If you were to be on a day trip to say, Audley End House, then not far is the pretty market town of Saffron Walden to fill the rest of the day with.
Saffron Walden is an ancient market village that has the remains of a Norman castle, a very large church, lots of old buildings, a great museum, and some old fortifications to see.
The town centre is a very compact muddle of old medieval street layouts and at the weekend, filled with a market in the centre by the library. It’s a mix of mostly old buildings with a few modern intrusions. The town is also notable for the lack of commonly found brand names in the shops. There’s a few here, but it’s mostly a lot of independent traders and small shops.
One thing to look for on a walk around are the buildings with plaster decoration surviving on the outside (pargeting), as there’s quite a lot of them and they really start to become noticeable once you spot one.
What looks like the remains of a 12th-century castle is in fact just the basement of a much larger former structure that was probably 3 storeys high and formed the Keep of a larger fortification.
Inside are traces of a circular staircase, a well shaft and a fireplace. It was a tower keep, built on the ground where the solid chalk bedrock could take the weight of the masonry. The round tower to the north of the keep is an 18th-century addition.
There’s not a lot to see frankly, but it’s a castle, and everyone loves a castle!
The castle remains were recently restored by Historic England.
It’s free to wander around and go inside.
St Mary the Virgin church
The largest landmark in the town centre is the local church, which is also the largest parish church in Essex
There’s been a church here since at least 1130, but the current building is younger, at a mere 770 years young – having been built around the 1250s. Sadly many of the medieval features were removed in the 1790s due to damage, and the tall spire was added in 1832.
Inside is what you might call a conventional modest parish church in appearance, just that it’s many times larger than you would get elsewhere.
The church is free to go inside for a look around.
Saffron Walden Museum
If you go here expecting a local history museum, you’ll get what you expect, but it’s so much more than that.
It’s more of a general-interest museum, and probably serves a much wider audience of school children on a day trip of their own. So yes, there’s local history with loads of glass cases showing off long lost trades and skills. A room tells you about the closed railway, and dotted all around are bits of old wooden windows, door frames, ironwork, enamel signs.
And yes, there’s the usual local museum collection of mammoth tooths, flints and bits of pottery.
Then go upstairs, for what can be best described as a miniature version of every major London museum. There’s a natural history collection up here, a room of Roman remains, even ancient Egypt gets a look in. Go around the corner for the fashion and textiles displays and then in a “no photos” zone, the people’s of the world. You can spend a hot summer’s afternoon reading about the Inuit residents of the arctic regions.
The museum costs £2.50 to visit, but it’s really quite remarkable value for money.
A turf maze
Saffron Walden has the largest turf maze of its type in England, and you can walk around the maze for free.
A disused railway station
As a town, Saffron Walden is close to the mainline railway, but far enough away that in 1865 a loop branch line was built that runs from the mainline at Audley End station, through several towns and back onto the mainline at Great Shelford.
Sadly, the whole line closed in 1964 as part of the Beeching Cuts and much of the line has been built on since then.
However, the station’s ticket office building is still standing, having been converted into flats. Around the front, opposite the station is a garage servicing the vehicle that was replacing the railway, and around the back you can stand in a car park that was once the old railway tracks. The station building appears to still have part of the platform used as their back garden patios and you can see a decent replica of a station canopy.
If you’re at the nearby station of Audley End, take a look at the car park and how a lower level parking area curves — you’re standing in the former railway track to Saffron Walden.
A model railway
This isn’t in Saffron Walden itself, but is opposite the main entrance to Audley House. The Audley End Miniature Railway is a 1.5 mile loop of miniature railway track through the countryside.
I personally skipped it as it was a blisteringly hot day and I was already flagging by then, but also the £14 ticket price was a tad offputting. I like trains, but not that much.
The Battle Ditches
When the town was much smaller and more medieval, it was surrounded by a large network of defensive ditches. These were earthworks, where a ditch is dug and the soil piled up on the side to create a wall and ditch defence for the town.
Most of them have been filled in and lost within a couple of hundred years, but one section remains on a side road, Gibson Gardens, near the District Council buildings. The ditch appears to be a well-walked footpath, and there is a sign next to it to explain its importance.
It survived mainly as this part of the town was still fields until the 19th century, so there was never a reason to fill them in and build on them.
A sign on the main road just outside indicated that there used to be a WW2 Home Guard anti-tank gun mounted on the spot, although there’s nothing left to see. According to the sign, there is a walking trail of WW2 heritage, but the link on the sign points to a very different website now, and the QR link won’t let you view the content on a computer screen.
Much easier to see though are some WW2 concrete pillboxes, one of which is right on the carefully mown lawns of Audley House by the lake. As Audley House was used as a training base for Polish spies, it would have been a key target for the Germans had they invaded, and the concrete pillbox would have protected soldiers inside who would be firing at the invaders coming down the road.
You can go inside if you want.
A road bridge across the lake inside the grounds also has two large lumps of concrete on them — to support road barriers that could be erected to slow the approach of the enemy vehicles.
Outside the town, at the junction between Walden Road and London Road is another pillbox that would have given an early defensive position.
Getting to Saffron Walden
If not driving, the best way is to take the train to the nearest station at Audley End, and then catch the local bus service to Saffron Walden. The buses are right outside the station.
If going to Audley House, then it’s going to be better to walk/cycle to the House, then walk/cycle to Saffron Walden.
The town centre is about a 20-minute walk from Audley House, although a bus does go part of the way, I found the road to be rammed with cars on a Saturday afternoon, so it’s probably faster to walk (or cycle).