A Day Out With Elspeth in Indestructible International Saffron Walden

Has anyone else realised that Saffron Walden fits the Captain Scarlet theme tune?

Those timbered plaster houses managed to survive all those centuries and the official website says that visitors come from Harwich on the ferry. I especially sought the latter, wondering if this town really is such a draw to the Dutch for a day trip.

I can see why people flying into nearby Stansted might call in to have a glimpse of real England – the East Anglian version of the quintessential olde market town.

I spent the first half of my day comparing it to another East of England town beginning with S – Stamford. Stamford is Saffron in stone: both around 15,000 people but large medieval towns which haven’t grown much; hence a wide spread of lovely old buildings.

This idea was born because I began my day in the part of Saffron Walden which is most photographed – walking from High street into Bridge street, and then turning off into Castle street. It’s the equivalent of Lavenham’s Water street – the coloured timbered houses which have become the pubic image of the town. But I decided that this wasn’t quite Lavenham’s big sister.

Yes it is the equivalent of Stamford – the big house in walking distance of the town, a stone near palace built by a family of courtiers 30 years apart; both have nothing particular to visit in the town itself, save its atmosphere and shops. At least Saffron Walden has retained its museum, but neither have much of their castles left. Both have old almshouses, and both coaching inn towns missed out on mainline railways.

Stamford is a town of churches; Saffron Walden has just one. Each town has prominent spires, but Saffron’s is grander than all Stamford’s six inside. I’d said Saffron Walden’s was a favourite of the region and of national importance if you like the big and late gothic style. But its spire is not as powerful as it might be, it’s the arcades (inner walls of pillars) which are the impressive part. I note it is built by the man behind Lavenham’s, as well as Cambridge’s best known churches; interestingly, that is all Walden has in common with its nearest city, except willing travellers between the two.

It may have no equivalent to Lavenham or Coggleshall’s National Trust properties in the centre, but Saffron has mazes – I only saw the turf ancient one. I hoped as a labyrinth that it would be a spiritual experience but I felt only nausea at its tight coils and wondered at the mud and nearby football game as being conducive to contemplation.

Perhaps Saffron is a town of the garden; Bridge End’s is the home to the other maze, and its name and its wealth come from flowers. But it’s mostly a town to browse and eat in; and even wandering is more restricted than I first thought.

The town is a darling of the glossy magazines, and that put me off. ‘Walden’s lovely’ squealed a posh shop owner in another town who indicated her desire to have a branch there, as well as her insider’s intimacy with it. I’ve not know what to call the town. I’m not surprised at its being abbreviated. King’s Lynn becoming Lynn seems OK but Walden felt an in crowd name. Why not use the first part – although like Lynn it had a different first name, the west country sounding Chipping, before the crocus industry set in.

I didn’t find Saffron (we’ll settle for Ab Fab character’s name) that posh. I thought it would be the sort of place that her mother would go for a day trip. I’d judged by the regional chains of boutiques which chose Saffron alongside Burnham Market and Bury St Edmunds. But I heard a variety of voices (no Dutch ones) including cockney market cries, and met several friendly people, including a very loquacious Irish lady in one of the ‘lovely’ shops.

Outstanding among these were at the tourist information centre. Suffolk – take note – these work! Bring them back! They were helpful in replying to a pre visit email query, and chatty in person. A regular came in to book tickets and volunteered how helpful they are and that they give newcomers a stash of leaflets to learn what there is to do here. TIC staff not only displayed a poster about my locally based novel and an event I’m doing, but offered to take some for Saffron Screen, the community cinema at the high school.

I was chuffed by that.

The said Screen (see it’s not Walden Widescreen) had already sold out for that night, so I was unable to try that independent cinema. I’m not sure what I feel about both Saffron’s cultural offering being in the grounds of a school. There appears to be no theatre.

Worse is if you don’t drive and want to go somewhere which does. Buses like in Lavenham, stop about 7pm, and thus you can neither escape or come home after that time. And not at all on Sundays. I wonder if the churches, including that of the prominent Quakers, are well attended, and if the not being able to leave town has anything to do with that.

Saffron Walden, as rail ticket staff sarcastically reminded me, now has no station of its own. The station you want is Audley End. And it’s not a badly served station, being the only part of Essex to have trains leaving the region (Birmingham to Stansted Airport) and also having trains from Cambridge to London. It’s not dead and lonely as I feared – it’s a baby grand station, and has a shop. But it’s two miles away by a country road in a hamlet called Wendens Ambo, off most town maps. And hence it’s not easy to work out how to walk into town. The way the bus went, there is a path along the road, but it’s not lit. The buses go a longer lorry friendly way round – the most direct road is more rural, and I wasn’t recommended to walk it. Buses are infrequent and the two companies don’t accept the tickets of the other. They are about £3 return each, but there’s a 15% difference in singles. Hence taxis must have a field day.

