Thaxted is an attractive market town set in the heart of the North Essex countryside. There’s been a settlement in the area for more than a thousand years, and like so many town and villages in Essex it was mentioned in the Domesday Book. To quote the poet Sir John Betjeman “there is no town in North Essex – and very few in England – to equal in beauty, compactness and juxtaposition of medieval and Georgian architecture, the town of Thaxted”.
I’ve driven through the town many times and admired Town Street, with its Guildhall, church and windmill but I’ve never had the chance to visit them properly. I finally remedied this one day in very early spring, when I had the opportunity to visit the Guildhall and then John Webb’s windmill.
There have been many theories put forward over the years as to why the Guildhall was built. At one time it was thought that it built around 600 years ago by the Cutlers Guild (they made cutlery!) But now historians (who are always changing their minds) have cast doubt on this theory, and think that it may have been a Moot Hall – a meeting place for commerce and socialising. Whatever it was built for, it remains a fascinating building.
At entrance level there is a covered paved area which was probably used for market stalls. If you stand and look back down Town Street you can imagine the hustle and bustle of market day and the traders selling their wares. Inside there is now a small and slightly eccentric museum with a collection of artifacts reflecting the rural nature of life in the town, mainly during the nineteenth century. As you go up the stairs there’s an exhibition of art work, much of which depicts the Guildhall. I particularly liked the prints, but what really caught my eye was a quilt, worked by local people depicting important people, events and buildings in the towns history.
Just up the hill over looking the town is John Webb’s windmill. You can reach it by either going up Fishmarket Street on the left of the Guildhall, or the cobbled lane to the right which is aptly named Stoney Lane. You’ll pass by some very attractive thatched almshouses on your way.
The windmill has been fully restored and if you go on a windy day you will see the sails turning. The stones and all the machinery are in place and in working order, so if you are very lucky there might be some flour for you to take away. Due to health and safety regulations it can’t be sold – so it’s given as a present to visitors. The ground floor is given over to another museum of local life (I don’t think anybody ever threw anything away in Thaxted) – visitors of a certain age will be reminded of their childhoods with kitchen ranges and equipment, school desks and gas masks, and younger generations will be left wondering about life in “the olden days”. if you’re feeling brave, you can go up the wooden stairs, and venture out onto the gallery that goes all the way round the windmill at first floor level. It looks quite frail, but is very safe – although you might want to keep younger children away from the edge. On the next two floors you can see all the machinery to grind and mill flour – a good reminder that windmills are in fact working machines, and also of how hard our ancestors in the countryside had to work to produce food.
Both the Guildhall and the windmill are open to the public at various times during the summer months, and each holds a number of special events throughout the year. Click here for more information.