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.




A Day Out With Elspeth On A Bus Named Lady Fermoy

I reprised my trip aboard Norfolk Green and Coasthopper buses, and this time was on one named after Ruth COMMA Lady Fermoy, friend of Queen mum who made her grandchild Princess Diana cry.

I did the bit I couldn’t do with Pocahontas and kept to the north west corner of Norfolk. Shame as she lived in this corner, around Heacham, which I went through, but alas, no sign of the lavender fields I chose a more laborious bus to view, and only the gates of Sandringham and a mere sign to Snettisham park. (If you want these, catch a bus 11 and not a Coasthopper).

Rural buses are funny: a day trip in itself. People don’t sit with their companions; they shout and reach across with sweets and other goodies. Strangers can talk at you, not interested in engaging. An older man with crutches took the seat of another older lady and showed no gratitude that he was let on the bus first: it may be expected, but his lack of manners galled me. Another wheelchair user parked his chair and sat elsewhere; the driver moaned it would fall when the she drove off and made a young woman stand so it could be put away, empty. Thus the wheelchair user took up two spaces whilst depriving someone else of their seat. Neither of those are my definition of being disability positive. And at the speed those buses fly round wyndy country roads, it’s not safe or pleasant to stand and I passionately believe you pay for a seat.

I was equally cross that Norfolk Green do not use big enough buses for times when they know it’ll be busy – early buses on a summer Saturday ought to be full bus sized (not mini coach) and better still, double deckers. As many users are disabled or older people, the need to sit is all the more important. There’s also the fear of not being able to get on – or being so crowded and uncomfy standing that you have to get off, which happened last time. Only by receiving a comp to compensate did I consider using Coasthoppers again.

The bus ride was mostly enjoyable for eavesdropping on other passengers and pleasant rural and sea views. Good, because to reach my main destination, I had to spend most of the day on the bus and had too little time to do what else I’d have chosen. For instance, I drove through the harbour of Wells next the sea, but couldn’t check out whether its shops have gone the way of Cley and Burnham because I’d never have got to Hunstanton and back before the buses stop and I’d get stranded.

I’d like to mention Walsingham, who seems to have accrued more shops since I last saw it, and I still rate it as my favourite Norfolk village, for reasons I share in the Bus Named Pocahontas and my Quest for East Anglia’s Prettiest Village posts. I also thought East Rudham between Fakenham and King’s Lynn had potential as a specially pretty for Norfolk village, if it only had as many shops as you know where.

North Norfolk2 I went to Burnham Market, which I argued against being the prettiest, because I just had to check and to make sure those shops are as awful as I thought and that its people are as I judge them to be. I didn’t need long in Burnham. It is pretty, and I do secretly like the shops – but its Chelsea on Sea moniker feels less and less apt – is it because London on Sea’s taken? And it’s hardly the King’s Road or especially SW3’s resident’s day out. I tested friendliness of its shops: I found them to be average. One replied graciously to my toy sheep mascot comment. As for capital snootiness: I heard one posh voice talking about champagne for her film crew into her phone, but I heard some Norfolk too, and no City money making boasters, as I had been led to expect.

Some Coasthopper bus timetables miss off several places they do in fact call at. Burnham Deepdale is such a place – with shop chains that have no business in such a setting, and a backpackers’ hostel but barely a village.

Hunstanton was my main destiny. On suddenly realising where I was, I rang the bell, got off, and found myself standing in the old town, beyond my map, with nothing about me to tell me where I was. (There’s no announcement or display telling you where you are on rural buses).

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I used my nouse to walk beside the golfcourse carpark towards the beach. There is only one chance to descend onto it and to those famous striped cliffs before they run out about a mile later. I was stuck on the barbed wire top of cliff walk, hearing the sea and people enjoying it, but not being able to glimpse the cliffs. Instead, I read Samaritan signs every few yards which made me sad but also strangely generated ideas that I had no thought of. The wire also meant a kite or lost scarf can’t be retrieved and is very nanny state – and doesn’t deal with the reasons someone might wish to jump.

Warning – the tide comes up far and there’s no prom underneath, just sheer cliffs and rocks. Could I have got stranded on the beach?

Hunstanton’s an odd resort, unlike any other – developed wholesale but without the seaside architecture one would expect – there’s no pier, or old theatre/cinema. It’s more villagey but with soulless modern flats and big developments like the Oasis leisure centre on the seafront, and a tiny bus station. It’s the honeyish carr stone of the area that is most distinct and that makes this corner of Norfolk feel part of the Wash and Fenlands, apart from the rest of the region and even its own county.

The chief final place to comment on is Castle Rising, for Fakenham has little – big church tower, local cinema chain in the old corn exchange, but the town seems evacuated as the shops shut around 530. Happily I needed little time there (unlike my first trip to Walsingham) as the bus changes were tight but I’m told that Norfolk Green (now disappointingly part of the Stagecoach empire) will wait for its own buses. North Norfolk1 North Norfolk North Norfolk - Copy

You can see the fortification at Castle Rising – or rather, the earthworks and a flag, as you drive in. It’s hardly Windsor, think more like Norwich – another square Norman lone keep, but with its baileys in tact. How to get into the earthworks was not obvious as a driver or on foot. When I pointed this out to (otherwise very kind) staff, they seemed unimpressed, saying you can see the castle from the bus stop so you don’t need a sign, and didn’t take in the fact that for security reasons, castles only have one entrance and I could have wasted my precious hour wandering the village trying to guess where the visitor entrance actually was. There’s little else in Castle Rising except a pub and joint shop and tearooms called Unique, the former being in a barn and stuffed with hats and fascinators, so I didn’t want to get stuck there; and if I’d missed my bus, it would have meant I’d miss my ongoing connections and have an expensive cross county taxi fare. The castle has reverted to its erstwhile aristocratic owner and fallen out of English Heritage’s portfolio. A semi ruined but gimmick free monument has something – you just enjoy the remains for what they are, and there’s still enough to climb about and imagine what it was like to live in, and no gore tours. Audio guides are another pound, but there’s little in way of display and the ones that are, are half erased.

