Around Saffron Walden Town

Exploring the architectural splendours of an historic market town.


Saffron Walden


1.75 miles (2.8kms)

62ft (19m)

About the walk

Saffron Walden is a delightful country town and well worth a visit at any time of the year. In 1968 it was designated a Conservation Area, unsurprising perhaps when you consider that the town has some 400 buildings of special architectural or historic interest dating back to medieval times. There are houses with massive timbers, carved brackets, overhanging eaves and decorative pargeted (plastered) fronts, and a fine church looks boldly across the town. Other attractions include lovely gardens, the remains of a Norman castle, and some great walking country right on its doorstep. This trail explores part of the Conservation Area, but you should allow time to wander at will and lap up the atmosphere of this picturesque town.

The Common, formerly Castle Green, which played host to a Royal Tournament in 1252, is nowadays a pleasant recreational venue for local fairs and festivals. At the far end is The Maze, believed to be more than 800 years old and reputed to be the largest turf maze in the country.

A giant’s tale

If you look at the ornate plasterwork, or pargeting, on buildings it sometimes tells a story. The pargeting on the Old Sun Inn features a man fighting a giant. Tom Hickathrift is the legendary figure of East Anglian folklore, and had a job carting beer in Wisbech. One day he took a short cut across the land belonging to a giant, who took offence and tried to beat Tom with a club. Tom fought back with a cartwheel, and after a furious battle he killed the Wisbech Giant before claiming the land for his own.

A garden for all seasons

It's worth exploring the Bridge End Garden, a series of seven interlinked gardens laid out by the Gibson family in the 19th century. These Grade II listed gardens have been restored to replicate typical Victorian gardening techniques and designs, including two greenhouses containing peaches and apricots, and limes and lemons. In late June the rose garden is a fragrant delight, while the formal Dutch Garden, with its swirls of box, is attractive year-round. There are statues, some of Portland stone, and a summer house in the garden.

Walk directions

With your back to the car park in Common Hill, walk across The Common to The Maze. If you have time you can enjoy exploring its mile-long (1.6km) trail before continuing the town walk.

At The Maze turn right to the river and then right again, keeping the river on your left, to head back to the car park. At the car park turn left and then right into Hill Street. Turn right into Market Street, passing Market Row on your left, into Market Square. This is the hub of the town. The mock-Tudor Town Hall, with a projecting gable, houses the tourist office. Other notable buildings include the Italianate-style Corn Exchange, now the library, and an impressive drinking fountain commemorating the marriage between the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra in 1863. Keeping the Corn Exchange on your left, walk towards Church Street to the historic Old Sun Inn, which is now an antiques and second-hand bookshop. This is where Cromwell and General Fairfax are said to have stayed during the Civil War. The group of 14th-century houses is decorated with impressive 17th century pargeting.

Turn left into Church Street and then right into the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin. With its saffron crocus emblem, this is one of the largest parish churches in Essex. It stands on the site of a Saxon and Norman church, and was mostly rebuilt between 1450 and 1525. Its sheer size demonstrates the prosperity of the area. At the church, turn right, and cross Museum Street to view the museum with its fascinating collections, and the ruined flint walls of the 11th-century castle keep, built on the remains of a Saxon church. Retrace your steps to Museum Street, turn right and then left into Castle Street. After passing house No. 23 turn right into Bridge End Garden, past Fry Art Gallery, and the town’s other maze. This garden exudes Victorian elegance, with a viewing platform, pavilions and statues. Take the main path left into Bridge Street.

Turn left to pass the 16th-century Eight Bells pub, with its splendid beam carved with leaves and dolphins below a downstairs window. Maintain direction towards the town centre, crossing Castle Street, where on the right you can see the best 15th-century medieval building in Saffron Walden. A former maltings (one of six which graced the town in the 1600s), this former youth hostel must be one of the most atmospheric places to stay in the county. Diagonally opposite this is the 16th-century house called The Close, home of Francis Gibson, creator of Bridge End Garden. Continue along Bridge Street to see more listed buildings, one of which is the 850-year-old Cross Keys Hotel, with a raised roof which was added in the 18th century. Turn left into King Street and right into The Rows, the town’s medieval shopping centre, where the buildings still retain their 15th-century shop windows. Go left into Market Row to return to the car park.

Additional information

Urban, parkland and common

Country town architecture

On lead all the way, though maze is dog friendly

OS Explorer 195 Braintree & Saffron Walden

Pay-and-display at Swan Meadow; The Common, Fairycroft Road; Catons Lane

Hill Street

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About the area

Discover Essex

Essex is full of pleasant surprises. It has the largest coastline of any county in England, with its fair share of castles, royal connections and scenic valleys. Take Colchester, for example, which was built by the Romans and is Britain’s oldest recorded town. Its castle contains the country’s largest Norman keep and yet, a stone’s throw from here, East Anglia’s newest arts centre promises to put Colchester firmly on the map as Essex’s capital of culture.

Tidal estuaries are plentiful and their mudflats offer migrating birds a winter feeding place. Essex was known as the land of the East Saxons and for centuries people from all over Europe settled here, each wave leaving its own distinctive cultural and social mark on the landscape. Walking a little off the beaten track will lead you to the rural retreats of deepest Essex, while all over the county there are ancient monuments to explore: 

  • the great Waltham Abbey
  • Greensted, thought to be the oldest wooden church in the world
  • the delightful village of Pleshey has one of the finest examples of a former motte-and-bailey castle
  • Hedingham Castle, magnificently preserved and dating from the 11th century.

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