Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Saffron Walden and Mazes.

I promised Jeanie of Marmelade Gypsy that I'd mention the maze in Saffron Walden, in Essex. I hadn't visited Saffron Walden for many years.  It is less sleepy than it was, but the picture above, showing a side street, still brings back to me the feeling I had as a child, when we lived for a while in an old cottage set in what was once a stables in the centre of a similar small, old town. I remember so well looking through an ancient timbered archway at small, old fashioned shops on the other side of the road.  (As a kid, I'd have definitely investigated the toyshop on the left.)

Saffron Walden's many old houses including these at the side of the main road.  As you see, the road has been built up over the years - resurfaced, I suppose - giving the impression that the cottages have sunk. Really, they are built on the level of the mud roads of 400 years ago. Surely, if the road is to be resurfaced much more, something will have to be done to stop it getting much higher. As you can see the cottages' front doors are already accessed by steps cut into the pavement! 

The handsome library is right in the centre of town. I was glad to see it's still a library, not a cafe bar or restaurant, which so often is the fate of old public buildings. It was a particularly lovely sky that day, with so many different types of clouds.

Many of the doorways are decorated or adorned with figures.  I'm wondering what this one is. A rather ugly cherub? A god? Or even a lion, with all that hair. 

This old window bows out crookedly.  I have an idea this kind of angular bow window has a special name, though I don't know what it is.  The glass in it is old and uneven, so if you are inside you'll get a slightly wavy view of the world.  

I'm very glad that many of the old houses in Saffron Walden actually look old. This place, painted white, looks almost ghostly, but look at all the interesting details and the shapes of the windows and doors. It makes a most fascinating addition to the street.

Now I'm going to rant, so skip the next paragraph if you don't want to read it!  I really hate it when people buy old, old places like this and modernise the insides. I stayed at quite an expensive b&b recently which was an Elizabethan farmhouse, over 400 years old, whose interior had been entirely replaced with every darn cliche in the home improvement magazines. The walls of small old rooms had been torn down and "spaces opened up," like a furniture showroom.   Colours were all Farrow and Ball "period" pastels instead of the plain whites, blacks or dark colours you find in real old places. The floors were of smooth new flagstones, straight out of the builder depot. All the plastering of the walls was new and flawless. Staircases were modern.  This lovely old house had no doubt needed some work, but the new owners had stolen every fragment of its personality and I really wished they'd just bought a new one instead of destroying something irreplaceable, that would have had so much to tell us about the lives of those who'd lived in it for centuries and passed it down. Of course houses should be modernised and improved over the years, but if you're going to do so much work, why not just build from new?  

Oh well, rant over. And you certainly couldn't say that anyone had unsympathetically modernised the interior of the white house above. It was really quite dusty.  I peeped through the diamond windows and spotted this trendy little china couple (well, trendy for the late 18th century). The man wears one of those tall thin wobbly wigs that suggest he was a laughable dandy, and she is wearing a jaunty little indoor cap. I wonder what story the ornament is telling.  

The town has two mazes. One is in Bridge End, a large Victorian garden towards the north of the town. Once neglected, Bridge End has been carefully restored and is now run by the council as a public park.  What a great place to take the family for a picnic! The garden is charming, and full of wildlife - some of the beds were alive with butterflies in a way I have rarely seen before. I wonder if they'd sprayed the flowers with the butterfly equivalent of recreational drugs....

This door, to the humble kitchen garden, is very grand, don't you think?  Just beyond it is a maze with tall hedges. It's impossible to photograph - it just looks like a lot of hedges - so you'll have to take my word that it is there.

There's some puzzling statuary. This creature (lizard? demon? dragon? gargoyle from an old church?) guards one of the steps leading into the area with the maze.

But a little further on is a parterre, an arrangement of flowerbeds surrounded by small hedges, which I photographed from a viewing platform built among the trees. It's not exactly a maze, but it looks more like one in photographs than the real maze does!   The two sides of the parterre were originally symmetrical but old photos show that over time it has gradually changed, so now the two sides do not match.

And the real, old town maze is on the outskirts of town, on the other side of the common.  It doesn't have hedges, but the maze is cut in raised turf in an orderly labyrinthine pattern, and it is not fenced off in any way. The sign by the maze explains all about it.

If you ever go walking in the British countryside with an Ordnance Survey map (so much better than Google) and you come across something written in Gothic lettering entitled "mizmaze" then it will likely be one of these ancient mazes, either maintained or overgrown.  They were quite popular hundreds of years ago - Shakespeare refers to one in Titania's quarrel with Oberon in "Midsummer Night's Dream" in which everything goes topsy turvy, including in the village, where all the leisure activities are forgotten

"...The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud
and the quaint mazes in the wanton green
for lack of tread are indistinguishable...."

