Explore Saffron Walden

Saffron Walden is a picturesque, medieval town, in north-west Essex. It has a rich heritage of old buildings reflecting its wealth as a rural market town. The name Saffron comes from the valuable Crocus sativus crop, which was cultivated here between the 15th and 18th centuries and was used as a dye, flavouring and medicine.

There are many interesting historic buildings in the town. At the heart lies St Mary’s Church, the largest parish church in Essex. Fine examples of elaborate moulded plasterwork (pargetting), can be seen on the Old Sun Inn and the houses in Castle Street & Bridge Street. Also of note are the Eight Bells, the timber-framed Cross Keys, and the medieval building located at 1 Myddylton Place.

Nearby, Saffron Walden Museum is of particular interest. The collections are housed in one of the oldest purpose built museum buildings in the country, completed in 1835. It has everything from mammoth tusks to mummies, from an early Tudor bed to a natural history museum gallery. In the grounds of the museum are the ruins of the Castle keep which dates back to the 1130s or 40s.

Bridge End Garden is a real jewel and an environment of great charm on the north side of Saffron Walden. Careful restoration has replicated gardening techniques and designs typical of the Victorian era and brought the garden back to its full splendour. The hedge maze is of particular appeal to children. The path into the garden passes the Fry Art Gallery which houses a collection of works by a Great Bardfield group of artists who settled in the Essex countryside in the 1930s.

The attractive Common is the oldest of Saffron Walden’s open spaces and on its eastern side is the largest turf labyrinth still surviving in Europe. Children of all ages enjoy following the ‘path’ through the turf, which winds for about one mile within a circle 100 feet (30.5 meters) in diameter.

A market has been held here since 1141, and market days are now Tuesdays and Saturdays. Shoppers enjoy browsing & buying goods from a number of different market stalls. Beyond the Market Place in Saffron Walden, there are many independent shops and eating places to choose from. Many small business premises are located in the Rows, which were the town’s shopping centre from medieval times onwards.

For more information, attraction opening times, or for a free copy of the Saffron Walden Town Trail, please contact Saffron Walden Tourist Information Centre on 01799 524002 or see  www.visitsaffronwalden.gov.uk



Listening Benches

What better way to spend a sunny afternoon than sitting on a bench taking in a nice view in a pretty Essex village? Sitting on a talking bench taking in a nice view!

The Essex Sound and Video Archive (ESVA) at the Essex Record Office has been installing talking benches across Essex. These park benches with speakers installed are loaded with historic recordings from the Archive. While sitting on the bench in Castle Park, Colchester, you can hear memories of visiting the Castle when it was roofless.

Or try the bench by the war memorial in Great Waltham to hear about the shops that used to line the nearby streets.

These listening benches are part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project run by the ESVA, called You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place. For the project, we are digitising and cataloguing a number of the unique recordings in the Archive to better preserve them. We are then making them freely available online through our Essex Archives Online catalogue .

Once digitised, we are taking the recordings out into every corner of the county – including through these talking benches. Volunteers from different communities have reviewed our recordings about their area, selected the best bits, and edited them together into montages for the bench. The volunteers have also used their local knowledge to decide on the ideal location for each bench.

Most of the recordings come from oral history interviews with long-term residents of the community. These memories describe buildings that have disappeared and businesses that have changed hands. They also reveal a different way of life: life without electricity and indoor plumbing; life where everyone knew each other’s business – and had plenty to say about it!


Map showing the location of the listening benches being installed this summer

How many benches can you find? Check our Essex Sounds website for the location of each bench. Then send us a #benchselfie of you with the bench, and tell us which clip is your favourite (@essexarchive on Twitter, or The Essex Record Office on Facebook)!

The website also lists the venues for our touring benches, and for our touring audio-video kiosks.