Digital Camera

Church St and the famous old Sun Inn


Saffron has a tighter shopping centre than I’d expected: its ‘rows’ are not like Chester’s and perhaps only King’s Street – home of traceried Cross Keys inn and Hart’s Books – is the olde thoroughfare which I had expected. Unlike Lavenham, its timbered buildings don’t continue much off the over-chosen photographic scenes. Towards the market – another iconic image – are Victorian taller buildings, and much of the town is brick. It began to feel more like Sudbury around Hill Street with the toilets by Waitrose which count down the seconds until the door opens – unisex cubicles right opposite the entrance. For all its salubrious reputation, it seems that the council don’t trust the people of Walden (said it now) with sinks and mirrors.

I’d gladly spend another day there – and go to the other maze and evening culture, and to see more of the villages of this under celebrated county.




Elspeth’s Quest for East Anglia’s prettiest village

This is a new strand, a quest which will go round the country – seasides, cities, spa towns….

This first post is about villages.

As I’ve been writing about it most, I start with East Anglia.

As I was denigrating Burnham Market (below), who claims to be Norfolk’s prettiest, I began thinking – where is the prettiest village?

North Norfolk2 - Copy - Copy

I think I was a little harsher on BM in my Bus Named Pocahontas post than I really meant to be. As with all those gentrifying places, I am ambivalent, and sometimes intrigued. But I do share the resentment of locals who see their communities being taken over by those capital dwellers with Jezebel eyes…

Politics aside, I find that Burnham Market is not overly pretty in its own right; it appears appealing because there’s an unusual amount of shops and a trend to visit. I’m still intrigued to know why the London influx was on this village, and not others. The coloured rendering and the red brick – common in Norwich but not this part of Norfolk – helps its perception of prettiness; but I still think: there is nothing to visit other than those puffed up shops and a certain inn. Even on its own website, the things to do in Burnham involve facials, or links to further afield.

And Burnham’s hardly fodder for the National Trust, is it?

Unlike Suffolk’s Lavenham, which is where I’ll champion, though there’s some wonderful Essex villages I’m getting to know. I’m not alone in thinking there’s not much of note in Cambridgeshire other than its cities, and even the brochures and glossies don’t offer any dissent from that. I would defy anywhere in the country to do better than Lavenham, though I am aware of several very lovely villages in those famous counties such as Gloucestershire, but whom get more attention – but not necessarily deservingly.


The whole of Lavenham really does look like this

Lavenham is part of a swathe of lovely Wool Towns who I’m sure I’ll write about as a Day Out, and who ignore the county border and run from south Suffolk into north Essex. Coggeshall might well compete – alas I’ve not visited yet – and Thaxted is a serious contender and contester for prettiest village, though like many others listed here, it was once a town because of having a mayor and market. It has a guildhall, large church, important timbered and brick buildings, a windmill and the homes of a famous composer and infamous highwayman. But I think Thaxted isn’t the best because you can see all these in one well framed view, and it has few places to eat and shop (photo below).

Lavenham et al would be impressive even if they were purely residential. I expected a single old street, cunningly photographed to appear as many, but it is as well preserved as it appears – and better. It does have several shops and one could meet many needs without ever leaving the village – alpaca products, theatre set curios for three thousand pounds, artwork, chemists, and places to eat and drink. It’s also got a publisher, two museums (none in Burnham Market) and several societies – is this something that Burnham has? – they aren’t on the BM website, which was more welcoming and inclusive sounding than I’d expected. There are individual buildings worth seeing at Lavenham, and not just that church and Guildhall. You need to walk around, not just pass through a single spot. Lavenham’s not revealed all in one postcard, unlike popularly photographed nearby villages such as Kersey or Cavendish.

I also think its undulations help Lavenham’s picturesque quality. Fun to descend on a bike too.

Long Melford2

Long Melford (above) has something Lavenham doesn’t – the green and the two mansions – but I think I still prefer Lavenham for a more compact feel (ie herring shaped town grid round a market rather than one long street). Perhaps I need to do a post on not well known but pleasant villages of the region, for I can think of many who again would be famous by other counties’ standards. Why is Burnham prettier than Hingham, or Woolpit, or Bildeston? Why does Finchingfield get on postcards, but Haughley and Gt Bardfield don’t? (Why does my spell checker not know their names but it does Burnham’s?) Clare is very special, but it’s kind of a town. It has a castle and a priory which Lavenham doesn’t, but the church is less interesting and its museum in Ancient House is small. It is pretty and has good facilities – or am I just getting inured?

Thaxted and Finchingfield , both in Essex

I still rate Little Walsingham (see previous article) because it’s unusual to have an abbey in the heart of a village built for pilgrims. I like that today (though not medievally), Walsingham’s focus is not on commerce, but on genuine spiritual seeking; and that it’s still a real village. I love its antiquity, and the many timbering and flint facades.

My ideal village has history – that’s pre 1700, timbered buildings, maybe some warm stone and brick; authentic (not manufactured) charm; local but not yokel; something to visit other than just shops, although I like several of those; an outstanding medieval church, something else heritage to visit, and something to do by night. A monthly film club/dramatics club/some quality concerts would be suffice for a village (but not for me, I do need my city). Colour is also important, and a little variety. Lavenham, you’re still winning.

Suggestions for contesters welcome. Or people who want to stick up for Burnham Market – I would gladly be proved wrong.

