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Things to do in Saffron Walden, Essex

Saffron Walden in snow, winter 06/07 © Clare Mulley

Saffron Walden is in an unspoilt rural area of Essex, about 50 miles north of London, and it is as pretty as its name suggests. What gives the town particular appeal are the many mediaeval buildings.

Surrounded by a pastoral landscape, Saffron Walden is a market town with a population of just over 14,000. Settlement here dates back to pre- Roman times with evidence of Bronze Age and Iron Age inhabitants.

Known originally as Chipping Walden, the town probably changed very little from one century to the next, until William the Conqueror arrived in Britain in 1066. A stone church was built in the village followed by the construction of Walden Castle in 1116, now an ivy-covered heap of flint stones.

By 1136 a priory was founded by Geoffrey de Mandeville, first Earl of Essex and it later became Walden Abbey. After the Dissolution of Monasteries by Henry VIII, the abbey cloisters became part of a palatial house called Audley End, built by Sir Thomas Audley. They can still be seen as part of the Little Court of the house, which is now managed by English Heritage.

In 1300 the town received its first charter and it began to expand beyond the castle's outer bailey walls. It was a trading centre for wool in the area and by the 16th century was producing Saffron Crocus, an expensive yellow dye used in medicines, perfumes and as a condiment. This gave the town its new name - Saffron Walden.

Later, malt and barley were grown and by the 1830s the area had many breweries. The railway was built, connecting the town with London and after World War II the area had some heavy industry in the falsework/construction sector.

Present Day Saffron Walden

Saffron Walden is a delightful historic town with employment provided by local light industry. It is home to the largest parish church in Essex, St Mary the Virgin Parish Church, which dates back to the 15th century. The church also has the tallest spire in the county at 59m (193 feet) in height.

The town has narrow streets crammed with old buildings, some half-timbered, along with the Old Corn Exchange, now housing the library. The Town Hall and other fine buildings surround the Market Square where a market is still held on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

The town has many amenities including a skateboarding park and a miniature train ride through the woods near Audley End.

Things to Do in Saffron Walden

Visit the ruined castle remains and then explore the neighbouring Turf Maze, the largest in England. It was first mentioned in 1699 and consists of many circular excavations cut into the turf of the town common. It extends to 30m (100 feet) in diameter.

If you prefer a more traditional hedge maze, visit Bridge End Garden off Bridge Street. Established by the Quaker Gibson family in the 1840s, the garden is open to the public and is run by volunteers. Incidentally, the Gibson family started Gibson Bank in Saffron Walden which became a founding company of Barclays.

Visitors may want to get tickets for one of the Proms concerts which are held in the grounds of Audley End, offering an evening of classical music and fireworks.

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Images of Saffron Walden

The Turf Maze (c) Brighton
The Verger's Cottage (c) Brighton
St Mary's Church (c) Brighton
Bridge End Garden
 Timber Framed House Castle St. (c) Brighton
Saffron Walden Town Centre (c) Sisaphus
Winter in Saffron Walden © Clare Mulley

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