How one man’s influence helped make Saffron Walden the historic gem we know today

PUBLISHED: 14:15 03 December 2019 | UPDATED: 17:45 03 December 2019

Saffron Walden

Saffron Walden


Petra Hornsby visits the charming town of Saffron Walden and discovers how one man’s impact on the town can still be seen through its architecture, arts and open spaces more than 200 years later

The Quaker movement began in England in the mid-17th century, in Darlington, but also established itself relatively quickly in the Americas and Africa. Also known as the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers attracted religious minded people who shunned churches and formal worship, preferring to sit in contemplation and wait for God's instruction.

They were given the nick name Quakers as they were thought to 'tremble in the way of the Lord'. They were often persecuted but were pivotal in major humanitarian events such as the abolition of slavery and the pursuit of securing equal rights for women.

To this day, Quakers see themselves as standing for peace and most towns and cities will have a Quaker Meeting House where all are welcome (whatever religion) to sit together silently in thought and prayer.

Museum and tree in snowMuseum and tree in snow

The Quakers were a highly productive and business minded organisation right from the beginning, moving from modest businesses in art and crafts and agriculture, into bigger investments and projects (especially banking) following the Industrial Revolution which began in the 18th century.

The Cadbury family founded Bourneville, near Birmingham, as a place to build and expand their chocolate factory but also as a quiet place where residents could practise temperance and enjoy a good standard of living.

Another key investment for the Quakers was the rapidly expanding railway network and one businessman and Quaker from Essex, Francis Gibson, became director of the Stockton and Darlington Railway following his marriage to Elizabeth Pease, whose father, Edward, was regarded as the 'Father of the Railways'.

Bridge End Garden, Dutch GardenBridge End Garden, Dutch Garden

Francis was born in Saffron Walden in 1805 into a family who were founding members of Barclays bank. Although he would make his name as a director of Stockton & Darlington railway, Francis and his wife remained in the town although spending each summer in the north east.

Saffron Walden's fortunes had gone from trading in wool during the Middle Ages to the growing of the saffron crocus - which was popular in medicines, condiments and even used as an aphrodisiac - but by the end of the 18th century, the growing, harvesting and production of malt and barley formed employment for the townsfolk and those in the surrounding communities.

The Gibson family funded the construction of some key buildings that are still in use today, including the museum and the Town Hall. However, Francis left his own mark on Saffron Walden by creating the Bridge End Garden and the Fry Art Gallery which form part of his legacy.

Saffron Walden MuseumSaffron Walden Museum

The garden, which was unusually not attached to any dwelling, was built around 1840 and was an extension of a smaller garden which was the creation of his father, Atkinson Francis Gibson. Two entrances give access to the gardens, from Bridge Street and Castle Street, where the Gibson family had their homes.

Visitors to the garden today will enjoy the results of extensive restoration which was undertaken between 2003 to 2008 and, given its unique overall design and history, the awarding of Grade II listed status by Historic England is significant.

The garden was inherited by Francis's daughter, Elizabeth, who was married to the Bristol MP Lewis Fry and the family still own the garden today, although in 1918 they leased it to the council, allowing public access ever since.

Fry Art GalleryFry Art Gallery

The garden was designed by Francis to appear as if it had several interjoining 'rooms' each with its own character and style, all of which have been carefully restored using techniques typical of the Victorian era.

There is a clipped hedge maze and a sunken garden of box geometric swirls based on a drawing by Gertrude Jekyll, the famous Edwardian landscape architect.

The Walled Garden, Wilderness and Rose Garden are also full of impressive planting and resonate with charm throughout the year.

Fry Art GalleryFry Art Gallery

The maintenance of Bridge End Gardens is thoughtfully and carefully overseen by Saffron Walden Town Council with support from the Friends of Bridge End Gardens, a charity which was formed to assist in its restoration, day-to-day maintenance and manage further projects.

Francis was also a keen painter and lover of art. He designed the Fry Art Gallery, originally to house his art collection and again, as with the gardens, his daughter was the main benefactor following his death.

The gallery remained in the Fry family for many decades and, during this time, held and exhibited not only the family collection but works by the masters and their own family members including the artist Roger Fry.

Fry Art GalleryFry Art Gallery

Although the gallery closed in the early 1970s, it reopened in 1987 after The Fry Art Gallery Society formed as a charity to run and manage it and, in 2002, the North West Essex Collections Trust became guardians of the collection and went on to buy the freehold for the gallery building in 2015.

Today, the gallery is perhaps best known for its North West Essex Collection which features varied works by several artists all of which lived and worked in and around Saffron Walden and neighbouring Great Bardfield.

Paintings, prints, ceramics and books dating back to the early 1930s, by artists such as Richard and Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Chloe Cheese and John Aldridge RA are regularly on display, although works exhibited are changed on a regular basis to allow what is a substantial collection to be viewed in turn.

Fry Art GalleryFry Art Gallery

All the works can be viewed by appointment and the gallery is also keen to continue acquiring any new works by the featured artists, either to purchase or by donation.

The gallery also hosts lectures and has an annual exhibition and art sale which this year takes place on November 16 and 17. Open to the public five days a week, including Saturday and Sunday, it is situated a short distance from Bridge End Gardens.

Without doubt, Francis Gibson established two very important sites in Saffron Walden that reflected his passions and which would go on to not only survive but thrive as major tourist attractions in the town, thanks in large part to the volunteers and the council, but mostly to his vision and ambition which would become his lasting legacy.

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