culture, entertainment, history, holistic medicine, leisure, lifestyle, tourism, UK

Essex mysteries: Mazes and labyrinths

A Maze Festival isn’t necessarily something you come across every day. But Saffron Walden, the market town in North Essex where I live, has had three of them so far, the latest one of which took place only last weekend.

 

But there is some foundation for choosing such an apparently obscure theme to titillate tourists and locals alike – Saffron Walden, it seems, is alone in the UK in having two historic mazes within the town’s reaches.

 

The first is a turf labyrinth – even though it’s known locally as “The Maze” – located on the east side of its extensive Common, only a hop, skip and a jump from the centre of town. Built in 1699, it was apparently based on an even older version formerly sited nearby and, at an impressive 132 feet (40 metres) across, is said to be the largest structure of its kind in England.

 

The path, which is inlaid with bricks, is made up of a huge 17 circuits that visit each of the four small mounds at the labyrinth’s corners before winding itself into a higher central mound that used to be home to an ash tree – or World Tree according to the cosmic world view of the ancient Celts and Vikings.

 

The second maze, meanwhile, is a Victorian yew-hedge-based creation on the north side of town that was laid out in Italian Renaissance style during the 1840s in the lovely Bridge End Gardens – which, incidentally, were never actually attached to or designed around a house as is usually the case. So it’s a bit strange really.

Saffron Walden hedge maze
Saffron Walden hedge maze

But Saffron Walden now also boasts a third maze, newly located at the entrance to Swan Meadow car park and a stone’s throw from the local duck pond. Spelling out “Saffron Walden Amazes’ in box hedging, it includes eight finger labyrinths and mazes positioned carefully on plinths. And this new attraction was opened to great fanfare last Saturday by no less an individual than international maze guru, Jeff Saward himself, who designs, builds, researches and writes about labyrinths with his equally expert wife, Kimberley.

 

As to what the difference between a labyrinth and a maze actually is, this was revealed by the Festival’s keynote speaker, Dr Jan Sellers. Although now retired, she used to lecture in education and guidance at the University of Kent at Canterbury, where she helped create the nearby medieval-style Canterbury Labyrinth in 2008.

 

Anyway, to get to the point, it turns out that mazes have high walls and many paths to their centre, which means that their walkers often get lost. Labyrinths, on the other hand, have no walls at all and offer only one path that weaves, albeit by the most circuitous of routes, to the heart and then back again.

 

The idea, among other things, is that the twists and turns symbolise life’s journey but also require concentration to stay on the path. As a result, they help the walker to stay focused and in the present, quieting the mind and generating a kind of meditative state within, which nurtures the spirit in the process.

 

Dr Donna Zucker, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US, is in fact currently researching whether labyrinth-walking can help to reduce stress levels among offenders, and whether indoor or outdoor labyrinth-walking actually proves more beneficial.

 

Labyrinth-walking

But I must say that, whatever the truth of it, labyrinth-walking certainly did something for me. I’d never tried it before, but I thought I’d give it a go when a canvas image of one was placed on the floor in the middle of the Town Hall’s Assembly Room for anyone showing an interest.

 

After taking a few deep breaths to let go of tension and forget feeling a bit foolish, I took my initial steps at the entrance point, putting one foot slowly in front of the other, heel to toe. And it was strange – as I travelled inwards towards the middle, it felt like I was leaving the everyday behind and moving inside myself.

 

In fact, by the time I reached the centre, I could feel wells of deep emotion that I’d previously not suspected. It was quite a revelation. But the journey back was no less symbolic as it represented (to me at least) the path back to the mundane, with my (rather turbulent) emotions easing as I went. An interesting experience, definitely, and one that I’d certainly like to try again.

 

Because I wonder if the labyrinth isn’t actually a Jungian-style archetype or universal mythic character found in the collective unconscious of people all over the world. The thing is that they’re symbols seen in faiths, cultures, countries and communities across the globe ranging from Europe to India and from Indonesia to the American Southwest.

