A Day Out With Elspeth in the Suffolk Wool Towns

Part 1 – Lavenham

Note the updated comments in A Day Out With Elspeth in Lavenham

You knew this one was coming, didn’t you? If you’ve read my Coasthopper Bus or Quest for East Anglia’s Prettiest Village pieces, you’ll know that I like Lavenham. I said it is my favourite village/small town in Suffolk, and perhaps wider. In my forthcoming Suffolk Churches piece, I reluctantly agree it is justly considered among the best churches of the county, though I do criticise it a bit.

In that latter piece, I show you my cunning angle to make that church look its best. Here’s a great picture courtesy of my Dad (as are all in this piece), which shows the mixed quality of Lavenham’s interior:

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It’s too wide and the chancel’s wrong, don’t you agree? It’s too dark and the window’s poky. But the light on the tracery is glorious!

I learned that the tower’s designer is John Wastell of Bury St Edmunds, whose portfolio includes Canterbury Cathedral and King College Chapel.

I was cross to learn that Cambridge colleges pick the vicars round here. And that once again, certain families dominate – like the one who built the house which was chosen for Harry Potter’s birthplace in the film – the De Veres. Anyone else think of To The Manor Born? For any youths reading this (ie, under 35s), this was a 1980s sitcom about Penelope Keith trying to get her shiny shoes under the table of the local gentry, who lived in the house that she thought she deserved. De Vere, the name of her love/hate neighbour, is also that of the Earls of Oxford, whose red and gold shield you no double have seen if you like nearby castles, alternative Shakespeare theories, or are interested in old and prestigious families. We met another of those later in the day, but I’m not saying which – it would tell you what the R stood for!

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I have sort of started this on the hoof, and I meant to more use the best of my word power to describe this village that was called “Suffolk’s Man-Made Wonder” in the subtitle of a 2008 book. But I’ve changed my view a bit since my last visit. Would I call it a wonder now? I remember one thing especially this visit:

Lavenham has a very practical problem. It’s not near anything much – even the next small town is about 8 miles away. And you can’t get out of it after 7pm without a car, or the help of the Lavenham Lambs prebook taxi service. So you’d hope that a village of nearly 2000, with many visitors, would have a cash point, yes? No – you can only get cash back when you have a minimum spend at Co-op. They must do well out of that arrangement! And do the shops and cafes take cards? Not the one we went to.

So that has coloured my view of Lavenham more than the varying interpretations of Suffolk pink.

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Reading guidebooks, I find some of my high opinion fading as I learn, once again, who has steered the town. My sister asked, astutely, why was Lavenham so rich in the cloth trade? I couldn’t think what in terms of natural position had made it so. I hate that often a town’s site is chosen for its defence or trading possibilities. But Lavenham’s not got much of a river; it’s hilly, but has never had a castle to my knowledge; and it’s miles from the sea. So why out of all the towns trying to be wealthy due to wool did this one do so well?

It seems that Lavenham’s wealth was due to the business attitudes of the local gentry, and that people came where work and money were, but that Lavenham fell as quickly as it rose. And that people abandoned it when its fortunes were not so good.

I am not going to repeat the claim of the guidebooks; I’ve not got England’s tax records to hand, and even if it were among the richest towns of medieval England, is that particularly impressive? It is odd that a place without a castle or cathedral or town walls, never in the running for county town, was supposedly richer than the capital of several shires.

We may be tempted to think of Lavenham as a wealthy place today – though I don’t have the income of its inhabitants to hand either, so I can only go by perception, as most of us can. But Lavenham has been poor as long as it has been rich. Those stripy buildings of the 15-16th centuries are only there because it was too poor to rebuild, I’m told; if it were fashionable in the 18th century, they’d have been pulled down and replaced. But Lavenham does have two prominent classical houses, so someone was wealthy or contemporary then.

I’m also told that Lavenham lived in squalor. Today, we might consider this the place that the wealthy live and shop. But it was the reverse in under a century. The “Man-made Wonder in the 21st Century” book proves the opposite of what some believe – that most people in Lavenham are tourists and holiday home owners, because many locals have a feature about them and my own perceptions were gladly confounded. The one I recall was a Canadian magician.

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Many of us would be grateful that the decline of the wool trade meant the preservation of Lavenham and other such towns today, but I was struck by the swift abandonment of the town and how it used to look quite different. When did it start to change and why?

I found one of those before and after books of old pictures, and I struggled to recognise Lavenham in some. It didn’t help that they’ve got the captions and photographs of Prentice and Shilling street confused. But it was clear that plaster covered the famous timber frames in living memory and that many of the seemingly authentic fittings are more recent replacements.

As I paste these photos – and I’ve not shown you every street or timbered building yet – I feel my draw to Lavenham return. I love the colours and the surprising mix of building materials. It also has examples of pargetting – ie plaster decoration. Do I care if the buildings’ appearance is due to renewal? Am I upset that the shop selling the £3000 Holly Hobby theatre up your skirt is gone? Am I glad that Elizabeth Gash has a branch here? Do I hanker after a meal at the Swan? And will I return to Sweetmeats cafe again after the tiny cake slices?

What’s coming back is why I twice cycled 40 miles to be here – ten times what I’d ever done to date; how the sight of those herringbone shaped streets of timber and plaster renewed my energy, how a smile of pleasure played on my hot cheeks. And how much I want that Portrait of Lavenham book – a slice of local history and the only existing in depth guide to the buildings. Can someone please reprint the late Tony Hepworth’s book! And why hasn’t his village got a bookshop any more? Or even a post office?

Manmade as much by near generations as medieval forebears, Lavenham is a wonder – but with too much making names and money. And what’s the story behind the De Vere star?

Mysteries to follow up. Meanwhile, go to the excellent Little Hall which is my favourite place in Lavenham and find out about locals who again will confound your idea of what Lavenhamites are – soldiers, artists and Egyptologists. See, you can’t judge a former town by its mullion and transomed lattice windows (circa 1930)!

There’ll be more Wool Towns anon.




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