Friday 17th November 2023
My Garmin: 4.85 miles, including wandering around the town
It’s been six months since the last day of my pilgrimage, which is a much longer gap than I had intended. A busy summer, a feeling of exhaustion after my last stage, and worries about how I will manage the logistics of the next sections far from public transport links, have all contributed to this delay. But eventually I decide it’s now or never. I promised myself I would do this, after all. Time to get back on the road.
I teach yoga classes on Friday mornings, so it’s one pm by the time I’m able to kiss Adrian goodbye and set off. Then it’s a drive of an hour or so to Audley End station, where I have booked a parking space for the weekend. Knowing I will only have a couple of hours before it starts to get dark, I have planned a short stroll for today – a little warm-up – passing Audley End House and into the nearby town of Saffron Walden.
A weekend of adventures
I lock up the car, cross the railway line and the big commuter car park, and then it’s a rather dull beginning along a main road and over a hill, before I pick up the pilgrimage route on the waymarked Harcamlow Way long-distance path. As soon as I turn off the busy B1052 and onto ancient Beechy Ride, my heart lifts. The Ride is a lovely sunken lane, lined with golden-leaved autumn trees. It’s a crisp, sunny afternoon, and I watch hares scampering across ploughed fields and a red kite gliding overhead. I smile. The sky is blue, and I’ve got a weekend of adventures ahead of me.
An impressive estate
The lane takes me past Abbey Farm and a collection of small rural businesses before heading uphill between rows of white cottages. I’m on the Audley End Estate, which is a grand, landscaped affair, managed by English Heritage. A Benedictine monastic house, Walden Abbey, used to stand here beside the River Cam, but the abbey was suppressed during Henry VIII’s reformation, and the property granted to Sir Thomas Audley in 1538. A vast Jacobean palace was constructed on the site by Thomas Howard, first Earl of Suffolk, but Howard’s ambition led to his downfall. The building project was so extravagant Howard ended up embezzling State funds to support his struggling finances. His descendants inherited huge debts, and the house proved impractical, and was greatly reduced and remodelled over the years.[i]
Audley End House still looks very impressive, though, standing in swathes of parkland modelled by Capability Brown. I would like to see inside, but a sign informs me it closes at 2.30pm in these winter months, so I am too late today. The miniature railway across the road is still open, looking quite festive with Christmassy lights and decorations. I watch a little train pull away swathed in clouds of steam, and think this would be a nice place to visit with children. For now, the daylight is already starting to fade, and it’s time to head on into Saffron Walden.
Saffron Walden - a town drenched in history
A little way up the hill I turn left through a brick gateway and follow a delightful avenue across a corner of the Audley End estate park. A few people are out walking their dogs, and I can see the tall spire of St Mary’s church up ahead. Entering the outskirts of the town I come across the ‘Battle Ditches’ – medieval earthworks which once marked the boundaries of the settlement.
This place is drenched in history. It used to be called Chipping Walden, and has been a market town ever since Queen Matilda permitted the local Earl to move the market here from Newport in 1141. Interesting that such matters required royal intervention back in the day![ii]
The town changed its name to Saffron Walden in the sixteenth century after the saffron crocuses which were grown in the area. The orange crocus stamens were much in demand to make yellow dye, as well as for medicinal uses and flavouring food. The plant grows well on the local chalk soils. Henry VIII (him again!) granted a charter in 1514 formalising the new name. Saffron is still the most expensive spice in the world, but it’s mostly grown in Iran and Spain nowadays.[iii]
I wander around Saffron Walden, liking it very much. There are medieval buildings everywhere, a town centre with interesting independent shops and cafes, and a market square with a half-timbered town hall.
Climbing a small hill, I reach Saffron Walden’s big parish church and go inside. Near the entrance are lots of hand-made paper lanterns. A friendly lady tells me the local children are preparing for the annual procession this evening when they will carry their lanterns down into the square to celebrate the switching-on of the Christmas lights.
There’s a pilgrimage stamp in the church, and I feel very welcome here as I take in colourful stained glass windows and spot a statue of Saint James, patron of pilgrims. There are areas for private prayer, and free prayer cards on offer. I choose one with ‘Words of wisdom for a busy life.’
Thy will be done
In the Lady Chapel, I’m struck by a modern statue of Mary at the moment of the annunciation, when she said yes to God’s call to be the mother of Jesus. Mary is portrayed as a young girl, half-kneeling, with hands upturned in acceptance and an expression of bewildered wonder on her face. Local artist Tessa Hawkes had originally intended the figure to have her hands outstretched, saying, ‘Why me?’, but the arms dropped on their own, as the plaster cast was drying, into an attitude of ‘Thy will be done’. This humble welcoming of God’s will is very much at the heart of Walsingham spirituality as I am beginning to understand it, and I thank God for the message of this small statue.[iv]
A pilgrim inn
Leaving the church, I walk past the museum and castle ruins. It’s getting dark and chilly by now, so I head for the Cross Keys Hotel where I’ve booked a bed for the night. Like so many buildings in this lovely town, the Cross Keys dates back to Elizabethan times. It’s full of oak beams and sloping walls and floors, and is close to the town centre and the market square. Pilgrims and travellers of all kinds must have stayed here over the centuries.
My cosy room looks right out over the shopping street. It’s comfortable, but rather noisy, as someone has set up a stall right outside my window selling beeping, flashing wands and windmills for this evening’s Christmas lights event. I check my map and the guide book for tomorrow’s much longer walk. The weather forecast says heavy rain all day, which feels a bit daunting. I’ve brought two coats, but I’m not confident either of them is sufficiently waterproof. Lots of people are gathering outside for the event, so after calling home, writing my journal, and relaxing for a while, I head out again to see what’s going on.
The town square is packed with crowds, and various local entertainers are performing on a stage outside the library. Santa Claus is here, and everyone is waiting for the big switch-on of the Christmas tree. Lots of families are out with children, and there’s a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. I spot a couple of police officers, but this crowd feels safe – a local community coming together.
The town hall is open with a good selection of antique and craft stalls. I wander around, but have to resist the temptation to buy anything as I don’t have any spare space in my backpack.
Ready for anything
The big light-up is billed for six pm. All the lights flash on for a few seconds just after six, looking fantastic, but then they go off again. There seems to be some sort of hold up. I was hoping to see the children coming down from the church in procession with their paper lanterns, but maybe I’ve missed them. I wait a few more minutes, but it’s chilly, so I decide to head back to the Cross Keys for dinner.
On my way I pass an outdoor clothing shop, open late. Mindful of the awful weather forecast, I go inside and equip myself with a new, super-waterproof coat and a pair of waterproof over-trousers. Now I’m ready for anything! After a tasty dinner of fish and chips, I snuggle down in my bed, listening to the rain streaming down outside. Tomorrow I set out on the next stage of my pilgrimage, rain or no rain