Saffron Walden is a picturesque medieval market town in north-west Essex, 18 miles south of Cambridge. A market has been held here since 1141 and is held on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The town has many notable historic buildings. In 1300, the town was known as “Chepyng Walden”, meaning “Market Walden”. In medieval times, the main trade was wool and a guildhall was built in the Market Place. In 1847, it was demolished and replaced by a corn exchange.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Saffron crocus was widely grown. It was precious as the flower extract was used in medicine, perfume and an expensive yellow dye. The industry gave Saffron Walden its name. By the end of the 18th century, the saffron industry was replaced by malt and barley and over forty maltings were built. The oldest inhabited building in the town, is the 15th century former maltings at 1 Myddylton Place, which was used by the Youth Hostel Association until 2010.
St. Mary’s Church is the largest parish church in Essex and one of the most beautiful. It dates mainly from the end of the 15th century, when an earlier church was rebuilt in flint. The spire was added in 1832 to replace a rectangular one. The spire is 193 feet tall and is the tallest in Essex. The church is 183 feet long.
The town contains the remains of Walden Castle. It was built by Geoffrey de Mandeville, the first Earl of Essex. Only the flint core walls remain of the Norman keep. After the medieval period, much of the flint was taken and used in the construction of local houses. Close to the castle is the Saffron Walden Museum, which was established in 1835. It is one of the oldest purpose-built museum buildings in England.
The Old Sun Inn is famous for its pargetting – elaborate decorative, moulded plasterwork. Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have stayed here in 1647. The Common is the oldest of Saffron Walden’s open spaces. It contains a turf maze, dating from at least 1699, making it the largest surviving turf maze in Europe. The path winds through the excavations for about one mile, within a circle 100 feet in diameter.
Audley End House, one mile west of Saffron Walden, is one of the finest Jacobean houses in England. It was once one of the largest mansions in England, but is now one third of its original size, but still large. It is in the care of English Heritage and open to the public. It was built by Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, in the early 17th century. It has over thirty lavishly decorated rooms, including interiors by Robert Adam. It contains a magnificent collection of paintings and furniture, including works by Canaletto and Cipriani. The gardens, which are divided by the River Cam, were designed by Capability Brown.
Saffron Walden has been a popular residence for actors. Hattie Jacques, Jeff Hordley (Cain Dingle of Emmerdale) and Ian Lavender (Pike in Dad’s Army, known for the command “Don’t tell them your name Pike!”), have all lived in Saffron Walden.