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.

Let loose in the kitchen

There is no love sincerer than than the love of food

George Bernard Shaw

Most people think highly of their mother’s cooking. Many people thought highly of my mother’s cooking. She was an early disciple of Elizabeth David, the cookery book writer who introduced Mediterranean cuisine to British kitchens.

My mother regarded our kitchen as her territory. Being highly protective of my sister and me, she would not let us near the cooker nor sharp knives. However, she was quite happy to have us accompany her in the kitchen for two main reasons. One was to give her company while she cooked. Another was to do the washing up of crockery and cutlery. I did not much mind keeping her company, but washing up was not much fun.

Eventually, in the 1960s we acquired a dishwashing machine. This did not prove to be much of a labour saving device because my mother insisted on us, often me, washing every item before putting them in the machine. And, unloading the dishwasher and stacking everything away was as time consuming as washing up manually.

Sadly, my mother died young in 1980. By then, my sister had left home. As my father had no interest in cooking, the kitchen became my own territory. At last, I could begin to use the cooker and all of the kitchen utensils that my poor mother had guarded so jealously. This did not compensate for losing a beloved parent, but it did open a new door in my life experience: the art of food preparation.

My love of cooking commenced. At first, I followed recipes from an excellent series of cookbooks published by the Sainsbury’s supermarket company. Then, I experimented with Indian food guided by a cookbook written by Madhur Jeffrey. Later, I made use of a very practical Chinese recipe book written by Ken Hom and published by the BBC. For middle eastern dishes, I was guided by the well-known Claudia Rosen, who has also written a very good book of Italian recipes, and a superb one by the lesser known Arto Haroutian. For Hungarian food, the book by George Lang is hard to beat. Since marriage, I have been guided in the art of cooking by my wife, who is a superb cook.

I suppose that over the years I have become a ‘foodie’. ‘Foodie-ism’ seems to run in my family. My sister, a very competent cook, ran a restaurant in Italy for about 15 years; she was the chef. My mother’s sister was an excellent chef and her two children, my cousins, have inherited her culinary skills. Our daughter has also inherited the foodie gene, both from me and my wife, both of whose parents had discerning palates.

There are those who consider food simply as fuel. They are missing out on one of the pleasures in life, which I value greatly: the preparation and enjoyment of cooking and eating.

Let me end by wishing you all A DELICIOUSLY HAPPY NEW YEAR!