As a Belfast girl, I am used to my hometown being much maligned, so on relocating to Essex a few years ago, it was with empathy that I heard the county being similarly abused. I am a firm believer in finding out for myself, so I set out to explore the “Real Essex” at every opportunity. Recently, on a sunny spring Sunday I ventured to the regal setting of Audley End House and Gardens, little guessing what a treat was in store.
On our northward journey, we travelled through country roads and past “chocolate-box” pretty hamlets, and I vaguely remembered a quote about a journey being part of the destination. When one leaves the Estuary Essex suburbs behind, the northern half of the county might as well be a million miles away – and a hundred years. We approached the Audley End estate through Thaxted and Saffron Walden, both interesting destinations in their own right, then swung in from the main road to pause at the English Heritage kiosk. This moment gave us our first breath-taking view of a truly majestic, Jacobean-style property.
Impressive as it is, what visitors see nowadays is only about a third of the size of the palatial manor that the 1st Earl of Suffolk, Thomas Howard, created in about 1605–14. Benedictine monks, who founded Walden Abbey had chosen the site centuries earlier, but they lost the monastery in the tumultuous times of Henry VIII and the Reformation. As we drove past the western face of the magnificent property, in search of parking, these historic parklands spread as far as the eye could see. As we had unwittingly chosen Mothering Sunday to visit, the grounds sang with happy families picnicking, children climbing the ancient trees and dogs (on leads) inspecting the new scents abounding.
For such an impressive property, under the management and care of English Heritage since the 1980s, it has a surprisingly small, though very pleasant, shop and café offer. As our visit was very early in the season, we could only surmise that this might be augmented in high season. On the other hand, it is a perfect place to seek out your preference of spot for a home-packed picnic. We were unfortunate in that the house was not yet open for tours, so my knowledge of the interior, some of which was the work of Robert Adam, remains for now confined to the pages of the internet.
Adam designed the new bridge over the river Cam, now called the Adam Bridge, on the nearby road connecting Saffron Walden to the Newport–Cambridge road. His Temple of Victory, Lady Portsmouth’s Column and Tea House Bridge also survive. My interest in garden design drew me to the grounds, particularly as the great designer ‘Capability’ Brown had been commissioned for their remodelling in the 18th century. The nearby river and rolling landscape provided an ideal canvas for Brown’s inspirational work, much of which survives to this day.
Just a short walk away from the house the stable block gives the appearance of a rather grand domestic dwelling rather than a resting place for carriage horses. This is due to its original use as basic lodgings and part of an earlier entrance forecourt. This use was soon changed by the alteration of floors and doors. Animal lovers may enjoy the site of the estate horses and special events are held on a historic horse theme. King Charles II is known to have chosen this retreat for its proximity to Newbury races and modern day events display Georgian hounds, Victorian stable displays and the military skills of the King’s Lifeguards.
The walled kitchen garden running alongside this block mixes decorative floral display with practical kitchen garden produce. As with most such historic properties, research and restoration is an ongoing task for an unseen army of experts. These grounds have seen so much construction, deconstruction and alteration over the centuries that it must be an intricate puzzle to decipher and a vast challenge to decide which path to take in its revival.
Having explored the grounds to the extent that the aging, short-legged dog needed a piggy-back, we returned wearily to our car. Even in ‘almost out of season’, this place is a treasure to be sought out. For a family day out there is also a miniature railway close by. Market town Saffron Walden provides alternative dinner venues and shops. I hope this may encourage you to seek out your own Essex experience. For myself, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.