I have been told that instead of getting lost, you are supposed to walk the maze paths in order to consider your spiritual life, and organise your thoughts.  A good idea.

You can see a fairground truck at the far end. They were about to have a fair on the common, so I doubt there would have been much chance to walk quietly and organise one's thoughts in the next few days!


  1. I like the idea of walking a maze to consider your spiritual life and organise your thoughts. Certainly plenty of time for that if you get hopelessly lost!

    I do agree with you about people who ruin old houses by completely gutting and "updating" the interior. As you say, if they want something modern, why not buy a brand-new house?

    And yes, good to see a library that's still a library and not the umpteenth coffee shop or eaterie that nobody needs.

  2. What a lovely place, Jenny. Particularly interesting for me as I come from Essex myself (a Chelmsford girl) and I have to confess to my shame that I never visited Saffron Walden. Looking at this I can see that it is definitely my loss. That maze is fascinating.

  3. Loved this post Jenny and I'm with you on the rant. People can modernise without taking away the character of an old building, so why don't they? I liked the picture of the library and the sky above it ... a nice bit of photography.

  4. Beautiful post, the buildings are charming and a pleasure to see.
    I agree about not ruining old houses. It hurts the heart to see people tearing up places that have history. The craze for stainless steel, granite and open concept floor plan isn't going away as fast as I wish it would. There's a lot of waste going on, and the fact that it creates jobs doesn't justify it.

  5. What a wonderful place in a part of England we've never been to. I love Mazes, went to the Jubilee Maze near the forest of Dean and a mizemaze somewhere in that general area.
    I'm with you on restoring old homes, if you want new but new, if you want old use reclaimed materials.
    Love the pictures.

  6. Hello Jenny,
    Strange that you should post about Saffron Walden as this was a town we were looking at just the other day as a possibility of where to move. Your photographs capture its quintessential Englishness which is so attractive, but, you are quite right to point out that so many properties have suffered horribly at the hands of interior decorators or developers. Period features are disappearing at an alarming rate as they give way to UPVC and 'integral' kitchens. Oh dear!

    Mazes or labyrinths......the last image appeared to be the latter to us. A maze has several false directions, a labyrinth is a consecutive series of paths leading to one point. They are fun.....and Saffron Walden has two.....perhaps we need to reconsider!

  7. Stunning, stunning pictures!
    I agree with you completely, why gut something with character? Why buy something so old to make it into something new? Our house is from the1980's so gutting it was only making it better. You would have cried if you had seen the wallpaper!

  8. Lovely post and I completely agree with your rant. I HATE it when people buy charming old houses and then completely defunkify them, which is what I call it. It's...sort of a sin.

  9. The idea of permanent mazes is fascinating. No matter they must be redone every few hundred years; I like the idea it exists as a public place.

  10. I am very happy you posted this charming little town of old still! Mostly anyway, it is nice to see things like this, and what an amazing park and maze. I agree with your rant, in my opinion they should update, or face lift the inside and bring it back to the original state of it. The library thank goodness is still a library, many around here are being torn down and new modern facilities are made. A real shame. The sky was very impressive too. All excellent captures.

  11. I am very happy you posted this charming little town of old still! Mostly anyway, it is nice to see things like this, and what an amazing park and maze. I agree with your rant, in my opinion they should update, or face lift the inside and bring it back to the original state of it. The library thank goodness is still a library, many around here are being torn down and new modern facilities are made. A real shame. The sky was very impressive too. All excellent captures.

  12. That's a lovely tour, Jenny, very nicely photographed. I haven't been to Saffron Walden for years and had pretty much forgotten what it was like. Didn't remember the maze(s) at all. Thank you!

  13. I love your quirky photos - the way you spot the slightly different things from the usual tourist stuff. And I so agree with your rant - if you want a lovely modern interior, then buy a lovely modern house. My house is getting on for 200 years old - I reckon I'm privileged to live in it. I have become part of its story - it has been around long before I was born and will carry on for decades or more yet. It is my responsibility to look after it for a while.

  14. What a lovely looking place. It is only just over an hour away from where I live and now I want to go there! Your photos are beautiful x

  15. Jenny, I very much agree with you on the topic of old houses being stripped off their character by over-modernizing them. Of course we all want our mod cons, there's nothing wrong with that, but some people manage to keep the old house alive and get the best of both worlds.

    The white-painted house looks fascinating, but I must admit I am somewhat partial to the library - wouldn't mind working there!