Next year, we plan to install another ten benches in additional locations. Please get in touch if you would like to be part of installing a listening bench in the following locations:

  • Burnham-on-Crouch
  • Chelmsford
  • Clacton-on-Sea
  • Coggeshall
  • Epping
  • Galleywood
  • Southend-on-Sea
  • Witham



Celebrating 25 years of the Clacton Airshow

How time has flown…..   Preparations are well & truly underway for the Clacton Airshow (@ClactonAirShow) taking place on Thursday 25th & Friday 26th August.  All the flights have been booked including the world famous Red Arrows and Typhoon and are steadily being announced over the coming weeks.  More event information can be found here.

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Clacton Airshow has grown over the years from a one-day event with a few flights and ground entertainment attracting tens of thousands to a well-established event in the UK’s air show calendar attracting around 220,000 flight fans visiting from far and wide to support the event come rain or shine. The Red Arrows (@rafredarrows) are now considered old friends of the event and have been displaying at the show since the 90s.

In addition to the usual day flights and to celebrate 25 years of the event there will be evening flights taking place on Thursday 25th August from 8pm ending thereafter with a spectacular fireworks display on Clacton Pier (@ClactonPier).  The site will stay open for the whole duration and festival style entertainment will take place on site from 5pm on Thursday until the evening flights.

10620674_10152285767602797_6803908066201968997_nAt ground level, the site will be buzzing with various exhibitions/traders from Water Walkers to an interactive unit by Fuji Film. Titan the Robot (@TITANtheROBOT) makes a most welcome return on both days displaying at 11am, 12pm & 6pm on Thursday and 11am & 12pm Friday wowing the crowds with his cheeky banter.

Event parking is available at West Road Car Park, Clacton priced at £6 per vehicle where priority parking can be booked here.  A park & ride service is also available from Clacton Factory Outlet (@ClactonOutlet) priced at £10 per vehicle or from Holland-on-Sea priced at £5 per vehicle.

Sadly the one thing we are unable to book is the weather!! The Airshow Angels have their fingers and toes crossed for some good flying weather and a great event.

We hope you will join us in celebrating 25 years of this spectacular event.

For now it’s “chocks away”.

Penguins at Colchester Zoo.

Step into the boots of a zoo keeper

Step into the boots of a zoo keeper and find out just what it takes to care for some of the most incredible creatures on the planet!

Escorted by Colchester Zoo’s dedicated keepers, you will get the chance to venture deep behind the scenes, learn new skills and get up close and personal to some of Colchester Zoo’s animals!

With three experiences to choose from there’s something for everyone!

Sun Bear
Sun Bear

Experience A is bursting with big personalities, and they don’t come any bigger than the mighty African elephants! Along with Sun bears, anteaters, skunks, parrots and coatis you’ll meet some of the most charismatic creatures around!

Experience B introduces you to a host of magnificent animals including giraffes, rhinos, meerkats, otters, lemurs, lions and the critically endangered Amur leopards! Offering a wonderful variety of experiences and some incredible animal interactions!

Feeding the giraffes.
Feeding the giraffes.

Experience C combines sealions, penguins, orangutans, monkeys, cheetahs, hyenas and many more, exploring the lives of animals from across the globe – this experience is truly out of this world.

The day also includes full entry to the zoo, a lunch voucher and fantastic souvenir pack to remember the experience of a lifetime!

To book an experience at Colchester Zoo, visit the website.





Quirky Essex – did you know?

There are a number of interesting facts about the county that you might not know. Do you know other interesting facts about Essex? Why not email us and we will share them.

