A Day Out In Saffron Walden

by - February 19, 2014

(Sorry in advance, but this is a photo heavy post and might load a bit slow!)

My husband was raised in a small town outside of Cambridge not very far from Saffron Walden

Saint Mary's Church, Saffron Walden
Because it's so close, we've actually been there a few times with his father to walk around the shops and market on weekends. Every time we went I would see a sign pointing to Saffron Walden Castle and of course being an American with an interest in history I was curious and I don't mind still playing tourist! I didn't know what to expect but a quick Google search told me that it was only a tiny ruin but there was a connected museum as well. So one weekend Kevin and I headed off to Saffron Walden, skipped the high street, and went straight for the museum and castle. 

The museum does charge an entry fee but it is only £1.50 per adult (75p concessions and children under 5 are free), but they do have free parking. It's not a huge lot (or car park) but there was ample space for the number of visitors that were milling about on the Saturday we went. We we're lucky (mostly) because it was a beautiful, clear, and most importantly dry day. However it was very windy! We didn't notice it when we were inside but walking around the castle it felt like we'd just be blow away!

Old printing press
When you first enter the museum there is local history to your left and the beginnings of ancient history (plus right now a special Egyptian exhibit with artwork from local students and others) on your right. We started in the local history area and it had a pretty good range of items. Pieces of old churches, a town charter signed by Henry VIII, the above printing press and below local printed money. That was interesting to me, I didn't realize that money was printed locally, but I guess that makes sense, things weren't always centralized in the US and the UK has been at this whole functioning economy thing for a lot longer!

Old money. It was huge! No wonder the £20 notes are still giant compared to my US Dollars!
Once we made it through the local history we started the trek into the ancient history path. They covered a lot of information and to be honest I couldn't begin to remember it all! I believe most of the artifacts in this section were found in the local area. A couple things that stood out were there being activities for kids (a sandbox where they could have their own archaeological dig) and these below skeletons. There was a plaque telling the gender, approximate age, time, and cause of death - all information gleaned from these skeletons. I have to say science is pretty amazing!

You know as you do, walking along a museum and bam ancient buried couple below your feet. Totally normal. 
After the ancient history there is a section on geological history including rocks (which bored me a bit so I moved quickly through) and animals/insects. I think there must have been a local taxidermist or something because they had huge scenes with many different animals set up to show interactions in the wild as well as a giant Victorian looking office with more exotic animals on display, I think this was fashionable in the Victorian era (but don't quote me on that, I'm not a historian!).

A mummified cat 
A stuffed lion. Perched on a ledge. It was...interesting
Then continuing through the museum there were more lifestyle pieces. So, fashion through the ages, toys and games, china, and some furniture pieces (including a cabinet owned by the man accused of and beheaded for being Anne Boleyn's lover).

A Victorian Wedding Dress
One thing I read before we ventured to the museum is that they have a glove that is believed to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots. As I said before I've got an interest (though by no means expertise) in the history of the British Monarchy. I've been watching this CW show called Reign which chronicles  the life of Mary (though it is very inaccurate to dramatize it for a modern teen audience). Despite the liberties they take with the truth I find it quite enjoyable (though maybe best to forget any of the facts you know!). Once of the critiques I see over and over regarding the show is that the fashion is too modern and prom-esque so I was particularly interested to see (even a small) piece of the real woman's wardrobe. Frankly it's quite ornate and beautiful for what I assume to be a daily wear, casual item...so perhaps the show would have done well to make historically accurate costumes as I'd imagine they would have been even more beautiful!

Glove allegedly belonging to Mary, Queen of Scots
When we exited the museum we just walked along a short path to the left to the ruins known as Walden Castle. It was built in the early-mid 12th century by Geoffrey de Mandeville and ordered to be destroyed a short time later by Henry II. The remains are from the keep (which is a term I know well now. Thanks Game of Thrones!) and according to the sign as you approach the ruins, most of what is visible now was underground when it was built. The sign mentions that if you walk inside the ruins you'd be in the basement and if you look above you can see the fireplace from a ground floor room. Unfortunately either this sign is outdated or we were unlucky as there was a fence and gate blocking the entrance preventing us from walking around inside. Based on the litter and graffiti I saw I'm guessing that's an issue (and contributing factor to blocking access), but the fence wouldn't have stopped me climbing over it physically (I'm just not the type to go against posted signs!). I think it's a shame that true visitors can't walk around and yet vandals aren't stopped by the preventative measures. 

