Cambridge is surrounded by a ring of market towns at a distance of fifteen to twenty miles from the city. Newmarket, Ely, St Ives, St Neots, Royston and Saffron Walden all had markets serving the local population, saving them the long journey to Cambridge. Among these towns Ely with its magnificent cathedral is the major magnet for tourists, but Saffron Walden despite lacking a cathedral would be equally worthy of their attention.
Other market towns which retain their medieval architecture are sleepy little places which the modern world has passed by. They had a period when they flourished - usually as a result wool production - then stagnated. Saffron Walden had its heyday too, but its still a busy place today.
The town was granted a market charter around 1300, though a market was in existence before that. Its wealth increased further during the boom years for wool and then, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the area became famous for growing the saffron crocus.
This little plant was the basis for the production of perfumes, medicines, dyes and even aphrodisiacs. It was so important to the economy of the area that the town became known as Saffron Walden.
The coat of arms of the town features saffron flowers surrounded by a castle wall. This is a fine example of a rebus, a type of visual pun which was very popular in medieval heraldry: it's a saffron walled-in, get it?
During the English Civil War the town was, like much of East Anglia, firmly on the side of the Roundheads and for a time Oliver Cromwell made his headquarters here, reputedly in The Sun Inn.
The inn must have been a popular base for the soldiers of the New Model Army and, though the inn has closed, the military presence remains in the shape of ghostly soldiers who still haunt the rooms.
The equally ancient Cross Keys Hotel has more ghosts from the period, including soldiers and a lady who's said to have been Cromwell's mistress.
In later years the Puritan influence in the town gave way to the Quakers, who were instrumental in the further growth of the town. In particular the Gibson family, who were among the founders of Barclays Bank, contributed many fine buildings to the town, including the pretty little library above.
Needless to say, perhaps, this photogenic little town gave rise to lots of photos, which I'll be sharing with you soon. And the perceptive among you will have noticed a fine church in the first photo and, yes, we'll drop in there too. But before I go today I'd like to show you this...
....in a corner of a large meadow known as The Common is this intriguing feature. It's a "turf maze". No one seems to know how old it is - apart from "very old" - or exactly how it was used. You can obviously always see where you are, unlike hedge mazes. My bet is that there was some kind of game played here, though just how it was played has been forgotten.