 

The earliest one discovered was actually chipped into a rock face 4,000 years ago as a petroglyph in Mogor, Spain. But the Romans also used the design in their mosaic flooring, and it likewise popped up in many a European Gothic cathedral, including perhaps the most famous of all at Chartres in France, for pilgrims to wander prayerfully around.

Saffron Walden turf labyrinth
Saffron Walden turf labyrinth

By the late medieval period (1300 to 1500), however, the trusty labyrinth found itself morphing into the puzzle maze so familiar to us all today. In more recent times though, its use has expanded still further. Because labyrinths are often found to be calming, they’re increasingly being used for health and wellbeing purposes.

 

For example, labyrinth facilitator Kay Barrett and a team of helpers made a temporary structure of sand and LED tea lights for patients and staff to walk around during Mental Health Resilience Week at Addenbrookes, Cambridge, in both 2013 and 2014Pilgrim’s Hospices in Canterbury, Kent, also became the first such institution in the country to build a wheelchair-accessible, therapeutic labyrinth garden in order to benefit staff, carers and the terminally ill.

 

But for those without access to such facilities and who can’t walk one themselves, there are always finger labyrinths so you can trace the pathways using your digits as a means of meditation, prayer or just to relax.

 

In fact, Cambridge-based charity and arts centre Rowan specialises in manufacturing them to fund its activities. Its students, who all have learning difficulties, work under the direction of various artists and craftspeople to create these portable labyrinths out of wood, building up their artistic skills, confidence and self-esteem in the process.

 

And if that isn’t a great way to nurture the human spirit, then I don’t really know what is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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countryside, leisure, tourism, UK

Saffron Walden: A little town making it big

There are a number of reasons why my charming, little home-town of Saffron Walden in North Essex is special, it seems, not least of which are its sausages.

Burtons Butchers’ King Street banger, which comprises 80% Blythburg free range pork as well as a few secret spices, has just been awarded a rare five-star rating by the Sausage Review website, whose members go around the country evaluating the nation’s best and worst.

Burtons Butchers, Saffron Walden
Burtons Butchers, Saffron Walden

But it doesn’t stop there. A further three varieties on top of the recent King Street celebrity have also been entered into that culturally vital event, the British Sausage Week competition, which will be judged by Michel Roux Jr, Michelin-starred chef and owner of London’s upmarket Le Gavroche restaurant, at the start of November.

But its superlative sausages aren’t the only reason that Saffron Walden has been hitting headlines lately. Another is its world-class concert hall, which was built from the ground up with state-of-the-art acoustics in mind and is already gaining a reputation for itself. Growing numbers of people from as far away as London are now making the hour-long train journey from Liverpool Street in order to park themselves on one of its 730 really quite comfy seats to listen to classical music – although some might argue it’s shame that its remit is so narrow given the quality of the space.

Anyway, the Saffron Hall, as it’s known, was opened in 2013 at the 2,000-learner-thronged County High School while my Beloved and I were away in South Africa. This momentous event occurred following a £10 million donation from the Yellow Car Charitable Trust on behalf of a rich, local benefactor, who apparently loves classical music and wanted the children and local community to do likewise by providing them with access to outstanding facilities.

A particular feather in the Hall’s cap though has been the fact it managed to snare the well-regarded Angela Dixon, former head of music at the Barbican Centre in London, as its chief executive. An Essex girl, having been brought up in Benfleet and having lived in the village of Whittlesford for years, she apparently had had enough of chasing around the world. And so when a local job came up, she jumped at it.

And her international connections have certainly helped in attracting world-class performers to what, in the early days at least, amounted to an untried and untested venue. Now though everyone from internationally-acclaimed Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in tow to top-flight violinists Maxim Vengerov and Nicola Benedetti have strutted their stuff there.

