It’s a grey, overcast day that I venture out across Essex to visit one of the places people are choosing to move to in the county.
The market town of Saffron Walden is situated in the very north of Essex, and from the moment I walked into the town’s square, I was in love with the place.
Saffron Walden is full of very old buildings, including the medieval Walden Castle, built during the 12th century, and lots of black-timbered houses dating back to the Tudor period and before.
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According to a recent study, Uttlesford is one of the most popular places for people to move to.
Uttlesford’s main town Saffron Waldon is also full of independent shops with brightly lit front windows, enticing the morning shoppers in – and there were a surprising number of them there on a cold Thursday morning in November.
I was in Saffron Walden to discover just why people are choosing to move there – and what the impact has been on the town over the last couple of years.
I started by simply wandering around, looking for a coffee shop to fuel my investigations for the next few hours.
I settled on The Curious Goat, a bustling, warm and atmospheric café in Cross Street, just off Market Square.
As I made my way to one of the only free tables, I asked the waitress if it was always this busy, and she nodded, even at 11am.
There was a large group of men in their twenties and thirties having brunch together, and several mothers with babies catching up over coffee.
The place felt lively, which reflected the atmosphere of the town as a whole when I finished my coffee and continued wandering around.
The most noticeable thing about Saffron Walden’s shops is their novelty.
Most of the shops are independents run by local people, and carefully curated for visitors to the town.
I started off in Saffron and Sage, the delicatessen, which sells a huge variety of cheese, meat, vegetables, takeaway sandwiches and more.
The shop assistant said she felt that the attraction of these kinds of shops is that the produce is always changing, which encourages people to come back and creates local ties between shoppers and sellers.
The people who live in and around Saffron Walden are also perhaps willing to spend more on their produce, he also suggested.
Sage and Saffron has a rustic, personal feel, which matches well with the vibe of the town as a whole.
My next stop was a shop that seemed so specific I had to enquire further.
Dead Time sells an impressive variety of craft beers in a bright and enticing shop in Rose and Crown Walk.
The walls are covered by rows of bottles and cans, and there are even T-shirts on sale with the Dead Time logo on.
Opposite is the Courtyard Cafe, run by the famous jam and spread makers Tiptree.
It’s warm, cosy and the staff were friendly and happy to chat to me about the town.
One waitress really emphasised the importance of the train services into London and Cambridge.
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“It’s only thirty minutes away by train”, she said, “but it means people can get out of London into the countryside.”
There are also lots of attractions in the town, including a twice-weekly market on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
She also said: “We pull together when needed as a community”, which has been reflected especially over the last couple of years as the pandemic has made life particularly difficult for shops and businesses.
Lastly, I went to speak to Rachel Thomas at the Saffron Walden Tourist Information Centre.
She said that every day she’s called by people planning on moving to the town, and specifically the town centre.
And Saffron Walden is also thriving as a shopping destination.
Rachel said: “We’re experiencing more and more feedback that Saffron Walden is becoming the destination shopping centre instead of Cambridge.”
Considering that Cambridge has two shopping centres, and Saffron Walden just has three or four rows of streets full of shops, this is very unusual and interesting.
Rachel said: “We’ve got a very healthy blend of independents and chains.
“The balance here is superb.”
One of the reasons Saffron Walden is thriving as both a tourist and residential destination is that the Tourist Information Centre has remained open throughout the pandemic.
Rachel said: “During the pandemic, many tourist centres shut for good.
“But in Saffron Walden, we had one of our best years ever.”
They are always on hand to recommend an independent coffee shop or somewhere to stop for lunch – which I duly followed up on.
Rachel recommended Maze, a Turkish restaurant that did light lunches and full Middle Eastern cuisine in the evenings.
Quiet at lunchtime, I ordered the cold mezze platter for one, which was completely vegetarian and absolutely delicious.
Refuelled after my long morning, I took one last wander around Saffron Walden, walking up to Walden Castle and along Castle Street where I discovered even more beautiful old cottages painted in a vibrant range of colours.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of Saffron Walden, and I’ve definitely been captured by its charm.
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