Essex’s oldest:

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    Essex is home to Britain’s oldest recorded town, Colchester. It was the first capital the Romans established in Britain

  • Greensted Church is the oldest wooden church in the world. It was built in 1081 AD.
  • Great Dunmow is home to the oldest recorded competition in Britain still running today, the Flitch Trials. Mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and believed to have begun in the 13th century, the Trials aimed to find a married couple who had not quarrelled or repented their marriage during the preceding year and a day. A mock court of locals would test the veracity of stories of marital bliss, with a flitch of bacon the prize for success. It takes place every four years like the Olympics. This year’s date is the 9 July.
  • The oldest timber-framed barn in the world is at Cressing Temple near Braintree. The huge Barley Barn was built by the Knights Templar.
  • National Trust’s Northey Island is where the battle of Maldon took place in 991, making it the oldest battlefield in Britain.
  • The James Stevens No.14 was the second RNLI lifeboat at Walton-on-the-Naze. She has been restored and is now the oldest surviving motor lifeboat in the world.

Essex’s smallest, largest, longest, tallest and more…

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For more unique Essex facts visit our website.

5 places to explore the Tudors in Essex

Layer Marney Tower
Layer Marney Tower

1. Layer Marney Tower. This tallest Tudor Gatehouse in England is one of the finest examples of Tudor architecture. Built in the same year that Henry VIII met the French king, Francis I at the Field of Cloth of Gold. Henry stayed in the impressive tower in 1522. Climbing the 80 ft tower’s 99 steps is well worth the effort, as the reward is a breath-taking view across the north of the county.

Hadleigh Castle
Hadleigh Castle with magnificent views over the Thames Estuary.

2. Hadleigh Castle. The romantic ruins of the former hunting base of Edward I and royal retreat of Edward III had once been an impressive fortress built to repel French invaders during the 100 Years War.  During the reign of Henry VIII, Hadleigh was gifted to Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Parr. You can explore what remains of the castle and the beautiful Hadleigh Country Park.

Aerial view of Tilbury Fort
Aerial view of Tilbury Fort

3. Further down the Thames Estuary from Hadleigh Castle, is one of the most famous sites of Tudor history –Tilbury Fort. Built by her father Henry VIII, Elizabeth I famously rallied her forces in the face of the oncoming Armada in July 1588 with her famous speech I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.”

Tilbury Fort offers a great day out for history buffs to explore the site, including its magazine houses used to store gunpowder and feel what it was like to live there as one of the soldiers responsible for defending London.

Queen Elizabeth Hunting Lodge
Queen Elizabeth Hunting Lodge

4. Learn about life in Tudor times at Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, right next to The View Visitor Centre in Epping Forest. Built by Henry VIII in 1543 and later renovated by Elizabeth I, it’s a remarkable and rare survival of an intact timber-framed hunt still standing and surrounded by its medieval royal hunting forest.

Marygreen Manor Hotel
Marygreen Manor Hotel

5. With a history that links it to the court of Henry VIII, the restaurant at Marygreen Manor in Brentwood is appropriately called Tudors. Not only that, the sensitive décor harks back to the 16th century, adding to the sense of grandeur. However, the food and service is very much 21st century and award-winning to boot with 2 AA Rosettes, complemented by a comprehensive award winning wine list. With snail ravioli, veal sweetbreads, quail and venison on the menu, you’ll be sure to dine like a king.

For more ideas on where to visit historical sites in Essex visit our website.

Heart of Darkness: The spellbinding tale of Essex’s ‘Witchfinder General’

The profusion of pointy hats, cute costumes, sweets and, of course, pumpkins for carving on shop shelves marks our increasing willingness to celebrate the macabre and spooky for Halloween at the end of October.

Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’ from Essex.
Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’ from Essex.

But some 370 years ago, to be accused of witchcraft was anything but fun. Especially if the rumour stuck and you found yourself hauled up in front of Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’ from Essex – the subject of horror films, books and ghost stories in the three centuries since his reign of terror in East Anglia.

Little is known about Hopkins’ early life, other than he was born in Suffolk (at Little Wenham) around 1620 and moved to Manningtree, Essex in his mid-twenties. Believed to have trained as a lawyer but failing to make a decent living, Hopkins used what legal skills he did have to forge a new and highly lucrative career as a witch finder.

