Streets of gold
PUBLISHED: 10:48 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013
Elaine Sivyer takes a wander around the picturesque streets of Saffron Walden and discovers why the town is one of the county's most breathtaking delights
WALKING around Saffron Walden is a true voyage of discovery, with new delights at every turn. One of the most beautiful towns in the county, this is the perfect destination for a summer excursion.
The town, originally and less poetically named Walden, began to be known as Saffron Walden due to extensive cultivation of the saffron crocus on the land from the late 14th century. Saffron has long been prized as a rich yellow dye, for its fabled medicinal powers and in cuisine for its intense flavour, colour and aroma. Today it remains the world's most expensive spice, and at times the crop was literally worth its weight in gold.
Legend has it that saffron was introduced to England by a pilgrim from Levant who stashed a single bulb in his staff and smuggled it into the country. There is no record of the saffron crocus ever having grown wild in Saffron Walden, yet by the early 16th century the town had become the centre of the saffron industry in the country. Business was booming and the medieval market town flourished. Sadly such prosperity was not to last and the trade dwindled by the end of the 18th century.
Today the saffron crocus is no longer grown locally, but the flower, with its three stigmas, still frequently appears in the form of motifs. These include the town's coat of arms, which shows the saffron crocus within the walls of Walden Castle and is intended as a heraldic pun - 'saffron walled-in'.
The ancient Walden Castle, built by Geoffrey de Mandeville 3rd Earl of Essex, dates back to the 12th century. It originally consisted of a keep, motte, and inner and outer baileys that helped create the shape of the town centre today. All that remains of the structure are the Grade I listed keep tower ruins of flint and mortar, but these are nevertheless imposing and atmospheric.
Within the area of the old castle ruins also stands the beautifully-maintained treasure trove that is the Saffron Walden Museum. Surprisingly large and varied, the museum houses a range of exhibitions from local history, archaeology, geology and natural history, to cultures of the past and even ancient Egypt.
But wherever you wander, Saffron Walden is immersed in history and boasts an astonishing assortment of rare and beautiful architecture that few towns could rival. It is worth finding a copy of the town trail (available from the Tourist Information Centre) and taking a pleasant stroll around the sites of particular interest.
At the centre of the town lies the Market Place, dominated by Victorian buildings, where the market is still held on Tuesdays and Thursdays as it has been since the 13th century. The town centre is a shopper's paradise, whether you fancy browsing the boutiques or picking up a quirky bargain from one of the antiques shops. However, if you wish to take a break from the hustle and bustle, a walk down Castle Street showcases some of Saffron Walden's most picturesque architecture.
Castle Street also offers a narrow path to another of Saffron Walden's finest assets, Bridge End Garden. These wonderful Victorian gardens, created during the late 18th and mid 19th century, feature a Dutch garden, rose garden, kitchen garden, wilderness area and south-facing lawn with an attractive summerhouse.
Bridge End Garden
The gardens also contain a yew hedge maze with an impressive entrance of richly ornamented wrought iron gates. The maze was originally planted around 1840 and was embellished with statues, columns and other architectural garden features, some of which were designed to divert those seeking the central goal down dead ends.
The original maze fell into disrepair meaning that the whole area had to be cut down and replanted from scratch. Nevertheless, the restored design is very similar to the original, although sadly without the ornaments.
It is easy to see why Saffron Walden inspires such affection. With its beauty and unique character, the town is truly one of the county's finest treasures.