Christ. Across the narrow street, a mortuary chapel is encrusted with images of death, with skulls and skeletons.
We spent some more time in the morning sunshine in Monterosso, strolling through the narrow cobbled streets, before catching the train to the next village, Vernazza, which suffered badly from the torrential rains, floods and mudslides on 25 October 2011, when at least nine people were killed.
As a fortified town, Vernazza dates back to 1080, and became a maritime base for the Obertenghi, an Italian noble family. Over the next two centuries, Vernazza was vital in Genoa’s conquest of Liguria, providing a port, fleet and soldiers. In 1209, 90 powerful families in Vernazza pledged their allegiance to the republic of Genoa.
The town walls were built after Vernazza was attacked regularly by pirates in the 15th century, and Doria Castle was built at the same time as a lookout tower to protect the village from pirates.
We climbed the narrow, steep steps leading up to the castle, only to find it was closed. Back down in Vernazza, we walked down to the harbour to watch the waves crashing in against the pier, and then returned to Piazza Marconi, the square looking out on the harbour, for lunch at Ristorante Gianna Franzi.
After lunch, we visited the Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, on the corner of the harbour. The church dates from at least 1318, but may be much older, with evidence dating parts of the building to the 12th century. The church was expanded and renovated in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The church has an unusual east-facing entrance approached by steps, a nave and two aisles, and an octagonal bell tower rising from the apse.
After a long period of stagnation, Vernazza’s economy got a boost when the village and the surrounding area returned to wine production. The arrival of the Genoa-La Spezia rail line brought an end to the long isolation of the village, and the population grew by 60%.
Then, on 25 October 2011, Vernazza was struck by torrential rains, massive flooding and mudslides that left the town buried in four metres or more of mud and debris, causing over €100 million worth of damage. The town was evacuated but has recovered enough to be lively and bustling on this warm summer afternoon.
From Vernazza, we caught the train to Manarola, where we joined the walking trail – the Sentiero Azzuro (“Light Blue Trail”) – that connects the five villages. From Manarola to Riomaggiore, the trail is called the Via Dell’Amore, or the “Walk of Love.”
Over the centuries, people have carefully built terraces on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. Along the route, we could see how the mountainsides of the Cinque Terre are heavily terraced and are used to grow grapes and olives.
At the end of our walk, we had a climb down steep steps to reach Riomaggiore, the most southerly of the five Cinque Terre villages.
Riomaggiore dates from the early 13th century, and we sat eating proper Italian ice cream overlooking the small beach and wharf that are framed by tower houses – a scene that inspired paintings by Telemaco Signorini (1835-1901), one of the artists of the Macchiaioli group.
Part of the charm of this area is the lack of visible corporate or commercial development. We could have lingered longer. But we had a train to catch to La Spezia.
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
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.
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
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Across the street from the Youth Hostel stands The Close, a late 15th century timber-framed house with an unusual 17th century ‘Spider’ window.
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 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.
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
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, 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.
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.
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.
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).