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Thaxted, Essex - The Swan

Getting Around With The Hound: The Only Way Is Essex
 by Jane Common


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View of Thaxted                                                     Alms houses, Thaxted

Essex has had a very one-sided image over the past few decades, starting with the infamous Essex girl jokes of the 1980’s (What’s the difference between an Essex girl and a shopping trolley? A shopping trolley has a mind of its own) through the rowdy 90’s laddette-ism of Essex girls such as Denise van Outen to the current television fad that is The Only Way Is Essex with its emphasis on – ahem – intimate female grooming and lashings of spray tan.

Indeed, for the first decade of my London residence, I’d never set foot in Essex, even the bits that were only half an hour’s tube ride from my home. Why would I – I didn’t possess a pair of white stilettos?

That all changed when I became romantically entangled with an Essex boy – well, at 46-years-old, an Essex man to be precise.

For the first time in my life I visited the county and was surprised by what I found. John Constable painted The Hay Wain on the Essex borders. Who knew?

The county’s northern towns and villages have all the charm of Suffolk, with their medieval buildings and lush green countryside, public footpath signs peppering the landscape, without the pretentious London types who flock to Southwold and such spoiling the ambience of its traditional public houses by clomping around in their pristine Hunter wellies. Again – who knew?

So, in my research for my travel website for dog-owners, www.phileasdogg.com, Essex has become a regular destination for me and my Battersea mongrel, Attlee.

Its proximity to London makes it perfect for day trips – we’ve done Leigh-on-Sea, the pretty village of Finchingfield, Epping Forest, Maldon – and, most recently, for a winter weekend away, Thaxted.

Thaxted had been recommended to me by the Essex man as the quintessential English town, dating back to the Domesday book.

Being without car, I caught the Stansted Express and then a local bus to book in at The Swan Hotel. It’s part of the Old English Inns chain and dogs are welcome in all their hostelries, at no extra charge. High Paw!

The bus dropped me and Attlee at Thaxted’s main street and the town’s charm was immediate – directly in front of me was the 600-year-old Guildhall, a huge white timber-framed structure, that looks too hefty for the seven wooden pillars that support it at the front. All the shops and houses on the street were of a similar vintage, painted in pretty reds, greens and yellows. And there were no out-of-town supermarkets or fast food outlets here – instead, Thaxted boasts an independent butchers, bakers and even the post office appeared as if it hadn’t changed much since the 1950s. I loved all the board games piled up for purchase in the window. Do kids still play board games in this electronic age? Perhaps, in Thaxted, they do!

Thaxted’s main claim to fame is that Dick Turpin once resided here. The tourist office was closed – it seems to open at random, depending on which of Thaxted’s willing army of volunteers are available to run it – but a friendly and knowledgeable local, seeing my attempts at access, stopped and chatted to me.

The Dick Turpin thing is a bit of a myth, he said. He might have stayed in Thaxted for a while – he might not.

It doesn’t really matter – an ancient wooden beamed ramshackle residence bears the name Dick Turpin’s Cottage. Every time the lucky owners recite that to a delivery driver they must get a thrill.

What’s certain is that Gustav Holt did live here, on the main street – there’s a blue plaque to prove it.

In part, what makes Thaxted so attractive is that the main street runs up a gentle hill to the parish church at top of it. To say it’s a parish church is underselling its grandeur, however – it looks more like a cathedral and its spire dominates the town. A cute windmill behind it adds to the allure.

Attlee and I took a four mile walk, along the enticingly named Turpin’s Trail, following a route laid out in Len Banister’s excellent Essex: A Dog Walker’s Guide, that started between church and windmill.

The church, dating back to 1340, is flanked by two pretty thatched alms houses – one pink and one yellow. They make a perfect frame for the windmill – John Webb’s Windmill as it’s called – in fact, the whole scene, with its pretty pastel colours, has something of the Camberwick Green about it!

The windmill was built in 1804 and isn’t open apart from over summer weekends, but I could still get close for a good old peer. And, like the church, it’s lit at night, making for an attractive evening vista when taking Attlee out for his late night pee.

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Attlee on Turpin's Trail

In fact, Thaxted’s pretty dog-friendly all round. I live in South-east London and am often on edge when walking Attlee – there have been a few nasty incidents of smaller dogs being attacked by large ones in my local park recently. (And while Attlee thinks he’s very ferocious he is, at the end of the day, just some sort of Heinz 57 Jack Russell mix.) Anyway, none of those worries in Thaxted – we met two boisterous Golden Labs on our tramp round the countryside and a coy Shih-tzu  in the town itself.

Much fuss was made of Attlee at the Swan Hotel, as he deserves, of course, and an extra Suffolk sausage happily provided on request for his breakfast requirements. It was access all areas for dogs, which meant while I ate my evening steak and ale pie, I had the joy of having Attlee perched between me and the roaring coal fire, all big eyes and outstretched pleading paw.

Parrishes restaurant, on the main street, is an exceptional eaterie in dog-friendly terms – it is café by day and licensed restaurant by night. And dogs are welcomed – well, if the reception Attlee received is anything to go by, not just welcomed but positively lauded – at all times. It has something of a French bistro feel – a French bistro housed in a medieval beamed building – and a varied menu, from rabbit stew to a good old burger. But to be able to go for an evening meal in a nice restaurant and take the dog rather than fretting he’s chewing up pillows in a hotel room is something of a treat.

All in, Thaxted is the perfect weekend destination for the dog and owner and, in the summer, there’s an extra-special attraction. Thaxted is home to Britain’s oldest troupe of Morris Dancers (oldest as in, the troupe’s been running consecutively for the longest of any in the UK; not as in its members are all octogenarians!) They dance on Bank Holidays through the summer months and I, for one, plan to be there to see them – and then to relax with a pint in the Swan afterwards.

Thaxted Fact Box:

Jane and Attlee stayed at The Swan Hotel, Bullring, Thaxted, Essex, details below.

A single room cost £44 on a Friday night, including full English breakfast.

Parrishes Restaurant is at 36 Town Street, Thaxted, Essex, CM6 2LA. Tel: 01371 830482

Jane had a warming bowl of carrot and coriander soup, costing £4.50.

John Webb’s Windmill is open to visitors between 2pm and 6pm on Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays between Easter and September.

Thaxted Guildhall is open to visitors throughout Easter Weekend and then on Sundays and Bank Holidays until the end of September.

Essex: A Dog Walker’s Guide by Len Banister is available from www.bestdogwalksuk.com.

For more of Jane and Attlee’s travels around the UK, log on to www.phileasdogg.com – an independent travel guide for dogs (and their owners!)

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The Swan is a traditional coaching Inn set in the lovely English town of Thaxted, which boasts a beautiful church, its own windmill and Dick Turpin's cottage. Thaxted dates back to before the...
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The Swan Hotel - Thaxted
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