Tuesday, 24 June 2008

They call us mellow yellow, quite rightly!

Quinn was up first on Sunday morning. Kayce’s mother has banned her from seeing him this weekend and he really wants to get going so that he can ‘take his mind off things’ by being busy. After a quick break to pick up some supplies we head off up the A10 toward Cambridge. Although the weather forecaster has predicted rain, and the conditions around Turnford are overcast, we can see some clear sky in front of us and are hoping that the weather might improve. Nevertheless we are all wearing a little more clothing than we have been used to over the last few weeks.

Apparently Queen Elizabeth I stayed at the town of Buntingford (17 miles north of home) on a coach journey to Cambridge, but we turn off the Great Cambridge Road here and head across country instead. We travel through Little Hormead, Wyddial, Nuthampstead and Barkway, crossing over the River Quin (it really needs another ‘n’). Some things never fail to impress us about the towns and villages of England, particularly those which are off the main routes; the narrow streets, with hedges taller than Brock, that we drive along while hoping that there isn’t a car on the wrong side of the road as we come around the next bend; the closeness of buildings to the road in the villages themselves, betraying the fact that once it was only horses passing through; cottages with thatched roofs and walls that lean at bizarre angles and are uneven heights; pubs with glorious old-fashioned names that seem to form the centrepiece of every small village, no matter how small. All of these we saw, yet again, on our journey through the part of the world containing the border between Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Essex.

By this time we had crossed into Cambridgeshire, between the villages of Barking and Great Chishill, when we saw a large white windmill on the hill in front of us. The post windmill was the earliest (1191) type of mill built in England and is one of the most commonly found today. The post mill had a box-shaped wooden body with sails on a horizontal shaft. The body and the roof were supported by a horizontal oak beam that rested across a central vertical wooden post from which the mill's name derived. The whole structure could be turned into the wind by the tailpole which was attached to the back of the mill. The miller pushed the tailpole with his shoulder and slowly walked in a circle until he had faced the mill into the wind. We turned into the little park next to the mill and jumped out to have a look. If we had been there on the right day we might have been able to climb inside to get a closer view. The current windmill was built in 1819 using timber from a previous mill and continued operating up until 1951. It was amazing to be able to walk up and touch the sails and see the grindstones, but as it was a little cold we soon jumped back in the car again.

By this time we were near the town of Saffron Walden, where a community has existed since before the Roman occupation of Britain, when Bronze and Iron Age tribes settled in the area. After the Romans withdrew from the country, a flourishing Anglo-Saxon town was established. With the Norman invasion of 1066, a stone church was built and the castle was constructed around 1116. In 1141 the area’s market was transferred to the town from nearby Newport, further increasing the area’s influence. The town (called Chipping Walden at this time) gained its first charter in 1300. The town was at first largely confined to the castle's outer bailey on the crest of the hill, but in the 13th century the Battle or Repell Ditches were built or extended, to enclose a new larger area to the south. The focus of the town moved southwards to Market Square. In the medieval period the primary trade in Saffron Walden was in wool. However, in the 16th century and 17th century the saffron crocus (crocus sativus) became widely grown in the area. The flower was precious, as extract from the stigmas, the saffron, was used in medicines, as a condiment, as a perfume, as an aphrodisiac, and as an expensive yellow dye. This industry gave its name to the town and Chipping Walden became Saffron Walden.

One of the reasons that we had headed out here was the presence of a couple of mazes. Both boys had wanted to see a maze the whole time we had been here in England and today would give us the opportunity. The first one that we came to was what is known as a ‘turf maze’. A turf maze is a labyrinth made by cutting a convoluted path into a level area of short grass, turf or lawn. This is the type of maze referred to by William Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act 2, Scene 2) when Titania says
"The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud;
and the quaint mazes in the wanton green,
for lack of tread are undistinguishable."
The Saffron Walden Turf Maze is a series of circular excavations cut into the turf of the common and the chalk under the soil saw the path as a white line in the grass. It is the largest turf maze in England, the main part being about 36 metres in diameter. The earliest record of it was in 1699 when it was recut, implying that it had been in existence for a significant period before then, and it has been extensively restored several times. It was not quite what we expected (not having come across a turf maze before) but we wandered the path (1500 metres in length) and admired the fair which was setting up elsewhere on the common.

