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From Saffron Walden

A fairly challenging walk along part of the Harcamlow Way to Audley End, taking in beautiful rolling countryside.

Distance 5.5 miles (8.8km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 180ft (55m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Urban, field edge, grassy tracks

Landscape Downland, arable farmland, grassy meadow and woodland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 195 Braintree & Saffron Walden

Start/finish TL 534384

Dog friendliness Mostly on lead

Parking Pay-and-display at Swan Meadows, Common Hill and Fairycroft Road, free parking at Catons Hill

Public toilets Swan Meadows, Common Hill and Hill Street

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1 From the car park turn right into Park Lane and first right into Primes Close. Go through the arch under the almshouses and go right into Abbey Lane through the wrought iron gates of Audley End Park. Maintain direction along the grassy path to the top of the hill, passing the Ice House on your left by another set of wrought iron gates, to Audley End Road.

2 Turn right along the embankment and go downhill for 600yds (549m), keeping the red brick wall of Audley End Park on your right, until you reach the fingerpost marked College of St Mark. Cross the road and turn left to Audley End village.

3 Cross the bridge and turn left at the lane marked 'Abbey Farm private' and continue along this footpath keeping St Mark's College, followed by the farm, to your right. Maintain direction through arable fields, cross Wenden Road and go through trees to join Beechy Ride (track). Keep the stream and line of beech trees to your right for 200yds (183m), until you cross the earth bridge between the trees, and continue with the stream and trees to your left to the B1052. Cross the road with care, turn right and continue until you reach a footpath on your left. Turn left along the field-edge path with the hedgerow and stream on your left. At the earth bridge turn left and immediately right so that the stream is now on your right.

4 Follow the field-edge path until it abuts Brakey Ley Wood and ignore three sets of waymarks indicating right turns. At the fourth waymark, Thieves' Corner, turn left just before the footbridge and follow the grassy field-edge path steeply uphill to Debden Road.

5 Turn right at Debden Road and opposite The Roos, turn left on to the uphill path. Bear left at Herberts Farm and left again to rejoin Debden Road. Turn right towards Claypits Plantation and maintain direction into Seven Devil's Lane.

6 After ½ mile (800m) turn right on the B1052 towards Saffron Walden. At the roundabout bear left across the road and follow the footpath between houses passing a deep ditch on the left, which is part of ancient defence system called Battle Ditches. At the end of the path turn right into Abbey Lane and the car park.

Saffron Walden is a picturesque medieval town. Originally known as Walden meaning 'valley of the Welsh' (ie Britons), the town's distinctive prefix was added in the 15th century when many parts of north west Essex began growing the saffron crocus and the town became a centre of trade for saffron. Every autumn the flowers were picked by hand and brought to the town where the chive, or stigma, was removed, dried and then sold.

Saffron was mainly used for dyeing although a few Waldenians seem to have used it as a spice or medicine. By the early 1700s saffron production fell into decline mainly due to cheaper imports from Spain and the Middle East. However, the saffron flower symbol can be seen on the decorative plasterwork, or pargetting, on the Old Sun Inn in Church Street, inside the parish church and on the coat-of-arms on the Town Hall.

On this walk you can imagine what the surrounding countryside to the west of Saffron Walden must have looked like when it was covered with crocus blooms. We leave the town passing the Edward VI almshouses (1834), which provided homes for the poor, and walk along Abbey Lane to enter the wrought iron gates of Audley End Park. This great park extends from Saffron Walden to the Cambridge road and Audley End House, which stands on the site of the former Benedictine monastery of Walden Abbey.

Audley End House was given to Sir Thomas Audley in 1538 by Henry VIII. It was used as a private residence but demolished and rebuilt by his grandson, Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk, as a much grander mansion for entertaining James I. A story tells that Thomas Howard lied to the King saying he had spent £200,000 on creating the house and that the King had unwittingly contributed to the cost. In 1619 both Howard and his wife were locked up in the Tower of London for fraud but payment of a huge fine set them free and seven years later, Howard died in disgrace at Audley End. Today the house is a third of its original size but it is still very grand. We pass through the one-street hamlet of Audley End and its row of cottages, where the estate workers lived, before returning to town.

Where to eat and drink

Behind the post office, the former schoolhouse, at Audley End Village, is a tiny tea room which serves cakes, pastries and sandwiches. For a pub lunch head for the Queens Head at Littlebury. If visiting Audley End House try the cafeteria/restaurant.

While you're there

Don't miss a visit to Audley End House, an historic treasure trove of art and interior design. Run by English Heritage, the attractions include paintings by Holbein and Canaletto and a collection of 1,000 stuffed birds and animals.

What to look for

Trinity Church at Littlebury has a 14th-century tower, a Norman nave and 13th-century aisles. Inside the church, look for the attractive brasses depicting local people, including several who died of the plague in 1522.

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