A lot to offer

Somewhat embarrassingly, however, it seems that the rest of the town hasn’t quite caught up with its new-found reputation as a destination for the glitterati. In a place that has never knowingly kept late hours, the rumour goes that when staying at a local boutique hotel complete with rather overpriced gastro-pub in the centre of town, Benedetti had to go to bed hungry after a concert when she was told the chef had upped sticks and gone home. So let’s hope they sort that particular little issue out before she comes back for a revisit in November.

Anyway, moving swiftly on, it seems that the Hall was lucky enough to receive three years of funding from Yellow Lorry to see it through until the end of the 2017 season – by which time it really needs to have become as self-sufficient as possible. Things appear to have got off to a good start though as the venue apparently generated £280,000 last season and so good luck to it – it certainly can’t do Saffron Walden any harm in tourism terms at the very least.

Because this lovely old town, which incidentally is constantly being named as one of the best places in the UK to live and swiftly becoming a commuter-belt haven for ex-Londoners, really does have quite a lot to offer in that department. If you’re into architecture, for instance, it’s a complete dream as much of the centre has been preserved in aspic.

The story goes that local grandee Lord Braybrook, whose family seat was the now English Heritage-run mansion Audley End House, wasn’t too keen on having the London-to-Cambridge train line coming into Saffron Walden and spoiling his nice agricultural idyll – and so the Industrial Revolution, and its concomitant modernisation, completely passed it by.

As a result, you’ll find genuine buildings that are everything from late Georgian to Victorian in origin, with a good few medieval ones thrown in for good measure. A further plus is the widespread presence of a particular kind of decorated plasterwork traditional to East Anglia known as pargeting.

The Sun Inn, Saffron Walden
The Sun Inn, Saffron Walden

Designs range from simple geometric surface patterns to elaborate sculptured flowers and figures of people and animals – fine examples of which can be seen at the Sun Inn where Oliver Cromwell is said to have resided during his 19-day stay in the town in May 1647. At the time of his sojourn at the heart of the English Civil War, he was in the middle of talks to try and reach a settlement between Parliament and his New Model Army apparently.

Ancient history

One of the town’s oldest buildings, however, is the imposing Church of St Mary the Virgin, which takes the crown for being the largest parish church in Essex. Dating mainly from the end of the 15th century and dominating the skyline, it was built using wool money – the area’s major trade for centuries – very patently to show off the wealth of this still well-heeled town.

In fact, even its name is linked to wool production. Originally know as Chepyng (an Anglo-Saxon word for Market) Walden when it was granted a charter around 1300, the town started growing saffron crocuses in the 16th and 17th centuries to dye its own wool and keep prices elevated. But it also made lots of money on the side selling this precious commodity as a condiment, an additive to medicines and perfumes – and even as an aphrodisiac.

Anyway, as the saffron industry started petering out by the end of the 18th century, it was replaced by malt and barley and Saffron Walden morphed into a Quaker town. The most influential family then were the Gibsons, who helped found Barclays Bank and contributed to building a number of iconic buildings in the shape of a distinctive town hall and museum.

 

Saffron Walden market and town hall
Saffron Walden market and town hall

And there are still remnants of that legacy to this day in the shape of a Friends Meeting House in the High Street and a private Friends’ School, which has seen such luminaries as Russian dictator Josef Stalin‘s granddaughter Olga Peters and Tom Robinson of Tom Robinson Band fame pass through its doors.

Other novel things that the place is known for, and for which it is actually unique in the UK, meanwhile, are its two historic mazes – a restored Victorian yew hedge one in the Grade II listed Bridge End Gardens and an ancient turf maze on the still quite extensive Common.

Remarkably the turf maze is the largest example of its kind in the world and is one of only 11 to survive in Northern Europe – eight in England and three in Germany. And they’re important in social history terms because, since medieval times, they’ve been used for religious purposes and as part of community festivities such as village fairs.

