Much has been written about Thaxted and its history. Here we only touch the surface and hope that you may want to enquire further. There are a number of publications to be found in Thaxted which can extend the information here. In Town Street, the Thaxted Information Centre and Library, opposite the Post Office, can provide copies of these as well as a Town Trail leaflet (50p). click this link to CIC page for details the other publications available and how to obtain them.
Before you begin walking around the town, it may be well to have an idea of how the town has developed. There is a town map on the side of the Parish Council notice board facing the road.
Thaxted has a long history as is evident from the Domesday Book which records Thaxted as a well-established and prosperous community by the end of the Saxon period. It is as a medieval town, however, that Thaxted is renowned. The town was owned by a number of manors, the largest was the Thaxted Manor, based on the south-west side of Town Street. A market was granted to the town in 1205, but it probably had already had a market function before that date.
There was a rapid expansion in the town in the 14th C as from the 13th century it had become a centre for a cutlery industry. A large number of the population were employed in the cutlery trade. Quite why Thaxted was chosen is not known, although it is known that cheap rents were charged by the landowners. The industry appears to have died out by the sixteenth century.
The earliest record of a church was in 981, this being replaced with money from cutlery in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Town Street runs down hill from the church in a south-easterly direction and the Manor House stood on the south-west side of Town Street. Little survived after 1400 and the last remaining evidence was lost in the mid-eighteenth century.
It seems from evidence that Town Street was originally considerably wider and that it extended northwards as far as the south side of the Parish Church and Mill Row and also over the stream up towards the south-east end of the town. It is suggested that originally much of this area served as the market-place. Eventually some of this area was subsumed into the churchyard and the rest was filled by the building of Stoney Lane in the fourteenth to fifteenth century. Finally by 1393 the layout as see today was mostly in place as Mill End and Orange Street filled in the south-east part of Town Street.
The Guildhall at the top of Town Street was more likely a “Moot” or meeting hall, still used today for Parish Council and other meetings. There were other guildhalls in Thaxted, in particular there was a Guild Hall built by the Fraternity of St John the Baptist in Newbiggen Street.
Settlement spread out from the core along Bolford Street, Newbiggen Street, Park Street and Weaverhead Lane. Local historians have found many examples of medieval coins and tokens in the Park Farm fields around the Church Mill which suggests it was an area used for fairs and markets. Other finds have been of worked bone around Town Street and Weaverhead Lane suggesting this was the site of the cutlery industry.
In the sixteenth century it is know that weaving made an appearance, and an attempt was made to establish a Guild of Clothiers in 1583. The centre was thought to be in Newbiggen Street.
The name Fishmarket Street could well tell of this street’s past; while Mill Row has revealed finds which indicate it was the town midden. The present cottages date from the mid-nineteenth century.
There are still six places of worship in Thaxted, which is a legacy of its past Nonconformist history. Quakers were also known to have met in the town, but although there is evidence that there was a burial ground, the actual site of any Quaker Meeting House is not clear.
Now it is time for your walk. Town Street is a good starting place. The Guildhall, referred to above, immediately catches your eye. It is now thought it was built as the administrative centre of the town and housed a market as well as a meeting place. As such it could well be the Cutlers met there. The Guildhall suffers from a lack of disabled access. It is normally open to the public all day over Bank Holidays and on all other Sunday afternoons from Easter to September. (See the dedicated page on The Guildhall.)
The Parish Church towers behind the Guildhall and is likely to be the next stop on your visit. Open from 9 am to dusk every day, unless being used for a special occasion. (See the dedicated page on The Parish Church.)
John Webb’s Windmill is the third in the trio of must see first attractions. A short, but windy, walk from the Church, between the Almshouses and “The Chantry”, along Mill Row to the reach the Windmill which also strikes its presence on the landscape. It was fully restored to working order and it is a well worth a climb up the winding steps to view to workings inside and the view outside. Open 2.00 pm to 6.00 pm Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays, from Easter to end of September. Entry is free. (See the dedicated page on the Windmill.)
Once these main sites have been ticked off your list it is possible to wander around the centre of the town and begin to see that every building has something of interest. The town has slowly developed over years and there are examples of every architectural era to be seen. Only by reading the comprehensive History of Thaxted Guide can everything be appreciated.
Clarance House, opposite the Church is an excellent example of an early eighteenth century Queen Anne building. Built as the marital home of Elizabeth Rayner and William Heckford, 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 requirements of Health & Safety conflicted with the integrity of an old building it was no longer possible to have residential groups. It then became an adult education centre and town library. It is now a private residence.
Back towards Town Street is Stoney Lane. It is part of an ancient highway leading to Saffron Walden and contains a number of timber-framed houses. Those near the Guildhall have the timber exposed, while on others it is hidden beneath the render which in many cases has “pargetting”, the traditional local decoration. The second house in Stoney Lane is called “Dick Turpin’s Cottage”. Despite hopeful thoughts, there is no actual documentary evidence that he ever lived in the house and there is only very slight evidence that he ever lived in the town at all. Take a close look at the arrangement of the cobbles in this street.
There is no doubt, however, that Gustav Holst lived in Thaxted and in the building now known as “The Manse”, but then called “The Steps” for good reason. See the dedicated page on Holst.
Gifted - The Recorders House is another fine building and is said to be called after William Benlowes who was the first Recorder of Thaxted. As he lived at Brent Hall in Finchingfield it is assumed he used the building for his legal work. It was originally built as a hunting lodge for Edward IV and is on the “Manorial” side of the street. While all traces of the manor have gone, the house called “Market Cross” which is close to the Guildhall is said to have been the gatehouse to the Manor and its grounds or park; hence ”Park Street”.
Further reading that is available in Thaxted.
History of Thaxted - This is an up dated edition of a very comprehensive book which describes all the buildings of historic note in the whole parish of Thaxted. £1.50 (postage now £1.10 second class).
Guildhall. A booklet on the history of this building. Cost £1.00 each.
Thaxted Town Trail - leaflet cost 50p
Individual History cards on Guildhall, Windmill, Church, Almshouses, Conrad Noel, Dick Turpin and Gustav Holst. These give a fuller description of these aspects of Thaxted. Cost 20p
Discover Historic Thaxted - New 4 fold leaflet giving a brief description of the main aspects of Thaxted. Free.