After a dizzying amount of time aboard buses – Lady Fermoy and all her ancestors – I was glad to come to land as it were.

A Day Out With Elspeth in Stamford

The Easterner’s Cotswold fix

I think this was my first stone town – that of warm, golden beige, unmarred by the grey of age or industry, and I was enchanted; I still am. I like that even the modern housing enclave by the station is made of that light Jurassic park limestone that runs like a seatbelt from Yorkshire to the West country. The station is also made of it, but its cuteness was reversed by the following: it is unstaffed after midday; and trains run once an hour in each direction, in a clump, so much of the hour, there’s no action and no-one around. Not fun at night and it’s not that easy to find your way out of – one of the first signs you see is “No entry – your council at your service.”


Having escaped the housing enclave, you are greeted with meadows and the many towers of a gorgeous little town that looks like mini Oxford. And if that city had not suppressed Stamford’s medieval college, perhaps it might have become one. And as you walk, you keep finding little streets all in that limestone, with the odd timbered or whitewashed house. You have to walk quite a way till that ceases. Stamford’s not a big town – c20,000 – but it was, which means it hasn’t expanded much but it does have quite a big historic core, where many residents live. Going beyond that core reveals that though you may be on the Cambridgeshire border (Burghley House is in Cambs) you are definitely in the Midlands; the accent also underscores what the style of Victorian houses tell you.

I was charmed, wandering as I felt led, sometimes in residential streets, sometimes with shops. I love that Stamford has no shopping mall or anything high rise, although I did discover some uglier bits (eg Waitrose, whom I’d suspected for the town, but in a horrible, non stone building on West Street). I love that posh independents and higher end chains sit by the kind of shops in Thetford – Poundland’s two doors down from a French named nice things shop. There’s lots of smart ladies’ shoes (and a man shoe shop), and a bookshop in a former timber framed post office which is above Thornton’s chocolates and newsagents – go up stairs to the padded carpet and enjoy a sofa. I saw nowhere save another dark long WHSmith’s that sold any other kind of media.

Stamford5StamfordMy elephant grey moan (see my other blog “Keep Elephant grey for elephant’s bottoms“) is particularly pertinent here, as it doesn’t go with the stone. The old colours brought its beigy gold out; this one makes it drab. I can’t wait for that fad to end.

Save the House I’ll get to in a minute, there’s not any individual outstanding buildings, nothing you come to see in Stamford. It’s the whole, not parts. The museum has closed and heritage is now a room in the library, sans the models of extremes Tiny Tom Thumb and big Daniel Lambert. The leaflets – full of people pointing (another potential post and point of irritation) – make out that there’s more here than the single room with a tapestry, pictures of the town you can see anyway, and a touch screen.

There’s medieval Browne’s Hospital, but I’ve never been able to as its opening hours are few and seasonal. I thought this visit had coincided with them, but you now have to be part of a large group.

The churches make a great skyline; guides speak of five medieval ones, but there are seven with a churchyard of another. Most guides omit that the church tower (St Michael’s) which frames views down the High and Ironmonger streets was chopped into shops in the 1980s, and the top half – which could have been a hall – seems dead. There’s seats in the graveyard and one of those horrible private land parking company signs I will moan about on my other blog. Again, the churches make a joined whole, but inside especially, I found them not places to linger or recall separately .

The Arts Centre is now featured on my sister blog. This Georgian theatre is also the tourist information centre, who were very warm and helpful, and assisted me to locate the stump of Norman St Leonard’s priory, sitting alone in a field, and inaccessible.

To reach High Street St Martin you have to dice with death; it has several busy roads and no crossings. This attractive street, with the not so attractive George inn sign when you know what it is across it, is close to the station and the route to Burghley House. Beware: maps suggest that the park entrance is nigh. It is, but the Barnack Road way isn’t nice as it’s a busy road, a high tree lined wall and industrial sheds; Water Street is better and takes you to the pedestrian entrance. Cars have to carry on further, but they go in nearer the house which is a good half hour’s walk or more from the pedestrian gate. You can see it quite early on in the free to enter park that’s open to dusk each day, but then it disappears behind a mound, and you’ve got a way to walk until you reach it.

Burghley is not what I’d imagined when I first saw the outside. Most of the Elizabethan prodigy has gone internally. Save the kitchen with the horrible turtle skulls and sheep diagram, it’s late 17th C plaster and terrifying frescoes.


me and an obliging deer from a previous visit

I also found out that the Burghleys (descended from Richard Attenborough’s part in the 1998 film Elizabeth) are the reason that Stamford looks how the Georgians left it: fearing the 1832 Reform Bill’s effect on landowners, they repressed the town’s expansion and industrialism. Nice for us today, but I’m angry at upper class monopoly.

I had another delightful time in Stamford, finding lovely scenes and shops, meadows and parkland (no deer, what is it with creatures and me at the moment, I didn’t find an adder in Thetford either). I think it’s truly beautiful and I’d love to come back – I did and shall again. On my first visit, I found food finding missions far harder than anticipated, and that restaurant chains are quite dominant for a small town proud of its independents. On my second, I reversed that opinion, and noted the classy characterful pubs especially.

It is rather ill-lit at night and only two of the churches are illuminated and felt very quiet.

I’ve often thought that Stamford and Peterborough should lend to one another: Peterborough’s got the cathedral, Stamford’s got the town that ought to go round it. Peterborough is Stamford’s antithesis, as I will share in another post.