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The Sound of Music at Thaxted

A glorious country walk following in the footsteps of composer Gustav Holst.

Distance 3 miles (4.8km)

Minimum time 1hr 30min

Ascent/gradient 92ft (28m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Field-edge paths, bridleway prone to muddiness, river bank and some town streets

Landscape Arable fields, meadows and undulating farmland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 195 Braintree & Saffron Walden

Start/finish TL 610311

Dog friendliness Great for romping, especially if you finish with a Thaxted sausage

Parking Free car park at Margaret Street

Public toilets Car park in Margaret Street

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1 From the car park turn left into Margaret Street, right into Weaverhead Lane and left into Copthall Lane, passing the row of cottages called Bridgefoot. After the houses on your left, pass through the gap between trees by the gate marked Walnut Tree Meadow. Turn right along the grassy path and keep parallel with Copthall Lane on your right. After 400yds (366m) bear left at the yellow waymark through trees, cross two footbridges at right angles, in quick succession, and turn right keeping the stream and hedgerows on your right.

2 Maintain direction along the field-edge path through two fields. After the line of trees on your left, turn left at the waymark over the footbridge and follow another field-edge path keeping the hedgerow on your left to the B1051, Sampford road. In the distance, to your left, the spire of St John the Baptist Church dominates the skyline. Turn right, cross the road with care,and take the first turning on the left along the farm track marked Boynton End. The track zig-zags left and right past Sorrel's Farm House and Golden Farm. At Golden Farm bear right on to the narrow canopied bridleway between buildings, keeping the paddock fence on your left. Continue downhill to the collection of waymarks outside Goddards Farm, turn left and right and follow the path uphill with the farm on your right-hand side.

3 Descend a short steep embankment and cross the farm track to follow a fingerpost through the hedge. Turn half left across the field and follow the path with the River Chelmer on your right to Walden Road.

4 At Walden Road turn right across Armitage Bridge and immediately left at the fingerpost. Follow the field-edge path with the river on your left passing conifers and, after 300yds (274m) where the river veers away, turn left at the waymark concealed in the hedgerows. You are now on the Harcamlow Way. Turn left downhill past the house called Haslemere, over the concrete bridge across the river. Ignore paths left and right and continue along the tarmac road, past some elegant modern housing surrounded by rolling countryside.

5 Continue along Watling Lane passing 17th-century cottages and Piggots Mill until you emerge opposite the Swan Hotel. Turn left and right into Margaret Street and return to the car park.

Thaxted must be one of Essex's prettiest villages, the sort you would expect to find gracing the top of a chocolate box, with its picturesque windmill, delightful thatched houses and a guildhall dating back to the 13th century. Perhaps this is what attracted composer and musician Gustav Holst (1874-1934) to the village. The young Gustav stayed overnight in Thaxted in 1913 during a five-day winter walking holiday in north west Essex, little knowing that a few years later he would come here to live.

Home for the composer, his wife and their daughter was, at first, a 17th-century thatched cottage. From here there were views across meadows and willow trees to the magnificent spire of St John the Baptist church in the village and this view, coupled with tranquillity and solitude, provided the inspiration for his work, The Planets Suite (1914-16).

Holst was born in Cheltenham to a father who came from the Baltic port of Riga. When he came to Thaxted he was known as Gustav von Holst, a name which at first aroused suspicion amongst the villagers who couldn't understand what motivated this stranger to walk alone, for so long and so far. On this walk you will enjoy panoramas of rolling countryside and big skies, and see the soaring spire of the church, visible for miles around, and perhaps experience similar feelings of liberation and solitude as the young Gustav whose genius was to make him one of our greatest composers.

Holst became great friends with the local vicar, the socialist Father Conrad Noel, a colourful and controversial character who called him 'Our Mr Von'. Noel upset the villagers one day in 1921 by hoisting Sinn Fein and communist red flags above the church. To add fuel to the fire he deliberately omitted hoisting the Union Jack believing it to be a flag of imperialist oppression. Angry Cambridge students tore down the flags and replaced them with the Union Jack, an act which drove the vicar quite wild. A pitched battle ensued with Noel and his followers slashing the tyres of the demonstrators' cars and motorbikes until order was fully restored by the church authorities.

In calmer times Holst played the church organ, helped local singers and brought London students to the parish church where they sang Bach cantatas and Byrd's Mass for Three Voices. At Christmas he sang carols and invited the choir to his home at the Manse in Town Street, where a plaque commemorates his residence here from 1917 to 1925. Holst died in 1934 and today he is remembered with a month-long summer music festival in Thaxted, which attracts performers worldwide.

What to look for

Look for the pargetted and timber-framed houses lining Town Street. Local builders became accomplished in the art of pargetting, a decorative skill introduced by Italian craftsmen during Henry VIII's reign. This involved the moulding and marking of plaster to give the exterior of a house an attractive finish. Thaxted's houses are adorned with many different motifs and figures.

While you're there

Visit John Webb's Windmill at the back of the churchyard. This lovely mill (1804) is the largest of all the windmills which once graced Thaxted. Made from local brick it was rescued from ruin in 1970 and is still undergoing restoration. Call at the small museum, if it is open, to see the wide range of exhibits highlighting Thaxted's agricultural history.

Where to eat and drink

Several traditional English tea shops can be found in Town Street. For more substantial fodder try the Swan Hotel, a former coaching inn, where you can get a good selection of traditional ales, ideal for washing down a hearty ploughman's lunch and finish with a giant portion of apple strudel or death by chocolate, served with lashings of custard or cream.

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