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.

 

 

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