The Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus)

The Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus)

You will recall that our day out had begun promisingly at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. After lunch we drove off (car roof remaining closed in view of the low cloud and short journey) to the town of Saffron Walden in north Essex. More specifically it is the chief town of the District of Uttlesford– I always think this sounds like somewhere you might find in ‘The Shire’ of Hobbit fame!

We’d been here a long time ago and then only driving through so didn’t really have a chance to explore it thoroughly. Here’s a link to Wikipedia’s entry on the town if you’re interested in its history. In brief it’s of ancient standing, there having been a settlement here long before the Roman occupation of Britain 2 thousand years ago. Of particular interest is the derivation of the town’s name. In the medieval period the primary trade in Saffron Walden was in wool, but in the 16th and 17th centuries the Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativa) was grown in the area. Each saffron crocus grows to 20–30 cm and bears up to four flowers, each with three vivid crimson stigma. Together with the styles, or stalks that connect the stigmas to their host plant, the dried stigmas were used originally in medicines, as a condiment, a perfume, an aphrodisiac, and as an expensive yellow dye. This industry gave its name to the town and what used to be Chipping Walden became Saffron Walden. The town itself retains many old buildings, interesting spaces and features, as you’ll see in the gallery at the end of this article.

We began our visit in a fascinating garden – Bridge End Garden. This is actually a series of seven interlinked gardens laid out by the Gibson family (eminent bankers and brewers) in the nineteenth century. They are Grade II* listed (so protected), close to the town centre and church and are open to the public each day free of charge. Careful restoration has replicated gardening techniques and designs typical of the Victorian era and has brought the garden back to its full splendour.

Though there are signs around stating that it is ‘not a playground’ and ‘ball games are not allowed’, I can see it can be difficult to prevent its use for play by the town’s children, some of which might get a bit over exuberant at times…. While we were there I was delighted to see a group of teenage boys playing ‘It’ around the different spaces and the hedge maze was also an obvious draw for local kids. These features in an original 17th or 18th century setting must surely have been used in a similar, playful way – if not by children then by adults! The Dutch Garden with its complex parterre of box bushes also looks so like a ‘mini maze’ (in fact hedge mazes developed out of the complex parterres in France, Holland and elsewhere across Europe), so it wasn’t suprising to see another sign, perhaps rather desperately, announcing that it isn’t a maze!

The gardens are maintained by a team of paid staff (of the Town Council, which also maintains a number of other public gardens) and volunteers, and are in a very good condition. A long winding path flanked by well – kept mixed borders leads you past the formal Rose Garden with views to the parish church beyond (apparently the tallest church in Essex) to the walled garden with its fence and wall – trained fruit trees and two glasshouses with miniature orchard and citrus fruit trees, respectively, in pots that look as though they are brought outside in warmer weather.

All around are little curiosities to intrigue –  statues of mock-snarling (or is it smiling) beasts, other classical statuary, some fine, mature trees such as a Cedar of Lebanon, a small summer house with a display of some curiosities from the garden (such as old gardener’s notes) and another gazebo called ‘Poets’ Corner’. The ‘Wilderness’, as it’s name suggests, was an area of more naturalistic planting (now with a developing Yew tunnel) and from the viewing platform at one end you can get a wonderful view of the Dutch Garden, with its swirling pattern of box hedging laid out to a design by Gertrude Jekyll, who visited the garden in the early 20th century.

Having seen a hedge maze, we went in search of one that is much older – and made of turf. At one edge of the town’s Common sits this wonderful example of a classical labyrinth (see my post on mazes and labyrinths for more information), of uncertain age, but several centuries at least as it was recut in the 17th century. This splendid feature is certainly a challenge to concentration and determination, being 1 kilometer long if you walk the full length of the winding brick path between the shallow turf mounding! Labyrinths are ancient features, adopted by Christianity as a way of encouraging meditation along the symbolic ‘journey of life’.

From here we passed by some of the medieval charm of central Saffron Walden, with their ‘pargetted’ walls (a technique that creates geometric patterns and pictures on the external render) and Market Square, and found a nice little Tea shop for our afternoon break. Unfortunately the west country ‘Saffron Cake’ appears not to be a local delicacy here, despite the town’s association with the spice! Instead portions of Strawberry Cheesecake and Millionaire’s Shortbread had to suffice! We finished our visit by looking round an old – estabslished Antique shop and the parish church of St. Mary- a superb example of a grand parish church built on wool – wealth (and latterly saffron – wealth). It has glorious glass, high painted wooden roof and stonework. Just as we were leaving this delightful town,  the rain began to fall – great timing!

Further information:

Plantax 5: Crocus- spicy herald of Spring

Saffron Walden Town Council website

Bridge End Garden- Uttlesford District Council website

Visit Saffron Walden website

Old School Gardener

If you’ve enjoyed reading this post and others on this blog, why not comment and join others by signing up for automatic updates via email (see side bar, above right ) or through an RSS feed (see top of page)?

Advertisements