With its narrow streets and ancient houses, Saffron Walden is the quintessential English market town. By-passed by the direct results of the Industrial Revolution, it has retained many elements of its mediaeval street pattern and there is much to delight the eye, both open to view and tucked away.
The present town started as a small village in the valley, surrounded by rich farmland first tilled by Celtic farmers before the Roman occupation. It grew into ‘Weala-denu’, a prosperous community of Saxon-speaking farmers, merchants and traders, at times part of the Danelaw and subject to Viking control.
The invasion of William of Normandy in 1066 eventually brought changes and new allegiances – an alien fortification in the forbidding shape of Walden Castle and a bigger church, both built on the hill dominating the Saxons in the valley.
By 1141 the Norman lords of the manor and the wealthy mediaeval landowners had established a market, built a priory (later upgraded to become Walden Abbey), and rebuilt the church in stone.
By about 1300 the village was overlain by a new town of well-built timbered houses, some still identifiable today. Chepyng/Chipping (Market) Walden, as it was known then, was a wealthy area and prosperity seldom faltered, since the crops always grew, whether grass for the sheep, wheat, barley, or saffron, the stamens of the little autumn flower (Crocus sativus) that people came from all over the country to buy, using it as a medicine, in cooking, and to produce a rich yellow dye. Saffron, which was both rare and precious, became synonymous with the town, causing it to change its name. However, the community was never solely dependent on it which was just as well because it was unreliable – an early October frost and the crop could be wiped out overnight. When dependable sources from southern Europe became more easily available the local trade waned. One famous story has it than in 1720, when George I stopped at Audley End and a traditional gift was required, imported Saffron had to be rushed from nearby Bishop’s Stortford, causing some embarrassment!
In the 19th century the friendly influence of the Quakers became dominant. The most influential family was the Gibsons who became the major benefactors of the town. There are several buildings which testify to their public-spirited influence and generosity: the Museum, the Town Hall, the Friends' School (sadly, now closed), the Training College (now Bell College Court, luxury apartments), and the rebuilt 19th-century Almshouses. Having made a fortune from malting and brewing the Gibson family established a bank which later became Barclays Bank. The growth of London and its insatiable thirst in the 18th century had encouraged beer-making in the provinces, especially in the lush arable land of north-west Essex, where malting barley grew well. In the 1830s, over 30 maltings and breweries thrived in the town. Although few survive, the building of the Corn Exchange (now the Library) in the Market Place in 1848, on the site of the mediaeval timber-framed Woolcombers Hall, symbolised the dominance of cereal crops at that time.
Gradual change has been a significant element in the development of the town. It has never been sacked, bombed or gutted by fire, and perhaps the preservation of the mediaeval core is the indirect result of the 1964 closure of the unprofitable rail link through Saffron Walden to Audley End, sparing the town the worst effects of post-war ‘development’.
Fascinating to think that, were it possible to transport mediaeval Walden residents from the 1500s to the 21st century, they would still recognise many elements of their town and would be familiar with some of the buildings, even if their uses have changed.