'Sketches of Saffron Walden and its vicinity' by John Player, with John Joungman's illustrations (1845) is a rare book. It is rather charming too, though not the most useful to the local historian. The language is ridiculously flowery to our modern tast but curiously attractive. To give you a flavour of his style, here is the first chapter, a description of Audley End.
Surely the month of May is the most delightful of all periods in the year, to seek the liberty of the fields, and to remark the beauties of the natural world. How agreeable is the verdure, variegated with flowers familiar to us from childhood! The daisy, the butter-cup, and the pagle, the sweet flowers of infancy, with which we once struggled to fill the little lap, are now decking the park and the pasture with the characteristic imagery of spring.
Entering the Park from the Abbey Lane, Saffron Walden, we pass the row of young limes on either hand, dressed in their earliest shade of annual green. Interesting indeed is the view, after advancing a hundred paces within the gates. The grazing cattle in the pasturage around—the deer on the hill to the north—the fields, the cultivated fields, far beyond the Park to the left of the Suffolk Column—the noble House of Audley End, peeping up from the vale westward—Lord Howard's Temple, to commemorate the restoration to health of George III.—the thriving trees, the oak, the beech,—all, all deeply interest the observant pedestrian. Looking backwards, we perceive, beneath the arching branches of those spreading trees, the Church spire —an interesting feature in our local landscape at every point. We have now ascended the acclivity near to the Ice-house, and then again have descended to the road, passing one of the neat and pretty Lodges, built by the present Lord Braybrooke, for utility and ornament to this noble domain.
In the Audley End road, another pleasing view bursts upon the eye. Shortgrove grounds, Wendcn, &c, to the left, the hamlet of Audley End to the right, with the farmhouse in the vale, held by Mr Alderman Smith. Cultivation is associated with plantations, and varied wood and verdure, so as to form a fit subject of meditation for the practical man, as well as the contemplative members of God's vast family. When, too, with the walks and hills, we are enabled to associate the enrapturing pleasure with which we traced them in the buoyant days of boyhood, and see the same glorious sun that cheered our path then, now gilding the hedges, the banks, and the sloping corn fields, we observe them with an intensity of feeling winch cannot be expressed.
Following the course of the old lichened wall that bounds this portion of the Park, we see on the right the beautiful limes towering high, their lower branches spreading across the path, and forming a pleasant shade. When these noble trees are in blossom, and the bees are busy among the brandies, how sweet is the air ! how rich with natural perfume ! On the left is a majestic fir tree, tapering to, its summit, and fringed down to its projecting base, worthy of being a part of one of those local views, which, every spring, are exhibited to many an admiring eye, in London's vast town. Here, in the road, and along its parallel greensward, in our youthful days, a country-fair was held in the mouth of August. It is said to be transferred and continued on Walden Common; but the fair now, and then—-we speak of fifty years ago—is not the same tiling. There was a show, perhaps, and something of the mummery of the day: but there were cheese-stalls, and gingerbread dealers—comparatively few people—great good-humour-—-boughs projecting from the cottagers homes, denoting that a glass of beer and a slice of ham might be had within—children blowing wooden trumpets, and holiday-folk in holiday clothes; and in the afternoon and evening, such an admixture of sober sedateness with light-hearted, innocent jollity, that the whole scene was worthy of Wilkie's pencil; but it is now gone by as a feature of the last century, and soon will be forgotten, as those who witnessed it die off, and bury its remembrance with other trifles that are past.
Going further, we reach, after passing the principal entrance, surmounted by a noble lion, the bridge, which spans the Granta. There we see in the background, eastward, the princely Mansion. It is a gem—a rare gem—and ought to be admired. On the north, the old Elysium gardens are broken up and gone; but they were pleasant in our earlier days. To the privileged few, enjoying retirement and a book, on a summer's morning, it was a sweet retreat from the din and turmoil of busy life. The stream that passed through, and the greensward, are the same; and nature, unassisted, still revels with its soft and pleasant airs, among the trees that surround this well-known spot.
Leaving the bridge, and entering the parish of Littlebury, there is the transparent limpid brook, which still bubbles up as it did in our younger life, when its pure affusions were so grateful to the rambling boy: it was indeed welcome, before pledges of temperance were ever heard or thought of; and suited well with their pursuits who had no idle funds to draw upon at a moment's notice, in a local ramble. Pursuing the road towards Littlebnry, we have there a good view of Lord Braybrooke's abode, with its lawn and liver frontage, and much do we admire it. We have had opportunities of dwelling upon its beauties internally, and of sharing in the kindness and hospitality of its noble inmates— and upon these we could dwell with grateful pleasure—but this would prematurely shorten our morning's ramble; and therefore we proceed on to the Littlebury Lodge. There a new one, with cheerful bay "windows, and an elevated tower, is just finishing on the northern side, to supplant, we presume, the elderly lady who was always hitherto soberly placed, beneath the protecting shade of the lofty Avail. It is a change, indeed, for the better, and indicative of the growing taste of the noble owner, and would form also a pretty vignette or tail-piece, should his lordship publish a second edition of his interesting book on Audley End. On the left of the road the plantation towards the Aviary has been thinned; and there lie many of the trees of an age gone by, reminding the passing traveller that he too shall lie as low—or lower still—in a- short period; proving that the life of man, in the best estate, is soon no mere than a brief epistle from a distant country, or a tale that is told.
At the extremity of the road the village Church of Littlebury shews its tower above the trees in the foreground; while the fields on the right and left of the road, are marked with the produce of the rising year. Time was when the highway went according to landscape gardening—in a curve to the left, and over hill and dale : now, like a Newmarket cut, it is straight as an arrow, and the coach-and-four is viewed for many minutes before it reaches the spot at the one-floor lodge, by which we turn to the Duck-street entrance into the Park. There are the kitchen-gardens, and the arboretum on the right, and on the opposite side, the farm, bounded by the ever-flowing watercourse, which issues from the Park. Then, again, we enter upon a sweet and tranquil scene, bounded on the north side by the deer-park, and its luxuriant trees and crowning groves: while we saunter undisturbedly by the margin of the separating stream; but cheered by its rippling contributions to the harmony—the natural harmony—of the morning hour. The path through the park is a pleasant stroll to the contemplative mind, while the many are busying themselves in life's active duties, and think not, perhaps, that the beauties of creation are unfolding themselves every moment to invite them abroad.
Leaving the Park, we pass the newly-erected Almshouses upon King Edward's foundation. Some of the aged inmates are sunning themselves, seated in the recesses by the gravel walk; while the foreground is richly decorated with flower-beds and the verdant plat. It is a noble effort of charity—charity's brightest emanation—to see the aged of both sexes thus relieved from the anxieties of life, and charmed to fulness with the pleasures of a retreat, with which but few can compare. It is an interesting conclusion, to a charming walk, which, at this lovely season, may well be recommended to others. Yet there are but few, perhaps, who can look upon the whole with the eye that memory fondly assists to enrich it with past joys and beauties that can never fade, while intellect holds its empire, and remembrance is charmed by many dear and heartstirring recollections of the past.