Walk 69: Thaxted Village Walk: Morris Men & Highway Men

The ‘Needs to Know’

This isn’t a walk as such, more of a stroll from the bottom of a stunning Essex town to the top. It’s all on hard paths & therefore good for all weathers

We stayed at The Swan Hotel when working in the area & to come back to this peaceful haven after a long day was a bonus

We found a street map. but why bother…

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…so ignore directions & just wander as there’s plenty to explore…you won’t be disappointed

Let’s Walk!

What can we tell you about this beautiful town?

Well…firstly let’s consider the words of American poet David McCord who wrote the following about Thaxted almost 200 years ago…

Trace the footsteps of history, see what they saw and feel what they felt, while creating new experiences that are uniquely yours.

There is simply something about consuming a landscape on foot that fuses your relationship with your surroundings and inspires the soul”

Thaxted appears in the Domesday Book as “Tachesteda,” Old English for ‘place where thatch was got. Once a centre of cutlery manufacture & wool trade this resulted in many of its fine buildings being financed. In 1556 Philip of Spain & Queen Mary I granted a formal charter to the town giving it borough status & a Mayor

Thaxted went into decline with the rise of Sheffield as a major industrial centre. A light railway, the Elsenham & Thaxted Light Railway, eventually opened in 1913, though the railway itself never reached nearer than 3/4 mile from the town, as building earthworks across the River Chelmer proved too costly. With the growth of road transport, the line was closed to passengers in 1952 & closed altogether in 1953

The town has also been noted for being associated with several famous people, some confirmed & others not, as we’ll see on this walk

Sir John Betjeman  also wrote…

There is no town in Essex – and very few in England to equal in beauty, compactness and juxtaposition of Medieval and Georgian architecture, than the town of Thaxted”

Well…that’s two ringing endorsements so we’d better have a look…

Let’s Walk!

1. No….let’s just stand, stand at the bottom of the ancient town square & look up the hill at the iconic Guildhall & the church towering above it…

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This is one of the oldest parts of the town with almost all the buildings being of architectural importance. Many now have Georgian fronts that cover up their original medieval appearance

2. The red building above & below is the Recorder’s House…

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It’s now been updated with carvings of the Royal Arms of Edward IV. The house became the office of Sergeant William Benlowes, the town’s first tax collector under the 1556 charter & then later a grocers, an antique shop, a restaurant & today a gift shop who we’re grateful to for a couple of leaflets. We’d tried the Information Centre which was closed & the Post Office who couldn’t understand us…

3. Next door’s another building with history attached to it…The Manse

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Originally known as The Steps, the house was the former home of the British composer Gustav Theodore Holst. Holst is best known for his orchestral suite The Planets although he composed a large number of other works across a range of genres. His distinctive compositional style was the product of many influences, Richard Wagner & Richard Strauss being most crucial early in his development. The subsequent inspiration of the English folksong revival of the early 20th century, & the example of such rising modern composers as Maurice Ravel, led Holst to develop and refine an individual style

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‘Jupiter, the 4th movement (The Bridge of Jollity)’ from the Planets suite was dedicated by Holst to Thaxted & then set to words by Cecil Spring-Rice as ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’

4. Next along the road’s Thaxted’s most iconic building…the beautiful medieval Guildhall

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It’s a very unusual structure apparently dating from around 1470. This was determined from the rings in the central post using a new dating procedure

The Guildhall has always been at the centre of Thaxted’s history, surviving the wrath of James II in the 17th century & the great fire of Thaxted in 1881. It’s had many uses ranging from a grammar school, meeting place, market, gaol & a film set

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Although closed when we visited, it contains a collection of paintings, documents & photographs

5. To the left of the Guildhall’s a cobbled street known as Stoney Street which leads up to the church. The old wooden building on the left’s Dick Turpin’s Cottage…

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Despite hopeful thoughts, there is no actual documentary evidence that Dick Turpin ever lived in the house & only very slight evidence that he ever lived in the town at all

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 Whilst today we’re not going up Stoney Street, it’s very quaint

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6. Today we’re heading up the right side of the Guildhall along the brightly coloured Watling Street…

The view from the top of the street looking back

The view from the top of the street looking back

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7. At the top on the right’s the imposing Clarance House…

