Locals call it simply Walden: no connection with Thoreau these days though the early settlers of New England would have included a number from the town. The saffron meadows have long gone, an early example of cheap imports displacing native industries, but in its heyday the town made the equivalent of billions from filaments of the saffron crocus that still features on the council’s coat of arms.
Buildings are the monuments to medieval wealth but open spaces are what they need for full appreciation. Walden has plenty of these, the most notable allowing St Mary’s church, the largest in Essex, with its flying-buttressed tower and steeple, to stand clearly above the town. It dominates from almost anywhere, but is best seen from these various green spaces. In one is the ancient maze, first recorded by an order for repairing it in the late sixteenth century. To walk its entirety is 1500 metres – a hint of the EU even then perhaps?
Less visible until you approach it is the twelfth century castle. Once there you realise how massive it once was, because what is visible began beneath the ground. These are not the walls of the keep but its foundations. The saffron workers would have been well scrutinised from its battlements. The Normans knew how to keep their coffers filled. No tax cuts in their day.
Medieval Walden has so many surviving buildings it is difficult to know which to look at first, but the exposed timbers and long wall jetty of what is now an antique shop, with second hand books as an extra, is one of the best. Humbler examples are to be found along what was probably a boundary road, of the kind that in France would have become a peripherique or boulevard, here a narrow one-way street below the churchyard and above a park. An alley from here leads to the Fry Public Art Gallery, not open until April but then promising an interesting exhibition – free admission – to celebrate Richard Bawden’s 80th birthday. His father, Edward, was one of the group that became known as the Bardfield artists from where – in their day – was a cheap place to live. Try finding anything for much less than half a million pounds today!
The Fry was closed but the Museum, near the castle ruins, was open, not free but charging only a modest £1 for admission. Exhibits show the area was settled long before the Middle Ages. There are interesting displays of early workshops and machines, suitable for a town where Henry Winstanley, the builder of the first Eddystone lighthouse once lived. Occasionally there are contemporary exhibits: I remember a very good one of textile techniques and designs a few years ago. They also had a show on the development of footwear that included one of the Beckham golden boots.
Inside the church shows where the wealth of Walden was spent. Its master mason was John Wastell of Bury St Edmunds, celebrated for his work on the central tower of Canterbury cathedral and the building of King’s College chapel. It must have been like having the Rogers partnership or Lord Foster designing for them.
It isn’t all old buildings however. There is a market in the square, offering some fine foods as well as the usual discs, trinkets and telephone treatments of any market. A couple of good shops have survived the general coffee bar, charity and betting shop encroachments of all small towns. Walden has some good restaurants too, and some places for a reasonably priced light lunch. There is a small Waitrose, while out of town is a large Tesco. No need for locals to go far for shopping.
Visitors – like the locals – will find plenty to interest them, and probably a good few things to spend their money on. The surrounding countryside is pleasant enough, while for something more spectacular Cambridge is little more than ten miles off, while Audley End – magnificent house and arguably even more magnificent gardens – is almost within walking distance. For the more up-to-date, Foster’s Stansted Airport is near enough. A good place for a visit, and a good location for a short stay.