Oliver Cromwell in Essex

YOU CAN NO LONGER ENJOY a tankard of ale at the Sun Inn in the Essex town of Saffron Walden. However, you can still enjoy the fine pargetting (moulded sculptured plasterwork) that adorns it.

The building that housed the former Sun Inn was built in the 15th century. Late in the 16th or early in the 17th century, an upper floor was added. Indeed, one of the gables with fine pargetting bears the date 1676. This might have been the date when the present pargetting was created or when the upper floor was added, or even both. The former inn has an opening that allowed wagons and other traffic to enter the yard behind it.

The pargetting is described well in a website (www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/essex/vol1/pp228-260) as follows:
“… in the middle bay are two late 17th-century panels in plaster, one with a design of foliage and birds, and the other with a stocking; in the S.W. gable is a design of the same date in plaster, which consists of a circular panel divided into twelve segments; on each side is the figure of a man in a long coat, knee-breeches and high-heeled shoes; one figure holds a sword and buckler, the other a long club.”

One of the panels, that with the man with a sword and the other with a long club, respectively represent Thomas Hickathrift and the Wisbech giant (https://heritagerecords.nationaltrust.org.uk/HBSMR/MonRecord.aspx?uid=MNA108635). Thomas (‘Tom’) Hickathrift was a mythical East Anglian giant-killer, a giant of a man, whose exploits included slaying the Wisbech Giant.

Today (late 2020), the group of beautifully decorated houses that includes the former Sun Inn is empty. The ground floor of part of the building bears a shop sign ‘Lankester Antiques & Books’. Run by Paul Lankester of Thaxted in Essex, the shop closed after 48 years of business in July 2015. Another sign near it reads ‘The 14th century Old Sun Inn. Oliver Cromwell’s Headquarters 1647’. In 1647, when Cromwell’s New Model Army had won the first civil war for the Parliamentarians, they gathered in Saffron Walden. For various reasons the war weary army was becoming dissatisfied. Cromwell and his officers arrived in Saffron Walden on the 2nd of May 1647 to try to satisfy the troops’ various demands and to deal with their grievances (www.saffronwaldenreporter.co.uk/news/a-lasting-place-in-history-1-377880). He was unable to do so and returned to London after staying in the town for 19 days. 

Although the town has many other attractions, seeing this old building with its exquisite external decorations is on its own an excellent reason to pay a visit to Saffron Walden.

Amazing maze or labyrinth

SIGNS IN SAFFRON WALDEN, a town in Essex, pointed to ‘The Turf Maze’. We followed these from the centre of the town’s attractive market square and across The Common, a large grassy expanse, to its eastern edge, where we came across the Turf Maze. I was expecting to see a maze with paths separated by hedges, but what we found is quite different, and might not be a maze at all.

The maze was cut unto the ground in the form of grooves separated from each other by low mounds of earth on which grass grows. A reliable website, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000741#:~:text=A%20turf%20maze%2C%20thought%20to,%2Dcut%20(Matthews%201922), describes it as follows:

“The maze … consists of a series of concentric circles cut into turf, surrounded by a low bank. It measures c 43m from corner to corner, the main areas of circular paths being c 29m in diameter. It is laid in a unicursal pattern formed of seventeen linked circles, and has four linked outer horseshoe-shaped bastions or ‘bellows’ which are, like the centre of the maze, raised slightly above the main circular paths. The narrow shallow grooves which form the paths are marked by bricks and begin on the north or south sides of the maze.”

The word ‘unicursal’ means that the pathway through the ‘maze’ forms a single route without branching, typical of a labyrinth. This is in contrast with a true maze in which the path is ‘multicursal’, meaning that the pathway has branches. An elderly lady whom we met walking on The Common told us that once she walked from the beginning of the ‘maze’ to its centre, following its path and confirmed to us that although the path is long and winding, it never branches.

The Turf Maze at Saffron Walden, which is really a labyrinth, was already in existence by 1699, but is believed to have first been created in mediaeval times. If it had a purpose, this has been long forgotten. Since then, it has been re-cut numerous times. When this was done in 1911, bricks were laid along the path of the labyrinth to help preserve its form. These have been replaced from time to time and more recently cemented together. In 2000, the so-called maze was put into the ownership of the Town Council of Saffron Walden.

Jeff Saward, writing in “The Saffron Walden Historical Journal” in Autumn 2012 (https://saffronwaldenhistoricalsociety.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/saffron-walden-turf-maze.pdf), notes that the labyrinth in Saffron Walden differs from other such labyrinths in the British Isles in that its path runs between the turf ridges and not along them as is the case in most others. He also discusses the age of the labyrinth, suggesting it may have been created later than the mediaeval era, possibly in the 16th century. It might have been designed from a labyrinth, almost identical to that in Saffron Walden, illustrated in “The Profitable Art of Gardening”, by Thomas Hill, published in about 1563. Hill’s design was not original as it can be found illustrated in “Le Théatre des bon engins, auquel sont contenuz cent Emblemes moraulx” by Guillaume de la Perrière, published in 1539. Whatever its date of construction, the labyrinth is a fine thing to see in the small Essex town.