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Clarence House is an excellent example of an early eighteenth century Queen Anne building. Built as the marital home of Elizabeth Rayner & William Heckford in 1715 by Thomas Rayner, it was used by the local doctors for many years. Latterly it was known by many as a building that they came to as children while it was used by Essex CC as an education centre. When the requirements of Health & Safety conflicted with the integrity of an old building it was no longer possible to care for residential groups. It then became an adult education centre & town library

Although this is a stunning town, we’re continuously reminded it’s on the direct flightpath into Stansted airport

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8. Over the road’s the magnificent St John the Baptist Church…

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The parish church of St John, built between 1340 & 1510, is renowned for its flying buttressed spire, which is 181 feet tall & is the only medieval stone spire in the county. The spire is almost as high as the church is long. It’s often referred to as “the Cathedral of Essex”. From 1910 to 1942, the vicar was Conrad Noel, known as the ‘Red Vicar’ because of his well known Christian Socialism

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Thaxted’s historic Lincoln Organ was used by Holst to play many of his famous pieces & has now been awarded a Grade One certificate as a rare instrument of its period & only one of two surviving examples

The other is in Buckingham Palace!!

9. Back over the road’s The Swan Pub & Hotel where we stayed…

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Built as a traditional coaching inn & run by Old English Inns, it offers value for money accommodation, but needs some updating. Comfy enough though & very friendly with a great breakfast served by a wonderfully eccentric old lady. After a day’s work it was a real haven

10. Cross back over the road down the side of the church in-between the two stunning cottages towards the John Webb Windmill…

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This is another beautiful & very old area of the town with lots of little alleyways to explore

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11. At the end in the field on the right’s the magnificent John Webb Windmill

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John Webb’s Mill, or Lowe’s Mill was built in 1804 for John Webb, a local farmer & landowner. The windmill was constructed to satisfy the increasing demand for flour both locally & in London. It was constructed using local materials, with timber from two local farms & the bricks were made at a nearby location in the Chelmer Valley also owned by John Webb. It was always worked by millers named Lowe or John Webb, thus gaining its names. The mill was last worked commercially in 1910 & was disused for over twenty years until the Thaxted Civic Trust carried out essential repairs & made the structure waterproof. The lower floors were used as a scout hut. The mill passed into the ownership of Thaxted Parish Council in the 1950 & The Thaxted Society, formed in 1964, has been instrumental in the restoration of the mill to full working order

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In 2004 the cap & sails were removed to enable repairs to the brickwork at the top of the tower. The repairs were completed by the end of the year & the mill was officially reopened on 8 April 2005 by Lord Petre. On 5 April 2010, the stock of one pair of sails broke & the sail crashed to the ground, damaging the stage as it fell. There were no injuries among the six or seven visitors in the mill at the time. On the ground & first floors there is a rural museum containing agricultural pieces

12. Retrace your steps back to the main road again. The area of this junction’s called The Bull Ring

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Newbiggen Street above continues the colourful house theme we’ve seen earlier

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13. A house on the right displays a plaque stating that The Morris Ring was constituted there. The Morris Ring is one of three umbrella groups for Morris dance sides in England. It was founded in 1934 by 6 sides: Greensleeves, Cambridge, East Surrey, Letchworth, Oxford & Thaxted. They meet several times a year, each Ring Meeting (two days of dancing) being hosted by a different member side (or several working together)

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The exception is the Thaxted Morris Men who hold a Ring Meeting every year, on the weekend after the Spring Bank holiday weekend. Thaxted Ring Meeting remains a popular tourist attraction. The Morris Ring has grown to about 150 sides today, with another 50 associate clubs

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Founded in 1911 on the initiative of Conrad Noël, Vicar of Thaxted, as part of the reawakening of interest in Morris dancing begun by Cecil Sharp & others, Thaxted Morris is the oldest revival side in the country. One of the first public performances was for the local celebrations of the coronation of King George V. The 1920s saw meetings being organised between some of the Revival clubs. Thaxted were hosts in 1927 &, except for the war years, there’s been a meeting every year since, the only club in the country to do so

That’s our little stroll done so what did we think…Thaxted has no artificial tourist attractions. It remains today what is has been for the last ten centuries – a thriving town which moves with the times, but also treats its heritage from the past with great respect. The past & the present come together in Thaxted as part of the daily life of everyone in the town

It stunning so…

Go Walk!