According to the medieval Christian worldview, for instance, mazes represented the journey of the human soul, in which the goal was clear but the path to achieving it confusing. So it was considered an act of devotion to walk them in meditation and prayer – something that, in an unspoiled, rural idyll like Saffron Walden, it’s still perfectly feasible to do to this day.

Britishness, countryside

The British countryside: Pastoral idyll or rural fantasy?

The UK is one of the few countries in the developed world that is experiencing counter-urbanisation – that is, people flocking from towns to the country rather than the other way around.

And there seems to be quite a number of reasons why – since the Romantic period of the early-to-mid-1880s, lots of Brits seem to have had quite a nostalgic, pastoral idyll-type view of rural life, with a thatched cottage and roses round the door being a common ideal.

So as broadband becomes increasingly available, it becomes more and more possible for people to work away from urban centres and live the dream, while also providing the kids with more space to play safely.

As a result, more than half a million businesses are now registered in England’s rural areas alone, accounting for just under a quarter of the national total and contributing nicely to a rural economy worth £210 billion.

Moreover, as urban living becomes increasingly expensive, especially in big cities such as London, those who can afford it have started looking elsewhere for a housing bargain, weighing up the cost of commuting against a lower or getting-more-for-your money mortgage and better quality of life.

That’s certainly the case here in Saffron Walden, which despite its hefty one hour train journey into London Liverpool Street, has morphed in the two years we were away in South Africa from a sleepy backwater to commuter belt-land for creative types – designers, marketers and writers of various forms by the score. It’s all a bit disconcerting really.

P1010649

Anyway, another distinct group that has progressively been wending its way country-wards is the artistic community. A key driver here seems to be that creatives, and visual artists in particular, need cheap space to do their thing, but as gentrification continues apace across urban landscapes, they are increasingly being priced out.

But even the big boys and girls of the art world are at it, with Britart’s Sarah Lucas locating herself near Aldeburgh in Suffolk and Damien Hirst treating himself to a pile in the shape of Toddington Manor in Gloucestershire.

Dark underbelly

What this all means though is that the English countryside’s population is expected to grow by 6%, which equates to more than half a million people, over the next decade. Some 9.3 million people, or 17.6% of the national total, already live in rural areas. But such a big influx of newcomers does raise certain questions as to how the existing infrastructure will cope.

In Saffron Walden, for instance, none of the schools are now taking new kids. Most, if not all, of the NHS dentists have shut their books, and innumerable houses continue to be squashed into wherever there’s a bit of free land with no concomitant upgrading of the roads, sewage or water system. Which is all a bit concerning for the long-term health and wellbeing of the place really.

Beyond such concerns though, it also seems that many beautiful country areas have a rather dark but rarely talked about underbelly – rural poverty.

Although on the surface of it, communities may appear well-heeled and affluent, in reality as many as one in five rural households in the UK, which means 700,000 children, live below the official poverty line. While about half are in households where someone is working, the problem is that most traditional employment in the countryside is seasonal, low-skilled and poorly paid with few or no prospects for career progression.

But things are also made worse by energy bills that are on average 27% higher than in urban areas. Chocolate box country cottages cost a lot to heat, particularly if you have to use expensive oil due to a lack of gas supplies in your area.

Then there’s the issue of poor rural transport services, which have been badly hit by austerity-driven funding cuts, leading to widespread reductions in scheduled bus services. But even if you do have a car, there’s still the issue of having to travel further to the nearest shop, cash point or bank, which again all costs money in petrol.

Certainly, one community that has been struggling financially for some time is the Cumbrian hill farmers. They’ve been looking after Herdwick sheep, which are native to the Lakeland fells (mountains) and have been bred for centuries to suit the landscape, for 1,000 years.

VIKING_LONGSHIP_%22SEA_STALLION%22_ARRIVES_IN_DUBLIN

The sheep were believed to have been introduced by the Vikings in the 10th and 11th centuries and their name is derived from the Old Norse ‘herdvyck’, which means ‘sheep pasture’. Lakeland children’s author Beatrix Potter also bred them and even won a number of prizes at country shows for her efforts.