Witchcraft was not made a capital offence in Britain until 1563 – although it was deemed heresy and was denounced as such by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484. Those accused were often elderly women whom also had the misfortune to be poor. If they had a cat, or other pet, this was taken as proof positive that they were in league with the Devil, as domestic animals were held to be shape-changing ‘familiars’.

Initially, proving that someone was indeed a witch was a little problematical. Torture was illegal while everyone knew that the Devil would never tell the truth. Amid the turmoil of the Civil War and rampant anti-Catholic sentiment, Hopkins’ own Protestant faith and ingenuity soon found itself in demand.

Swimming of a witch
Swimming of a witch

The trial that sealed his notoriety was that of ‘swimming’. The suspect’s limbs would be bound together and they would be lowered into water by ropes. The principle was simple: if they sank and drowned, they were innocent and in heaven; if they floated, they would be tried as a witch. A harrowing scene in Michael Reeves’ legendary 1968 movie Witchfinder General starring Vincent Price as Hopkins captures the sheer terror and horror of trial by swimming.

Original records of some of his trials can be viewed today in the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford.

Believed to be responsible for over 200 executions, a gruesome reminder of Hopkins’ reign of terror was discovered in St. Osyth in 1921. Two female skeletons were found in a garden, pinned into unmarked graves and with iron rivets driven through their joints. This was to make sure a witch could not return from the grave.

Though many of the Acts against witchcraft were repealed in 1736, witch hunting still went on. In 1863, an alleged male witch was drowned in a pond in Hedingham.

And what of Hopkins himself? The precise details of his death are unclear. Writing on Essex folklore in the 19th century, William Andrews described Hopkins being charged with the theft of a book containing the names of all the witches in England, which he acquired by means of sorcery. Protesting his innocence, the once feared ‘Witchfinder General’ was made to undergo his own trial by swimming. Accounts vary as to what happened. Some say he floated, was tried and hanged; others that he drowned. There are no records to confirm he was ever tried and the more likely story is that he died at home in Manningtree, from pleural tuberculosis.

Mistley Towers are the twin towers of the now demolished Church of St. Mary the Virgin at Mistley.
Mistley Towers are the twin towers of the now demolished Church of St. Mary the Virgin at Mistley.

He lies buried in the churchyard of what was St Mary the Virgin, at Mistley Heath. All that remains of the church itself are two sentinel-like towers. Though constructed long after Hopkins’ death, they add to the area’s mystique. Especially as, nearby, is the pond that his ghost is said to haunt. Local tradition also has it that, upon inheriting 100 marks, Hopkins attempted to establish himself as a gentleman and bought the nearby Thorn Inn.

The Mistley Thorn
The Mistley Thorn

Today, the building that replaced the original in 1723 is The Mistley Thorn, a restaurant with rooms renowned for its warm welcome and superb cooking. It’s ‘Witchfinder General’ heritage is commemorated with a plaque on the wall outside.

In Manningtree, The Red Lion sits near the top of South Street, and it was from here that Hopkins reputedly dragged his elderly and crippled neighbour Elizabeth Clarke, accusing her of being a drunken sot and ‘nourisher’ of animals; namely a white cat (called Holt), a polecat (Newes), a black rabbit (Sacke and Sugar), a fat spaniel (Jarmara) and an ox-headed greyhound called Vinegar Tom. Having successfully secured her conviction as a witch and subsequent death by hanging, the emboldened Hopkins created the title of ‘Witchfinder General’.

Elizabeth’s ghost is said to haunt the shore of Seafield Bay, an area of mudflats known as The Walls. Hopkins himself has occasionally been ‘seen’ at The Red Lion. Just a few steps up South Street from The Red Lion, is the remains of a village green. This small, neat lawn bears no trace of the dark secret its past holds, for it was once the hanging place where around ten witches met their terrible end.

To be spooked at various events this Halloween and to get a witches hatful of ideas and inspiration for great days out, fly over to our website.