    Did you go into the hedge maze? Was it hard to find your way through?

  16. Oh, I do so love to travel with you! What a wonderful old town and you are a great guide. Thanks, Jenny! :)

  17. Perhaps the little whatever it was guarding the step near the maze was to scare away any bad sprites that would disturb your walk or make you lose your way!

    And i've joked about wanting to live in a library before, but really, i want to go live in that one! Truly! My Sweetie can live in the romance section.

  18. One maze would be wonderful. but two is fantastic. These remind me of the floor-tile labyrinths on Cathedral floors that people who couldn't make a pilgrimage to the holy land made.

  19. I love the old buildings in England, and just like you I don't like when they are completely modernized inside. It takes away all the charm which is a pity. I can understand that people want a plumbing system that actually functions and some modern accessories (in the kitchen!) but you don't have to take away everything and give it a complete make over. It's so sad.
    The turf maze looks amazing to me, and walking around it seems to be quite meditative.

  20. Another fabulous post...taking me along on the trip with you, for which I give thanks.

    I'm with you re retaining the original...It's a shame when everything has to become a clone of everything else. It doesn't have, too. We have to retain the history; the uniqueness, the oddities..all the wonder.

  21. Saffron Walden seems like a perfect place for walking around all day. I've never been to a maze, but it's one of those things I've always wanted to try. It might be a good idea to start out in one without the hedges... :-)

  22. This is a town I would really like to visit. I've walked labyrinths in several locations but never one set into grass as this labyrinth - or maze - is. It would give me great pleasure to do so.


  23. What a wonderful post today.
    Tucson has a pavement maze at St. Michael's that anyone can walk and it is suppose to help you think and be quiet.
    I have wanted to find it and start the walk. But I need a walker !

    cheers, parsnip

  24. First of all, I completely agree with your rant. I really hate to see beautiful old buildings stripped of their personality and modernized. It seems to be happening more and more often.
    You've given us another fascinating post. The sky above the library is spectacular, and I like the odd window that bows out crookedly. I've never seen one like it.
    And I'd love to walk through those mazes - - I definitely need to "organize my thoughts".....

  25. Beautiful story Yenny, sun, butterfly houses, I like that last photo of grass around. A big hug my dear friend and good day.

  26. St Alban was interesting, although all I can remember of it is the Oxfam Bookshop!
    Did Cromwell, supposedly, not stay in the gray/white coloured house?

  27. I can't ever recall being to Saffron Walden (though I've been to, and been lost in, a few mazes in my time) but I knew that it had some significance that I couldn't put my finger on. I still can't unless it is the fact that Rab Butler was the MP for the constituency for the 36 years from 1929 to 1965.

  28. We once stayed there (one night) about fifteen years ago, I remember it as a lovely old town, but were right in the centre and for some reason the local youths delighted in tearing round in souped up cars in the small hours! These are really interesting pictures and have reminded me of the enjoyable time we had there. I love the library with clouds picture.

  29. So, is it that Adullamite has been lost in a maze all of this time?

  30. Oh, Jenny! I want to visit there -- I want to walk that maze, I want to venture inside that wonderful white house and see what the library is like inside! The garden is lovely and so is the town maze. 1699? Makes our world see so very new, as do the sunken houses built 400 years ago.

    I'm with you on the B&B. I understand renovations, perhaps even some updating -- but to be kept in the spirit of the original. I fear my historic preservationist friend would pick up her bags and find a new spot to stay if she ventured in there, and I can see why, no matter how good the sausages or how comfy the beds.

    That butterfly and garden pic above it are incredible. Every photo makes me feel like I'm there!

  31. What a lovely post. I've never walked the maze at Saffron Walden, but we'll have to go back and try again. The turf cut labyrinth is lovely. The beauty of a labyrinth and its connection with spiritual growth is that, if you continue to walk and follow the path, you will reach the centre of truth. Even a dimwit like me can see the symbolism in that!

  32. I was near Saffron Walden recently, if only I'd known of the maze. I loved this post and agree with you as to the subject of your rant! I hope you are enjoying September days, Jane xx

  33. Jenny, thanks for visiting my blog today! I have English roots in Yorkshire but our family immigrated to America in the 1700s. I love all things English and I quite enjoyed your Rant!! When I think of English houses, I picture them as having small rooms, cozy wall paper, big old china cabinets, the kitchen must have an Aga...etc. I hate to hear that much of the charm of those old homes are being thrown out for modernity!!

  34. I love libraries and old buildings - although I wouldn't want to be responsible for the upkeep of a very old house personally. It's a shame about the farmhouse. I'm not a big lover of "open concept" design anyway. I prefer cozy rooms where one can take time to oneself if needed.