A Day out with Elspeth in Colchester

In 2008 I began a series of British towns – not guides, but personalised tours and reflections, eschewing the usual information and observation. This is another on my native East Anglia.

I wrote more on Colchester here:

This one’s more of a tour.

The mainline North Station isn’t a great overture but you will have had sight of the town’s skyline – and how far it is. There’s little attraction around the station, though the retail park (especially the supermarket) may be useful if you are stranded or waiting for someone who’s delayed. To reach ASDA, stay on the side with the railway line and cross when you are opposite it. Otherwise, it’s a convoluted set of crossings that could miss you your train. Note Boudicca’s statue in the roundabout.

Perhaps Colchester’s is not the easiest station-town route; it is basically go straight (south) for about 20 minutes, but some of the 3 roundabouts’ turnings are a little skewed. Keep sight of the tall Edwardian town hall and the Watertower to guide you.

You can catch a bus or catch a train to the Town Station.

There are a few pubs along the route and some convenience stores (including an ethnic one) and takeaways. Note the river crossing with pretty cottages and a footpath. A little further, at the foot of North Hill, you’ll see the Roman walls and this is your sign that central Colchester is beginning. And so are the nice bits.

Colchester 1

Hills in Colchester are not called so for nothing but with your steep ascent, attractive buildings with chain restaurants and a vinyl bar await you. At the top is a rare classical church with gothic additions, St Peter’s, which is often open. Turn left into the High Street where there are some grander buildings, perhaps a little raggle taggle and bedraggled: the shirehall/fire office, some banks past and present, the red glory of the Town Hall. There is no central square in Colchester (strange for a region whose outdoor market places are a feature) – this is as near as it does. (The medieval market was in the broad high street in which you are standing). If you continue left/east you are heading for the tourist information centre and museums. A pretty, colourful cut through (Museum St) shows a glimpse of the castle – there’s also a couple of cafes. there Around the TIC itself are some food options – Italian chain Prezzo, the Minories gallery has a cafe with a garden, or the cooler and more professional new Firstsite where you can enjoy views of the temporary bus station from it vast glass and gold walls.

Firstsite is interesting as a building, even if the modern art within is not to your taste. Leaving by Lewis Gardens and walking down East Hill away from the high street takes you beyond the walls past some of Colchester’s best Georgian houses to a long suburb of timbered houses, though there’s no facilities. It’s worth getting as far as the Rose and Crown Hotel, but there is nothing beyond it or that level crossing (there is a station near it called Hythe). The hotel is open for lunch and dinner, as is another medieval building you will have just passed – the Siege House named because of the bullets it took during the Civil War. There is also a vast former mill beside it.

A pleasant river walk is from opposite the large former mill (the mill side is private road, as you will often be reminded) that leads back to the castle park, and ultimately to the pretty cottages on North Street. There does not seem to be a river path going in the opposite direction. I followed the national cycle route a short way by stinging nettles and derelict houses, and decided this was not my idea of aesthetic or safe meandering.

Bear in mind if you retrace you steps that East Hill is very steep! And that if you choose the river option it is quite a long way round and may not be lit (or accessible) after dark.

In some ways, you have seen much of Colchester’s best parts already. Halfway up East Hill is a left turning into Priory Street where much of the town walls are exposed.

Colchester 4

The end of the lane feels quite leafy and there are ruins of a substantial priory next to an ugly Victorian attempt at Romanesque (gentler on the inside). It is not far to the other abbey, but there’s only a gatehouse to see – hardly worth the effort of crossing the ring road via subways (the big one is better as it’s open to the sky in the middle).

Colchester 6

I would suggest cutting across St Botolph’s ruins toward the Town station, walking up St Botolph’s Street and then turning left into Short Wyre St/Eld Lane to enjoy the smaller scale buildings and independent shops. Pause to note Trinity Lane, with the Saxon church tower. There’s a couple of cafes, one in former clock museum, up this street; otherwise it leads into bland modern shopping and back towards the High Street. I’d recommend keeping on Eld Lane as it becomes Sir Isaac’s Walk (note the Scheregate Steps passage) and emerge on to Headgate. If you want more indie shops, go over the road and slightly to the left to Crouch Street. As you cross, note a couple of pub/eating options, close to the tucked away Headgate Theatre (actually off St John’s St) and the Odeon in a post office. Go up the hill past the Odeon and turn left down a small cobbled street, Church Lane. You’ll soon be in the presence of the mighty Jumbo Water Tower. In its shadow is a Quaker Meeting house, a 1970s producing theatre, and an arts centre in a church. There’s also a handful of pubs and places to eat (eg the Courthouse). Go past the theatre towards the brick arches which once were part of a large Roman gate, the Balkerne. Turn right, and walk beside the walls, pretty in spring, and follow them round till you recognise the North Gate area.

Colchester 2

Start up North Hill but dive left under an arch into Nun Street. Zigzag around these pretty streets of Dutch weaver’s cottages, where there are also 2 churches and the site of the amphitheatre. If you haven’t been in the Castle or mooched in the grounds, this is a good time to do so.

Colchester 5

Come back down via the little warren of streets to the North Hill junction area where you can make your way back to the station.