We knew the second maze was near, but we didn’t have a map, so we decided to head for the English Heritage property which was nearby. Following the signs proved to be difficult, so we pulled over to ask a gentleman who was marshalling a bicycle race through Saffron Walden. Meg was unable to understand his accent, so he came over to the car to give instructions directly to Wayne. Even then they were not particularly clear, so it took a slight detour into a pub carpark before we ended up on the right route to Audley End House. As we drove outside Saffron Walden we noticed a large stone wall on the right which seemed to go on for miles and miles. It turned out that this formed the border of the Audley End estate and should have been an indication that the house we were going to would be much grander than any of us had been expecting. A second indication might have been the fact that a ticket to the property cost £26.50 for a family however, as we are members of English Heritage (and gosh hasn’t that investment paid itself back now) we were admitted for free.

Audley End House was built on the site of what was once a Benedictine monastery known as Walden Abbey. When the monasteries of England were dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII he granted the land and buildings to the Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas Audley in 1538. It was converted to a domestic house for him, known as Audley Inn. This dwelling was later demolished by his grandson, Thomas Howard (the first Earl of Suffolk and Lord Treasurer), and a much grander mansion was built, primarily for entertaining King James I. By now it was a palace in all but name and renowned as one of the finest Jacobean houses in England. The layout reflects the processional route of the King and Queen, each having their own suite of rooms. It is reputed that Thomas Howard told King James he had spent some £200,000 on creating this grand house, and it may be that the King had unwittingly contributed. In 1619, Thomas and his wife were found guilty of embezzlement and sent to the Tower of London. A huge fine secured their release, but Howard died in disgrace at Audley End in 1626.

Charles II bought the house in 1668 for £50,000, for use as a home when attending the races at Newmarket but it was returned to the Suffolks in 1701 as part of the process around the Act of Succession which saw the question of who was to inherit the crown finally settled. Over the next century, the house was gradually demolished until it was reduced to its current size. However, the main structure has remained little altered since the main front court was demolished in 1708, and the east wing came down in 1753. That the house was only a third of its original size was astonishing to us, for when we first saw the house we were amazed at how big it was. After walking down from the carpark (part of the 100 acres of grounds now owned by the crown and managed by English Heritage) we walked into the Great Hall and were absolutely stunned. After taking a couple of photos we found out that photography was banned and then we managed to take a wrong turn and find ourselves in the wrong part of the building. In our defense, the building and its contents are so impressive that it was hard not to be overcome and miss some of the signs.

The Great Hall rises through two storeys and is lit by five large windows. The main architectural focus is a huge Jacobean oak screen. The whole thing has been hand carved in extraordinary detail with grotesque masks and pairs of herms (male and female half-figures) raised on richly ornamented pedestals. Along the walls are some enormous paintings by some of the ‘Old Masters’ of the seventeenth century and a collection of weaponry. The ceiling is a succession of plaster panels separated by large oak beams. On each panel is a coloured crest of the Howard family worked into the plaster. The interior of the hall, as with most of the remainder of the house, was largely created by the third Lord Braybrooke in the 1820’s. His son, the fourth Lord Braybrooke, the Hon Richard Neville, put together the other distinctive part of the house, the enormous natural history collection. This featured an incredible variety of stuffed animals and birds of all sorts of shapes and sizes. While Meg was vaguely repulsed by the tableaux created with these stuffed animals and birds we were all able to appreciate the care and artistry which had gone into putting together the collection. He was really attempting to preserve these animals in poses which were familiar to him from the surrounding countryside and further afield so that others could learn.

We wandered from room to room feeling more and more amazed at the wealth which must have been used in order to create such a dwelling. Multiple sitting rooms, drawing rooms, bedrooms, dressing rooms, followed one after the other, each decorated with more paintings, displays, artifacts, heirlooms, furniture and statuery. One room had walls covered with a wallpaper of richly patterned silk. Another (aptly named the Tapestry Room) was lined by a tapestry surrounding all four walls supplied in 1767 showing figures in a landscape with ruined classical buildings. The beds were enormous oak four posters, 3 metres high decorated in rich satins. Meg was enormously impressed by the artistic sense which had decorated the building so beautifully. Two libraries contained bookcases floor to ceiling, all filled with books dating back hundreds of years and dealing with all sorts of topics, but particularly history, geography and classical literature. Wayne had found a spot to sit and a book to start with and only wanted to remain uninterrupted for approximately 30 years before he was persuaded to move on.