  35. I've never been there and it looks lovely. I'm sure I would get hopelessly lost!

  36. Gorgeous place. I especially like that gargoyle-ish statue.

  37. Hi Jenny - thanks for the heads up about our mention on 'Pebbles on the Beach', and for your own very kind words. I would have replied to your email, but you a 'no reply blogger'. Anyway - it's very flattering to get a mention and to get one alongside you doubly so. Plus, of course, you're a REAL writer!!

  38. I'm sorry I haven't been here for a while your posts aren't showing up in my reader, it's so frustrating. I had to grin at your line about the windows giving a wavy view of the world. That has to be the best way to view the world anyway.

    I'm not a great fan of old buildings, I know, I know, don't tell me off, but give me glass and metal any day. Says the person living in a house that's over a hundred years old. :D

  39. Thank you so much for the interesting comments. I am sorry I didn't reply before but I have been away and haven't had much time at the computer. Joe, your comment about the wavy world made me laugh. I don't know what it is with readers. At present NO blogs are showing in my reader!

    Mike, there should be a link on my profile to my other website which has a contact form that notifies me as soon as someone fills it in. I'm sorry.
    Good to meet you Arlene. I wish I had an Aga myself.... I agree there's something so nice about them.
    Jane, next time you're near Saffron Walden, I hope you get the chance to look around. Yes, Chickadee, I think you are right, it's a form of meditation I think to walk some of these spiritual mazes.
    Marilyn, I think that getting drunk and roaring round at night is one of the main hobbies of youth in many otherwise respectable towns.
    GB, I bow before your ability to remember politicians. Rab Butler. A flat fish like face and slicked down hair comes to mind - and something about appeasement, perhaps??? I will look him up.
    Thanks for your lovely comment Jeanie, and I'm glad the photos were evocative for you. ...
    Adullamite, yes, the building used to be the Sun Inn and was the first time I went to Saffron Walden. It was Cromwell's HQ.. I was looking at his portrait (the one he wanted "warts and all" the other day and a most strikingly intelligent and strong face. I don't know if I'd have agreed with his views but as a person he was so much more impressive than poor old Charles I.
    Jerry, you had better ask Adullamite yourself - I think he has been up in Scotland lately. mentally at least, like the rest of us.
    Glad you noticed the sky, Jon. It was quite spectacular.
    More replies in my next comment post.....

  40. Replies #2...
    Stephen, yes, I have been trying to remember a cathedral I visited that had a wonderful maze. The name just won't come to me. Grr! I think it was in France somewhere....
    Jackie, I have always said I would like an apt in the V & A museum! The Romance section of the library is a sweet idea!
    Sonya.... wallpaper... when I remember some of the wallpaper I put in myself. Suppose it shows I'm getting old that now I stare at those old photos in disbelief.
    Meike, you might like to visit the keats Library one day in London NW3 if you get the chance. I should blog about it someday but I'm sure it can be googled.
    Parsnip,Joanne and Carola, I also think we can create the chance to do things that are "mindful" - I know that's a bit of a buzz word these days) such mazes are an aid to reflection. Pixel Peeper, I like the idea also of not getting lost but of actually finding the way! Darla, I hope you get to walk a turf maze one day.
    Lee, you put your finger on the "wonder" - I really do wonder about the people who have lived in an old place. It's nice to feel that I'm not alone in hating to gut old houses,and so many of you agree. And, as you say, Maywyn, such a waste of money too.
    Jane and Lance, you are thinking of buying in Saffron Walden? If I were trying to find somewhere in rural England it would be a choice - not impossibly far from London yet worlds away.
    Thank you to everyone for the comments. I'm looking forward to revisiting everyone's blogs now.

  41. Beautiful post. I agree with you re modernizing old houses. Yes, rewire and redo pluming but leave the bones alone

  42. This is such a charming, old town! And I rant along with you ... we visited Colonial Williamsburg last year which dates from before the American Revolution. Somehow, they had refurbished everything to look brand new. Maybe it was just me but I had this distressing cognitive dissonance that I was supposed to be looking at something several hundred years old but instead saw a bright, Disneyland facade!

    Oooh, butterfly gardens are great! Your field-full of butterflies must have been so wonderful. A lepidopterist at a monarch butterfly sanctuary once said that butterflies love purple flowers. True enough, butterflies gather around our purple flowers in the yard. And there are many people inout neighborhood who plant "butterfly plants" in order to attract them too. I guess, yes, in a sense, the nectar must be some type of butterfly drug!


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