Essex whirl

With staycations staying popular, head to Saffron Walden for proof there’s plenty to explore at home


With its pastel houses, half-timbered buildings and winding cobbled streets, at first glance Saffron Walden looks the very epitome of a traditional English market town. But this pretty part of Essex has its own exotic history, perfect to discover on a weekend break.

Once the centre of the country’s saffron trade, its wealth was built on fields of flowers — the saffron crocus, to be precise. Originally grown in the Middle East, India and China, the crocus flourished in the soil here, resulting in the town’s gaining the ‘Saffron’ part of its name during the 16th century.

With 4,300 blossoms needed to create one ounce of the spice, it’s still the most expensive in the world, weight for weight often costing the same as gold — at times, even more valuable. And while the saffron trade is all but gone from Essex today, you can still trace its impact as you follow the town’s historic trail.

Standing by the first of the trail markers on the pavement outside the Tourist Information Centre, the market was in full swing in front of us. The black-and-white-timbered Town Hall, where the Tourist Information is set, is itself only a couple of centuries old, a positive newcomer compared to the market, which dates back to 1141.

In the shadow of the gleaming white library, the stalls on the Market Square were heaving with delicious food as well as local Saffron Grange wine.

Stroll around the corner for a taste of saffron in one of the locally-inspired creations at Hill Street Chocolate. Among the seasonal treats, we found chocolates made with local honey, another with Maldon sea salt and saffron, plus a spiced pear concoction, while staff whipped up a new batch in the kitchens behind the shop.

Fuelled for our amble, the trail’s route takes you past some of the town’s oldest buildings, starting with the Old Sun Inn, built in the 14th century when the saffron trade was starting to get under way.

Further up the hill sit the remains of the Norman castle and the Saffron Walden Museum, with a charter issued by Henry VIII among its local history collection. Towering above them all is the largest non-cathedral church in the county, St Mary’s church with its 193ft spire.

Two of the town’s other attractions are less instantly visible: wander along Castle Street, lined with picturesquely crooked cottages in a rainbow of colours, to find the Fry Art Gallery and Bridge End Garden lying tucked away down an alley.

With a mix of formal gardens, hedge maze and ‘wilderness’ as well as a walled garden and kitchen garden, the latter has been restored using original Victorian techniques.

Strolling back in time, there are still more mediaeval and Tudor buildings to spot along Bridge Street on the way to the town centre — the 16th century Myddylton Place and Eight Bells Pub, as well as the Cross Keys inn, now a hotel. If you stay in one of the rooms in the main building, watch out for the ghost of a Cromwellian soldier and a woman alleged to be Oliver Cromwell’s mistress, spotted roaming a passageway and one of the upstairs bedrooms.

Our room in the annexe couldn’t promise any troubled spirits but made up for that with a huge comfy bed and rainhead shower under old timber beams.

Tempting though it is to spend all your time strolling in the historic streets and browsing in The Rows, as shoppers have done for centuries, Saffron Walden also makes an ideal base to explore this part of the Essex countryside.

Around 15 minutes away lies Thaxted, with its own collection of pastel houses, thatched cottages and historic buildings, including the 15th century Guildhall and Dick Turpin’s cottage — whether the notorious highwayman ever lived in the village is up for debate, although composer Gustav Holst certainly did, composing part of The Planets suite here before moving to the village in 1917.

Not far away, the open-air museum of Mountfitchet Castle and Norman village lets you experience life as it would once have been in a mediaeval castle, constructed on the original site of the fortress.

And on the site of the former Walden Abbey stands spectacular Audley End — a house so grand that the 1st Earl of Suffolk was discovered to have embezzled funds to pay for building work while acting as James VI’s Lord Treasurer.

Later remodelled by Robert Adam, Capability Brown turned the grounds into one of England’s finest landscape gardens. You can still explore inside — restrictions permitting — from the fabulously ornate Great Hall, with its decorative carvings, through an astonishing art collection into the library, which holds a first edition of Doctor Johnson’s dictionary.

In the grounds of the mansion stands the service wing, comprising the old kitchens, dairy and laundry, for a taste of the work needed to support this opulent lifestyle, fed from the expansive kitchen gardens and orchard.

There are follies and temples dotted through the formal gardens beyond, including the prettily landscaped wilderness of the Elysian Garden by the River Cam.

From flowers worth their weight in gold to thieving aristocrats, Roundhead ghosts and 18th century villains, if we ever needed a reminder of just how much there is to explore at home — or that there’s far more to Essex than the stereotypes — a short break in Saffron Walden is perfect.


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