Audley End House is just what we imagined a stately home (or a palace) would look like on the inside and is somewhere absolutely worth visiting just for this part of the house. Although there are three stories we only visited the first two (some of the rooms on the upper floor are not in such good repair, but included servants quarters and other rooms). There was more however, for at the back of the house were the working end of the building, the areas in which the servants did all the work which would have kept the house running. The kitchens, the scullery, the larders, the bakery, the dairy, the wet and dry laundry and coal shed were all set out as they would have been during the Victorian period. There was information about the actual servants who worked there as well as a combination of actors performing the roles and answering questions for the European school groups who were touring the house, and filmed images projected onto walls showing the conditions under which servants would have worked. On conversing with one of the attendants who worked there we were told that the next project is to do up the stables in a similar manner.

Having initially expressed some misgivings about visiting the house, both boys were obviously impressed by what they had experienced. We ate some of the snacks we had brought and wandered through a small part of the grounds commenting on just how many gardeners would be required to keep up even the small portion we were exploring. In the distance a cricket match began in another part of the grounds, elsewhere we spied the temples of Concord and Victory (at opposite ends of the estate), a column, a pill box, some remarkable gardens and we even read that there was a ‘ha ha’ in another part of the property. However, we had been there a significant time and the boys were still yearning for the hedge maze, so we packed up our things and jumped into the car, fortified by some instructions from a local that the Hedge Maze was in Bridge End Gardens in Saffron Walden.

We drove back into the town, driving past the ruins of Walden Castle (which were said to be unsafe to enter at this time) and found ourselves in the centre of town. Coming off Museum Street we found a street sign pointing up Castle Street towards Bridge End Gardens. As we drove up the street, completely surrounded by houses on each side, we reached the top to find another street sign, pointing back down the way we had come also labelled Bridge End Gardens. Having lived in the UK for 5 months we are now accustomed to such signposting anomalies and got out of the car and walk back down the street looking for a previously unnoticed laneway which would take us to our destination. Finding one on the southern side we wandered up, convinced that this would lead us to the maze.

Instead of finding the maze we found ourselves outside the St Mary the Virgin church, which is the largest church in Essex. It dates mainly from the end of the 15th century, when the previously existing and smaller church was extensively rebuilt in flint. In 1769 it was damaged by lightning and the repairs, carried out in the 1790s, removed many of the medieval features. The present spire was added in 1832 to replace an older ‘lantern’ tower. The church is 183 feet (56 m) long and the spire 193 feet (59 m) high, and is also the tallest in Essex. As has been a feature of many of the churches we have come across in England, there were numerous markings on the floor indicating that early parishioners had been buried inside the church itself, as well as brasses on the wall. The inside was surprisingly well lit by all of the windows which were also beautiful. However, it wasn’t where we were trying to go, so we went back outside and happened to run into a couple with twin babies who told us that we needed to cross the street and go down on the other side.

Following these directions we found ourselves headed to Bridge End Gardens. We paused on the way to watch a mole digging up the ground but although we saw the molehill shake and quake a number of times, the mole was clever enough not to appear himself. Walking up past the English American memorial garden, where a cricket match was in progress, we did find ourselves at the hedge maze, which turned out to be everything that we expected it to be. In the car on the way to the area Quinn had been very adamant that there should be some sort of challenge with a task being allocated to the last person to find their way to the centre of the maze. In order to overcome their natural disadvantage, Brock and Meg decided to work together. After much discussion, and much to Quinn’s disappointment as he wanted something much harsher, it was decided that the last person there would have to cook dinner when we got back home. We rushed around the maze with Wayne finishing first, Meg and Brock coming in next, and then finally Quinn, somewhat shamefacedly arrived.

It had been a great day, with fun and interest for everyone. The trip home saw both boys fall asleep in the car, although they woke up as we stopped to get some chicken for the dinner which Quinn was going to be cooking for us. In the end, Quinn begged off cooking that night and cooked the following night instead, but it still had been a lovely day.

We hope that you have all been having a lovely time as well. Thanks for all the messages and emails.

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