Herdwick fell farming

When she died, she bequeathed 15 farms or 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust, with strict instructions that the local Herdwick shepherds have access to it as common grazing land, a stipulation that still stands to this day.

But towards the end of the last century, it became progressively difficult for them to make a living by farming the breed without external support. Open market prices for fleeces routinely fell as low as a penny a kilogram, which is the equivalent of the weight of wool from a single sheep.

And without European Union farming subsidies and direct monetary guarantees for wool prices from the National Trust, it would cost farmers more to shear their sheep than it would to sell the wool. As a result, until the National Trust started acting as a merchant in order to negotiate prices directly with the British Wool Marketing Board, many farmers had no choice but to simply burn their fleeces.

Most now manage to get by due to the subsidies, by selling lambs and even doing other jobs on the side to supplement their income – as does James Rebanks who wrote the recently published ‘The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District‘ and who has a second job consulting on the impact of tourism around the world for Unesco.

The aim of his excellent book, which is well worth a read if you get the chance, was to try and make people aware of a way of life that is utterly different to the romantic view of the place put forth by the likes of William Wordsworth – and which passes mainly unnoticed to the 16 million or so tourists who flood into the area every year.

Anyway, it seems that the sheep farmers now have another advocate in the form of Spencer Hannah who runs local award-winning design firm, the Herdy Company, which sells gift items inspired by the Herdwicks.

Herdy

But Hannah has now taken it all a step further and created a Herdwick brand, which he launched as a fashion label at the 165-year-old Grasmere Lakeland Sports Show at the end of August. The aim is to sell designer hats, flat caps, scarves and bags made from a blend of the sheep’s coarse wool under the firm’s Herdy Country range in a bid to take on the Western Isles’ famous Harris Tweed.

It is also hoped that the move could help boost sales of Herdwick meat, which used to be so well regarded that it was served to the Queen at her coronation banquet apparently. In 2013, the meat even joined another 64 UK products such as Melton Mowbray pork pies and blue Stilton cheese in receiving Protected Designation of Origin status from the European Union, the aim being to protect its reputation and promote traditional agricultural activity.

Which just goes to show that, even when things seem impossible, a bit of creative thinking really can go a long way.

Britishness, leisure, tourism

What does “Britishness” really mean?

Eight months or so after returning to the UK following my two-year-long South African adventure, I decided to give myself a birthday treat and go back to blogging.

I’ve missed it. There’s something about putting your thoughts down on paper that makes you look at the world through slightly different, more observational, and perhaps rather more emblematic eyes. And, as I’m now back to being a freelance journalist full-time, I do find it eminently satisfying to write about the things that fascinate and amuse me rather than the things that pay the bills.

So what better topic to light upon than that of life in the UK in all its mundanity, its drollery and its singularity? Having been born and brought up in these Hallowed Isles, I am, of course, far from being the dispassionate observer of society, culture and everyday experiences that I was in South Africa. How could I be when I’m imbued with it all to the core?

But there are many ways to skin a cat, as the rather gruesome proverb goes. So my aim is to portray life here, for good or bad, through the prism of my own experiences for anyone who may be interested.

And what better place to start such a venture than with the vexed idea of “Britishness” and what it actually means. It’s an issue that people appear to have been wrestling with since the identity crisis brought on by the collapse of that doubled-edge sword, “the Great British Empire”, and the upheaval provoked by the Second World War – and with no satisfactory outcome to date.

Sure, lots of tired, old clichés still abound regarding our collective stiff-upper lip, our notions of fair play and our propensity to drink lots of tea. But that would scarcely seem enough to sum up a nation.

