The Moot Hall, Maldon

It’s been a mediaeval manor house, a police station complete with holding cells, a court room and a council chamber. Now it’s a visitor attraction and wedding venue. Located in the heart of Maldon’s High Street, the Moot Hall is one of the most fascinating buildings in Essex and a must if you’re planning a visit to the town.

21462470_694930937375031_331397301668125940_n

Tours begin on the ground floor of what was once the family residence of the D’Arcy family. You may know the name from the nearby village of Tolleshunt D’Arcy. Sir Robert D’Arcy built his mansion somewhere around 1420 and 1436. A lawyer by trade, he was a wealthy and powerful man, holding the office of MP for Maldon six times as well as being the Escheator for Essex, which meant it was his job to collect property from the deceased and return it to the Crown. The mansion was his way of showing off that he could afford a brick construction when everything else in the town was built using timber. D’Arcy employed Flemish bricklayers to create a three-storied keep and stair turret. It’s believed to be the oldest secular brick building not just in Essex, but in the country as a whole.

The house had a complicated history under the D’Arcy family. It’s unclear if it was ever completely finished and certainly by the mid 16th century what was left of the property had been sold. Today, the ground floor room is a bit of a patchwork of different styles and bricks, as it has been converted in use so many times over the years. Even the door has been rehung , as the graffiti on it reveals the name to be upside down.

A curved brick stairwell leading from the room is impressive and what remains of the old prison door helps you visualise how crowded this room might have been during its spell as the town gaol. A low doorway to the rear of the room leads out into a 19th century exercise yard, where graffiti on the brickwork includes what appears to be a bayonet amid many names and initials.

Upstairs tells a different story. This room, bearing a grand fireplace and exposed mediaeval brickwork, was used as a courtroom in the 19th century and has been left furnished as such. Sit in the dock, take your place on the witness stand or if you prefer, preside over proceedings from the bench where the magistrate would have sat as late as 1950.

8A0BF501-09F4-4CF8-871C-56277E01B10E

On this level is a balcony with views along Maldon High Street, a reminder of the large number of historic buildings that have been constructed during the town’s long history.

Up a steep staircase is the room that used to function as the council chamber. On its wood-panelled walls are copies of the town charters, the earliest dating back to the 13th century.

A narrow, even more vertiginous staircase accessed by a Guillotine-style door leads to the roof. On a clear day it’s possible to see for miles: across Maldon, across the Blackwater and across the surrounding countryside.

I’d walked past the Moot Hall countless times and never given it a second glance, but to miss this would be a shame. The Hall is open for guided tours from March to October each Thursday, Friday and Saturday morning. Admission costs £4 per adult and it’s not necessary to reserve in advance.

http://www.themoothall.co.uk/

Advertisements

Saffron Walden’s turf maze

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.

maze2

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.

maze4

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.

maze3

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.

maze1

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.

Thaxted

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.

Thaxted Guildhall
Thaxted Guildhall
Looking out from the Guildhall
Looking out from the Guildhall
Close up of the limewashed Guildhall porch
Close up of the limewashed Guildhall porch

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.

The home where Gustav Holst lived from 1917 to 1925
The home where Gustav Holst lived from 1917 to 1925
The cottage where Dick Turpin probably never lived
The cottage where Dick Turpin probably never lived
The colours of the buildings add to Thaxted's charm
The colours of the buildings add to Thaxted’s charm
The Recorders House dates from 1465, the place where William Benlowes recorded local taxes
The Recorders House dates from 1465, the place where William Benlowes recorded local taxes. As well as the golden griffin, you’ll find Edward IV’s coat of arms.
One of the many quaint cottages
One of the many quaint cottages in Thaxted
Many of the buildings have quirky architectural details
Many of the buildings have quirky architectural details

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.

Looking towards the church
Looking towards the church
The church of John the Baptist
The church of St John the Baptist, Our Lady and St Laurence

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.

The windmill on the edge town with far-reaching views over the surrounding fields
John Webb’s windmill on the edge of town with far-reaching views over the surrounding fields

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.