site unseen David and Goliath in Saffron Walden

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People often complain that our modern world of mass media, multi-nationals and global economies is inexorably destroying local and regional differences. Maybe. But I am always struck by how different parts of Britain still remain from each other, even if they are geographic neighbours.

Take the county of Essex, which stretches from the River Thames up towards Cambridge. Within its borders can be found such varied delights as the "on-the-sea" resorts of Clacton, Frinton and Southend, the Anglo-Saxon wooden church at Greensted and the picturesque beauties of Thaxted and Castle Hedingham.

Travelling through the northern sections of the county will introduce you to a local feature which dates back hundreds of years, namely the art of "pargeting". Or, in plain terms, the moulded patterns once applied to wet plasterwork. Pargeting flourished in the 17th century and perhaps the best place to admire these traditional skills is in Saffron Walden.

Stroll around the Market Place and note the names of the neighbouring passages which tell you who once did what and where: "Butcher Row", "Cheesehil", "The Cockpit", "Piggeshil". Walk up Market Hill and there on the left is the old medieval Sun Inn where Oliver Cromwell himself stayed in 1647 when dealing with mutinous troops unwilling to journey to Ireland. It is now home to antiques and second-hand books.

Look up and admire the decorative pargeting which offers a riot of birds, plants, fruit and fish. My favourite section is to be found over the carriageway entrance in Church Street. In the right-hand corner is the Wisbech Giant, armed with a massive club. In the left-hand corner is the local figure of Tom Hickathrift, a carter, preparing to do 17th-century battle. In a classic David and Goliath confrontation, Tom is supposed to have won the day by improvising and unexpectedly using his wagon axle as a sword and a cartwheel as a shield. The wheel can be glimpsed between them, even if it is now without its spokes.

Not only did the Wisbech Giant lose this fight but by 1966 his legs were in serious disrepair. They had to be amputated, but fortunately he was given a new pair. That you can't even see the join demonstrates how some local skills happily live on in the modern world.

The Sun Inn is on the corner of Market Hill and Church Street, in Saffron Walden, Essex

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