There’s not one, but three, mazes in the historic market town of Saffron Walden. The oldest is the turf maze on the Common, the subject of this blog.
There are very few turf mazes left in the world; eight still exist in England, of which this one is the largest. As I walked across the common leaving the town and its ruined church behind me, I couldn’t see any maze, but then I’d been conditioned to think of mazes as tall labyrinths grown from hedges or cut into fields of corn.
In contrast, turf mazes are flat, with grooves cut into the grass to create twisting patterns on the ground. Saffron Walden’s grooves, should you measure them, are said to total a mile in length, though I’ll take the local council’s word for it. They form a kind of circle inside a raised bank and a ditch with four bastions giving it a distinctive shape.
This type of maze needs regular recutting, most recently carried out in 1979. The bricks currently helping to give the maze its shape were laid horizontally onto paths replacing others first laid in 1911. The turf maze itself is considerably older and is thought to date from before 1699, when the earliest records of it can be found. As well as the restoration work carried out in 1699 and 1911, the maze was recut in 1826, 1841 and 1887.
It’s unclear why the turf maze was cut. Elsewhere, if they were located near cathedrals they were thought to have been used by penitents who had to crawl along them, or where they are on village greens, they were perhaps designed for the amusement of children. As it’s located on the Common at Saffron Walden, maybe the latter is the most likely reason for this turf maze’s existence.
Like many Essex market towns, Thaxted (literally “place of thatch”) dates from before the Domesday book, but unlike many has retained its historic charm. Before being eclipsed by Sheffield, Thaxted was an important centre for cutlery making; there’s a nearby village called Cutler’s Green.
The building of most significance in the town is the Guildhall. Originally thought to date from the 14th century, it’s now believed it actually dates from the century after. It survived the great fire of Thaxted in 1881. This jettied limewashed structure has had many uses over the years, its timbers containing a covered market, grammar school, film set and even the town jail, but today it contains a museum and art gallery. If you’re unlucky enough to time your visit when it’s closed, there’s plenty of information about this intriguing building on the wall outside.
The views from the Guildhall are pretty whichever way you turn. A few steps down the street you’ll find several buildings with a story, among them The Manse (once called The Steps) where the composer Gustav Holst lived for a short time. Part of his “Planet” suite is dedicated to the town. Nearby you’ll see Dick Turpin’s Cottage. Interestingly, there is no evidence whatsoever that the infamous highwayman was born here or ever lived here, but the cottage on Stoney Lane bears his name nevertheless.
Thaxted’s church can be seen behind the Guildhall. It’s dedicated to St John the Baptist, Our Lady and St Laurence and has a six hundred year old history. Construction began at the start of the 14th century and wasn’t complete until the 16th century. Amongst its many treasures, the church contains the Lincoln Organ, once played by Holst himself. There are only two surviving Georgian organs like this; the other can be found in Buckingham Palace.
It’s worth the short stroll behind the church past the almshouses to John Webb’s windmill. John Webb was a local farmer who owned the land on which the mill sits and also the local brickworks down by the River Chelmer. Set on a small hill overlooking the village and the surrounding countryside, his mill dates from 1804 and was used for a century. It’s since been fully restored as a working mill and is open throughout the summer at weekends.
Thaxted is located halfway between Saffron Walden and Great Dunmow, both worth a visit. It’s a short drive from the M11 at Stansted; those using public transport will find the town is well served by bus from Stansted Airport, Saffron Walden and Great Dunmow. For more information about visiting, visit http://www.thaxted.co.uk; there are a number of free leaflets and a map available from the library-cum-tourist information centre on Town Street.