But despite that disappointment, it was still interesting to walk around the structure and try and imagine what it was like almost 900 years ago!

Approaching the ruins
I quite liked this sign as it sounds so much nicer than 'Caution Falling Rocks' we'd get back home!
It looks like they've had to add fortifications where the structure wasn't sound
View from the other side
View inside (standing right against the fence)
Still against the fence but a different angle
Steeple through the trees
We had seen it driving in as it shares a road with the museum and ruins, but as we turned towards the car from the ruins we could see the massive steeple from the church and decided to go check it out as well. We figured we wouldn't be gone long so left the car in the museum lot and walked across the street. 

View from the back of the large church
What we found was Saint Mary's Church. According to the website it is the largest in Essex and the spire (or as I call them steeples) is 193 feet. There was apparently a large Norman stone church in approximately this location from 1130 (which means it was there when the Walden Castle was built) and the present church began constriction around 1450. So all in all it's a pretty, old, historical church.

The front. Interestingly it wasn't until after viewing the pictures we noticed the line of red bricks in the clock portion of the very tall steeple. 
We noticed the front door was open and so went inside. At first I wasn't going to take any pictures as I always feel a bit funny and disrespectful and there were a small gathering of people in a couple of the pews. I noticed a table which had a small visitors guide and picked that up and began to just wonder around and enjoy the sights of the beautiful architecture and stained glass windows. I have to say stained glass windows have always been one of my favorite things about church buildings as they are so intricate and beautiful, especially on a sunny day like we had. 

After a few minutes of wondering the small group got up and left and it was just Kevin and I in this massive sanctuary. Once we were alone I felt a little better about snapping a few pictures as I knew I wanted to share but didn't have to worry about disturbing anyone.

Look at this sanctuary with such a long aisle! I think if we did a do over huge wedding
I'd want it to be somewhere like this
Church organs are another aspect that fascinate me as my father had a degree in sacred music and spent several years as a music director for a few different churches (though none of them as grand as the ones I've found in England!)

The beautiful stained glass windows. Could you imagine putting these together? And the scale for such tall windows! It reminds me when I was in high school in French class we learned about the stained glass windows in the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris that I've haven't managed to see in my two trips there. 
Outside the church we found a couple more interesting things. This Tudor style/era house had a sign that said Verger's Cottage and was connected to a couple similar buildings that were also part of the church grounds as they had signage of Sunday School type classes and such. Mostly though I just love these old Tudor buildings that are a bit wobbly and uneven. I think it gives them such character so I couldn't help but snap a couple photos!

A wobbly Tudor style (or more likely Tudor Era) building
On the path leading back to the museum was this old style gas street lamp that has been converted to electric. I think this is an example of what I love about this country. It has such amazing old gems like this that would have been just as easy (and probably cheaper) to replace with a new electric lamp, but they preserved the history and just made it functional for the modern era. Also I think it looks a little like a caricature of a king or prince...tall and lanky with but with short stubby arms and a crown on his head. Just me? Yeah I'm weird. 

Converted gas street lamp
Have you ever been to Saffron Walden to see the ruins, museum, and/or church? I have to say I was impressed to find such a nice little pocket of history that made for a lovely day out!

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  1. This is such a lovely account of my local town! Always nice to hear aout from a visitors point of view, as it's easy to forget it's delights when you are there all the time!

    1. Thanks for visiting! I completely agree. I read an article awhile back about why St. Louis is such a great place to raise a family and it really reminded me of some of the great parts of my hometown that I was just complacent about!

  2. My word - how much love do I have for this post, castles and bones and Mary Stewart! Perfect! I do miss having all that history on my doorstep since moving to the US.

    1. Haha thank you and yes it's so great how much history is here! Although there's history in the US though just not as much as well recorded for as long (terrible phrasing but hopefully it makes sense!) I was a big Little House on the Prairie fan and we visited some of her homes, Detroit has some incredible music history, my hometown of St. Louis is an old French fur trading city called Ste. Genevieve which is pretty well preserved AND Cahokia Mounds which is a Native American burial ground....the worst part is how far apart everything is...takes a lot of time an money to travel around and take in the historical sites we do have! But hopefully you'll find some places to explore :)

  3. What a lovely place to visit! £1.50 is hardly anything at all! The church organ in the church I used to go to as a child were amazing! It was the centre piece for the front of the church, they had to open glass doors to get to the keys and the pipes just scaled the whole back wall. It was amazing!

    Corinne x

    1. Oh wow that organ sounds awesome! I'm sure a sucker for fancy organs and churches!