Saffron Walden - Market Town
The present town started as a small village in the valley, surrounded by rich farmland first tilled by Celtic farmers before the Roman occupation. More than a thousand years ago, it began to grow into ‘Weala-denu’, a prosperous community of Saxon-speaking farmers, merchants and traders, from time to time 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. The Norman lords of the manor and the wealthy mediaeval landowners had established a market by 1141, built a priory (later upgraded to become Walden Abbey), rebuilt the church in stone and obtained a charter from the Lord of the Manor to avoid paying taxes. By about 1300 the village was overlain by a new town of well-built timbered houses, some of which survive today. There was wealth in the area of ‘Chipping’ (Market) Walden, albeit concentrated in only a few hands. 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. Saffron became synonymous with the town because it was rare and precious — it was used as a medicine and in cooking as well as the source of a rich yellow dye. Though successfully trading in it, sufficiently so to change the town’s name, the community was never solely dependent on it.
In the 19th century the friendly influence of 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, the Training College (latterly the Bell College, now apartments), and the rebuilt 19th-century Almshouses The building of the Corn Exchange in the Market Place in 1848 on the site of the mediaeval timber-framed Woolcombers Hall symbolised the dominance of cereal crops then, just as its present use as the Library now characterises the importance paid to learning and the provision of information, most notably via the internet.
Saffron Walden 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’. Were it possible to transport mediaeval Walden traders from the 1500s to the 21st century they would be able to recognise many elements of their town. They would be familiar with some of the buildings, even if their uses have changed, such as the Youth Hostel, most of Bridge Street, the present Cross Keys, shops in King Street, and the buildings on the four corners of the crossing where Market Hill meets Church Street. Stripped of their 18th and 19th century brick frontages, many of the houses on the High Street would also be recognisable.
The drive and resourcefulness of the townspeople has continued throughout the centuries, from Humphrey de Bohun who developed the idea of putting the town here in the first place, to the anonymous entrepreneurs of the trade in Saffron. From Dame Johanne Bradbury, pioneering education for the town, to John Harvey, wealthy rope-maker, and his four gifted, well-educated sons. From the ingenious Henry Winstanley, engraver, lighthouse designer and inveterate practical joker, to George Gibson and his descendants, maltsters, bankers and benefactors; to Joseph Scruby, wine and spirit merchant, to Joseph Bell, builder, to Ernest De Vigier, inventor of Acrow props, to William Chater, horticulturalist … all the way to current businessmen and women, all of whom have contributed to the development of the Saffron Walden we enjoy today.
© Len Pole 2011
Len Pole was Curator of Saffron Walden Museum from 1974–1996. This piece is based on the introduction to his book Saffron Walden in Old Photographs, published 1997 (ISBN: 075090853X).