Talking to some ladies who were feeding the ducks at a pond near one of the town’s car parks, we learned that Saffron Walden has three other mazes (or labyrinths) apart from the ill-named Turf Maze. We hope to explore these on a subsequent visit to the town. While trying to find the entrance to the car park of the local Waitrose supermarket, we discovered yet another maze, namely the one-way road system of Saffron Walden.

A beautiful bank

FOUR THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED FLOWERS of Crocus sativus needed to be picked in order to produce an ounce (about 28 grams) of saffron in the sixteenth century. I learned this from a magnificent guidebook to East Anglia, written by Peter Sager. The fields surrounding the town of Saffron Walden in Essex used to be filled with the crocuses that were the source of the precious food additive saffron. The saffron industry flourished around the town during the 16th and 17th centuries, but by the 19th century the fields that had once been filled with crocuses became filled with barley. Even though the precious product saffron is hardly produced any more, Saffron Walden is a pleasant small town filled with interesting old buildings. One of these, which is far from being the oldest, now houses the local branch of Barclays Bank.

The centre of the square marketplace in Saffron Walden contains a tall ornate Victorian drinking fountain. This was designed by J F Bentley (1839-1902; architect of London’s Westminster Cathedral) and erected in 1862 to commemorate the marriage of Edward, Prince of Wales. The sides of the marketplace are lined with interesting eye-catching buildings. The Saffron Walden Library on the west side of the square is striking. This building was once the Corn Exchange. It was built in about 1847, possibly designed by R Tress. There is a sculpted ram’s head above the neo-classical pillar-flanked main entrance, which is below an ornate clock tower. I noticed that depictions of animals also adorn the façade of the former Corn Exchange in Bury St Edmunds.  Peter Sager wrote that the ram is placed there in memory of the former, now demolished Woolstaplers Hall that once stood where the library now stands. During the 20th century, the building’s interior was modified to accommodate the town’s library, which was founded in 1832.

SAF 2

The south side of the square has a building with a ground level loggia and elegant half-timbering covering the upper storeys.  It looks mediaeval at first glance. But it is much too well-preserved to be that old.  This Victorian construction, now the Saffron Walden Tourist Information Centre, is also the Town Hall. The structure was built in 1761 and then extensively remodelled and enlarged in 1879 with money donated by George Stacey Gibson (1818-1883), a former Mayor of the town about whom I will soon reveal more.

The Saffron Walden branch of Barclays Bank is on the east side of the square and faces the library. The brick building that houses it, and which was designed by WE Nesfield (1835-1888) and built in 1874, is imposing. It has a large area of windows, each one framed by white masonry. A decorated lead frieze runs above the second floor and below the tiled roof with dormer windows and attractive brick chimney stacks. The main entrance is beneath a gothic arch, which is flanked by bas-relief depictions of birds with long necks and beaks, probably pelicans. Wooden doors near the entrance bear wood carvings that depict the letters “TG” and the date “1874”. Well-worn brass plates on the bank’s inner set of entrance doors read “Gibsons Bank”.

The first room that is reached from the entrance contains its original decorative features. These include a patterned stuccoed ceiling, a stone-framed fireplace with a colourfully tiled interior and fancy brass fire irons. There is wood panelling above the hearth and along the top of the windows in the wall separating this room from others deeper inside the building. The strip of panelling above the internal windows is richly carved with a variety of animals and birds. The rooms further inside the bank have been modernised to serve the requirements of current banking procedures.

Gibsons Bank, or to give it its full name ‘Gibson, Tuke and Gibson’, was also known as ‘Saffron Walden and North Essex Bank’, and ‘Saffron Walden and Bishop’s Stortford Bank’. It was established in 1824 by the Gibsons, a local Quaker brewing family. In 1863, Murray Tuke joined the surviving member of the Gibson family as a partner in the bank, hence the ‘TG’ we noticed on the door. That surviving Gibson was Tuke’s brother-in-law, George Stacey Gibson.

George joined the family bank in 1836 and became a partner in 1840. In addition to attending to the bank and innumerable civic duties, he became a renowned book collector and a serious botanist. In 1862, he published a flora of Essex. “This identified over 1,000 species of flowering plants and ferns, including four that were found only in Essex. “Flora of Essex” sealed Gibson’s reputation as a botanist and for the next century it was regarded as the definitive work on Essex botany” (see: http://www.hundredparishes.org.uk/). He was also the ‘discoverer’ of five flowering plant species that were new to Britain in the early 1840s.  

After his father died in 1862, George had to dedicate most of his time to the bank, his work on the Town Council, and charitable commitments, many of which related to the Society of Friends. He died at the Devonshire House Temperance Hotel in Bishopsgate Street, City of London, from inflammation of the kidneys.

In 1896, the bank, which had been associated with Fordham, Gibson and Co of Royston since 1880, became one of the twenty banks that joined together to form the Barclays Bank consortium. Another bank to join this group in 1896 was Goslings in London’s Fleet Street. Happily, Barclays have managed to preserve some of the original architectural features of both Gosling’s and Gibson’s historic premises. Even if you do not need to cash a cheque or deposit some money, visits to both of these formerly independent banks will provide a feast for the eyes.

PS: I have concentrated on the buildings in the marketplace of Saffron Walden, but must tell you, dear reader, that there is plenty more to see in the town including a fine parish church, many picturesque old buildings,  and the impressive ruins of a mediaeval castle.