A quaint country town near London

I WONDER WHAT KIND OF MUSIC the composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) who is famous for “The Planets” suite, would have written had he lived in Thaxted under the flight path of most planes landing at London Stansted Airport. Fortunately for him, he lived in this charming Essex town between 1917 and 1925, long before the airport was built. Despite its proximity to an airport that is very busy in ‘normal’ times and not far from a major motorway, picturesque Thaxted feels as if the progress of time has left it alone. Recently, we visited Thaxted for a couple of hours and felt that we had ‘discovered’ a gem of a place rich in half-timbered buildings and other historic edifices. And, it is less than a couple of hours drive from west London.

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The construction of the huge cathedral-like Gothic parish church of St John the Baptist, St Mary & St Laurence began in the 14th century. Much of the financing of this building, which we were only able to enter for about one minute, was derived from the profits of the local industry, cutlery. By the 13th century, Thaxted, which is noted in the 11th century Domesday Book, became a centre for cutlery manufacture. It then rivalled a now more famous centre for that industry, Sheffield. The poll tax returns of 1379 recorded that of 249 males living in Thaxted, 79 were cutlers, 4 were sheath makers, and 2 were goldsmiths (see; “Mesters to Masters: A History of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire”, edited by C Binfield and D Hay). The cutlers lived in some of the fine buildings in the town. The well-preserved timber-framed Cutlers Guildhall makes for an interesting and beautiful focal point in the town’s broad high street, where Gustav Holst lived for a few years. The moot hall of this building stands above pillars below which there is a space open to the elements. Although simpler in construction, it brought to mind similar structures in Gujarat, the ‘mandvi’ in Vadodara and the ruined city of Champaner. We sheltered from a heavy rain shower under the arches of the Guildhall while we ate delicious sandwiches prepared at Parrish’s restaurant across the road.

It is not known why Thaxted became a centre of the cutlery industry for a few centuries. However, most are agreed that it was not because there were substantial deposits of the raw materials needed. The hamlet of Cutlers End a few miles outside Thaxted is a lasting reminder of an important source of Thaxted’s wealth in the Middle Ages.

An incredibly picturesque half-timbered building stands close to the Guildhall. Above one its doors, there is a name plate that reads: ‘Dick Turpin’s Cottage’. Unlike one of Thaxted’s famous inhabitants, Gustav Holst, it is unlikely that the highwayman Dick Turpin (1705-1739) either lived in the cottage or even in the town.

Apart from the splendid array of lovely old buildings that line the few streets that make up the town, there is another attraction within a short walk from the parish church. This is John Webb’s windmill, which was built in 1804. Its four long wooden blades (the ‘sweeps’) drive the milling equipment housed within a conical brick tower. It continued milling until 1907, when running it became uneconomical. It is the last survivor of several windmills that served the Thaxted district.

There are two quaint buildings near to the mill and the parish church. One of these is the long, low Chantry. This has a wonderful thatched roof and is at least three hundred years old. Opposite it, is another single-storeyed building, which was built in about 1714. It serves as an Almshouse. An informative website about Thaxted, www.thaxted.co.uk, states that this building was in 1830: “… occupied by sixteen aged persons: ‘13 widows, a man, a wife and a maid’”.

We saw all the places described in a leisurely couple of hours. We felt that we could have easily stayed much longer in this attractive place. Sadly, many who do not live in Essex or have not bothered to explore the county, feel that Essex has a poor reputation. This has no doubt been encouraged by bad-taste humour relating to ‘Essex man’ and ‘Essex girls’. The villages and towns in rural Essex easily outrival the busier and much more ‘twee’ villages in the Cotswolds.

PS Thaxted hosts an annual music festival, which cannot be held this year of the Covid pandemic.

Claim your steak

STEAK

When I was much younger, my parents often took my sister and me to eat dinner in restaurants.

Before we looked at the menu, my late mother used to examine the plates and cutlery on our table. If there was a blemish on the cutlery or a crack or chip in the porcelain, the waiter would be summoned to replace the defective item(s). Often this delayed the arrival of any food. If we looked reproachfully at my mother, she would say:

“You can eat off cracked plates if you like, but I am not paying good money to eat off bad plates.”

She said this in such a way that meant that really there was no way that any of us could eat off damaged crockery, even if we wanted to.

As the years went by, I used to look at my plate and cutlery carefully as soon as we sat down. If I spotted a defect, I used to casually lay my hand on it so that my mother would not see it. I was always hungry before a meal and wanted to get on with it rather than having to wait for perfect eating utensils to be fetched. Once any defective cutlery/crockery was replaced, the meal could be ordered.

My mother was fond of beef steak. Rather unfashionably for London in the 1960s, she preferred her steak rare, almost what the French call ‘bleu’. This simple request was the real test for a restaurant. Frequently, the rare steak would arrive cold. My mother would then summon the waiter or maitre d’hote.

“My steak is cold.”

“Madame, I will ask the kitchen to heat it for you.”

The steak would then be returned, and my mother would begin cutting it. Soon the waiter would be called again.

“My steak is no longer rare; it is overcooked. Take it away and bring me another one cooked rare and warm.”

Any restaurant that could get this right without fuss, won my mother’s custom. She would then return there frequently.

Today, rare steak is the ‘in thing’. Most good chefs and discerning diners prefer the insides of steaks to be red, if not bloody.

Writing of steaks reminded me of Monty Modlyn (1921-94), a radio presenter and journalist. Occasionally he would speak on the early morning Today programme on the BBC Home Service (now ‘Radio 4’). He would report on steaks and other meat he had eaten. He had a metal ball that he would drop onto pieces of meat. The depth of the indentation made by the ball’s impact was his measure of the meat’s quality. It all sounded a bit mad to me when I listened to him when I was a young boy. Apparently, what he was doing was quite sound. The quality of raw meat can be judged by indenting it with a finger tip and then watching how quickly the indentation disappears. If the meat recovers quickly, then the quality is likely to be lower than if it recovers slowly.