So it struck me as interesting when a friend of mine who’s into astrology informed me there’s a certain branch of the discipline that relates to countries. While astrology may not be everyone’s cup of tea, bear with me as the insights afforded are quite interesting – whether you hold any store by the influence of heavenly bodies or not.

Astrological_signs_by_J._D._Mylius

Apparently how it works is that, when drawing up a star chart, you plump for an historic date that could be seen as the birth of the nation. A common one for us Brits apparently is the coronation of William I in Westminster Abbey in London at noon on 25 December, 1066, following the Norman invasion.

Collective nature

This would mean that the UK has a Capricorn sun sign, with an Aries ascendant, the sun sign being the essence of who you are and the ascendant being how you present to other people.

Aries, so it’s said, is ruled by Mars, the planet of action, which means that people – or countries, for that matter – influenced by this sign tend to have a rather pioneering nature. They are also natural leaders, but can, on the downside, be aggressive, competitive and warlike. And they strive to be first in everything, sometimes to the point of ignoring the rights and feelings of others.

Sound familiar? Certainly notions of Empire would fit very nicely into many of the categories above, I’d have said, as would various ground-breaking events such as our creation of the first Parliament as well as sparking off the Industrial Revolution.

Capricorn-bonatti

The Capricorn side, meanwhile, is characterised by hard-working, practical, ambitious people (or countries) who are dedicated to achieving their goals and let nothing stand in their way. Responsible and methodical, they are often skilled administrators, hang onto established traditions and prefer slow, piecemeal reform to outright revolution.

So that’s where things like our cool British reserve and detachment would appear to come from as would the general focus on duty, and our apparently interminable love of Monarchy.

But my friend also believes that, given the liberal, eccentric and creative elements of our collective nature, the UK must likewise have a healthy dose of Aquarius thrown in there too – which I must confess is the bit that I’ve always tuned into most.

Along with just how feminine the energy of our country feels. I’d never noticed it before, but after going to Japan about 20 years ago for a dear friend’s wedding who is sadly no longer with us, it struck me just how immensely masculine that country was by way of contrast.

It wasn’t just the overt male domination going on all around or the seemingly diminuitive nature of the women, giggling behind their hands. It was just that the country felt so utterly and palpably male – I’d never experienced anything quite like it, and despite having an amazing time there, was really quite relieved to get back to our gentler, reassuringly female shores.

British birthdays

So anyway, just to tarry on the theme of Britishness a while longer, I had, due to the tender ministrations of my Beloved, a most appropriately British of birthdays.

Saffron_Walden_market_square

After indulging in that childhood classic of fishfinger sandwich, complete with very adult tartare sauce, at the Old English Gentleman pub in the charming, old market town of Saffron Walden in north Essex where we live, the next step was to take ourselves off to the historic city of Cambridge for a lovely roam around.

After working up a suitable appetite with our wanderings, we then treated ourselves to the traditional British fare on offer at The Cambridge Chop House opposite King’s College in the heart of town.

For those who aren’t familiar with chop houses, they, like coffee houses, alehouses and boarding houses, are essentially great British institutions of hundreds of years standing.

Originally, male-only establishments, they actually date back to the start of modern commercial trading in the country during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Businessmen would gather there to hatch deals over hearty plates of traditionally cooked meat such as the chops after which they’re named, all washed down with a fine selection of local ales.

Even in the face of the new-fangled European cuisine sweeping across from the continent at the apex of their popularity in the 19th century, the chop houses, it seems, still managed to cling to their resolutely British mores.

So in keeping with the spirit of the occasion and despite not being a huge red-meat fan, I opted for herb-encrusted lamb chops while my Beloved went for a 10oz Tail on Rib Eye steak – whatever that means. And excellent they were too – traditional British food at its best.

Our final and ultimate indulgence then was an evening watching Shakespeare’s Macbeth in pergola-bedecked gardens near King’s. So all in all, a more British birthday couldn’t have been had if we’d tried.

So good day UK – it’s great to be back.