Thaxted's timbered charm
PUBLISHED: 10:10 13 July 2015 | UPDATED: 10:10 13 July 2015
Picture postcard perfect might describe many a village or town across our vibrant and varied county, but few fit the description better than Thaxted. Petra Hornsby takes a closer look at its charms and meets the group of people that fight to protect them
Thaxted is a small town set in open agricultural land between Saffron Walden and Great Dunmow. Its narrow streets with names like Fishmarket Street and Weaverhead Lane, as well as some beautiful timbered buildings, show how the town works hard to conserve its heritage.
Thaxted appears in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Tachesteda, old English for ‘place where thatch was got’. This may well have been the case back then, but it was because of something a lot harder and shinier that the town would later prosper. Perhaps surprisingly, Thaxted was once known for its cutlery manufacturing before facing competition from Sheffield.
The medieval ‘village’ was granted a charter in 1205 and by the 14th century had grown in size and fortune thanks to the trade in cutlery and its associated guilds. The Guild of Cutlers instigated the building of one of the town’s more prominent and historic buildings — the Guildhall — and its paved frontage was used as an important trading and meeting point. By 1556, the cutlery trade had gone into a decline but support was offered by the monarchy (Philip and Mary) who granted a Charter of Incorporation to encourage and regulate alternative industry which meant the town became a borough, complete with Mayor and Common Council. This lasted up until the end of the following century when the charter was declared void. The Guildhall, once a symbol of success, fell into disrepair. Subsequently, the building was used as Thaxted Grammar School until 1878 with the provision of free education for 30 boys and 20 girls. The Guildhall today houses a small museum which is open to the public from 2pm to 6pm each Sunday and Bank Holiday from Easter until September.
Standing magnificently over the town, like a small cathedral, is the Parish Church of St John. Constructed between 1340 and 1510, it has a flying buttressed spire that stands 181 feet tall and is believed to be the only medieval stone spire in the country. From 1910 to 1942, the then parish vicar (the Reverend Conrad Noel) courted some controversy by openly supporting the Independent Labour Party. He became known as the Red Vicar and was befriended by one of the town’s more eminent residents, the composer Gustav Holst. Holst and his wife initially had a holiday cottage in the town but in 1917 they moved into the centre of Thaxted and lived there until 1925. It was during this time that he acted as occasional organist and choirmaster for St John’s.
Interestingly, Rev Noel also initiated and revived interest in Morris Dancing and in 1911, the Thaxted Morris Men were formed. The group is believed to be the oldest revival group in the country. Of particular note is that one of their earliest public performances was for the local celebrations for the coronation of King George V.
The white sails of John Webb’s Windmill also act as an important landmark in Thaxted’s historical landscape and industry. It was built in 1804, from locally sourced timber and bricks, at the request of Webb, a local farmer and landowner, in response to increased demand for flour from within the county and also from London. The five-storey windmill was in use up until 1920 and, although no longer a working mill, the building is now fully restored thanks to Thaxted Parish Council (who took ownership in the 1950s) and also the Thaxted Society. The Rural Museum, situated on the ground floor, has some interesting agricultural artefacts and is well worth a visit. The windmill is open from 2pm to 6pm each Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday from Easter through to September.
There are many other buildings of interest to see including a quaint timbered house known as Dick Turpin’s Cottage. Local information states that there is no known categorical evidence to support the claim that the famous highwayman ever had a home in Thaxted, although it is thought that he did live in the town.
Thaxted is fortunate to have a group that works hard to maintain its significant historic character and appeal. The Thaxted Society was formed in 1964 and since then has worked hard to support the conservation of the town’s assets, recognise the town’s value and ensure that it is generally cared for and looked after.
Chairman Michael Culkin, a Thaxted resident for over seven years, explains: ‘What we try to offer as a society is consistency in response to proposals that could affect the town negatively. As a group, we try and take the longer view on how some of the ideas put forward could change the balance of our town and community, keeping in mind the historic importance of Thaxted and its character.’
The society recently worked to overturn a proposal for a large housing development on the edge of the town which residents opposed. ‘As a group we will always pull together if we feel something is not right for the town and we have a programme of discussions held every quarter, addressing important topics that lead to action such as lobbying for changes in the Essex Building Design Guide. We have also campaigned to keep special street lighting within the town and focus on the upkeep of individual buildings of interest such as Clarence House, a Queen Anne, Grade I listed house.’
Every household in Thaxted receives a bi-annual copy of the Thaxted Bulletin, produced by the Thaxted Society, keeping residents up-to-date with all the latest developments and matters of concern as well including informative and interesting articles. The Thaxted Bulletin was recently named Essex Community Magazine of the Year — a great accolade indeed.
Clearly the society is keen to see their beautiful town represented accurately and they have recently commissioned Leicester University to research and present a history of Thaxted, to hopefully uncover new information and also clarify more ambiguous elements of its past.
Michael says: ‘We feel that Thaxted hasn’t been treated in the way it deserves and we hope with this refreshed and perhaps revised history, the town will have the recognition it warrants. We don’t think Thaxted should be taken for granted and the society works to ensure it isn’t.’
So what makes Thaxted so special? Michael explains: ‘The extraordinary thing about Thaxted is its unique and special history that seems to seep through all the buildings and corners of the town, whether lurking in an old timbered house or in modern bricks and mortar, everything and everybody here is affected by the town’s history and character.’