Essex is not renowned for tourism, but head to the far NW corner of the county and you will come across the attractive market town of Saffron Walden. Nearby is Audley End, a fine Jacobean house with landscaped gardens. Together they provide much of interest for anyone wishing to take a relaxed short break in an unspoiled part of rural England.
The town was originally called Walden, meaning “valley of Britons”, but had Saffron attached in the Middle Ages when it became a major centre for production of the dyestuff saffron, from the saffron crocus. It has over 400 buildings of special architectural or historic interest, some dating back to medieval times, with modern developments leaving the character of the town largely intact.
I followed the Saffron Walden Town Trail which leads past all the more interesting features of the town, including the ruins of the 12th-Century Walden Castle and the Museum.
Audley End house and gardens are one and half miles west of the town centre, a pleasant parkland walk. In 1948 it was the first major building to be taken into English Heritage management, and today it is still one of their top sites. When first constructed in the reign of James I, it was one of the largest houses in England. Only one third of that structure still remains, but there is much to see including the Great Hall, the chapel, the library and the Robert Adams rooms.
Many of the best designers of the day, including Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, were involved in producing the stylish gardens with water features being key elements.
Seniors 60+ get a 10% discount on the entry charge, but consider taking out a annual membership of English Heritage for a 25-30% discount.
The five highlights of my short break were:
- The Market Place in Saffron Walden, surrounded by historic buildings. Markets are held every Tuesday and Saturday – very traditional, even an egg stall!
- St Mary the Virgin Parish Church which towers over the town, and dates back to 1250, although it was mostly rebuilt in perpendicular style around 1500. I was interested to see that R.A. Butler “the best Prime Minister Britain never had” has a memorial plaque in the church and grave in the cemetery.
- Bridge End Gardens situated in the north of the town, developed by Francis Gibson, a Quaker benefactor. He introduced a Dutch garden, a kitchen garden, a wilderness and a maze.
- The Victorian Service Wing of Audley End house which includes a kitchen, a scullery, a laundry and dry and game larders. This particularly interested my grandchildren
- Audley End Walled Garden with its vinery and orchard house. The vast range of fruit and vegetables produced in the garden, including 120 apple and 40 pear varieties, are all cultivated on strictly organic lines.
There are many small guest houses in Saffron Walden, but I opted to stay at the Duxford Holiday Inn Express (booked through the Intercontinental Hotels Group website) which is just 8 miles north of Saffron Walden. The room rates were very good and there is an excellent restaurant on site, the Red Lion.
It is just two miles away from the Imperial War Museum (exhibits include Concorde and the Spitfire – 20% discount for Seniors) and Cambridge is only eight miles to the north.