Elspeth’s Quest For Britain’s Best Stately Home

I really ought to say England’s Best Stately Home for I don’t know of any I like yet in Scotland and Wales, but left the title should I discover some and want to add them in.

Reader’s recommendations are welcome – please comment if you think you know somewhere I’d like.

But I have very specific criteria – pre 1700, avoidance of chintz, Victorians, and I also care about the morals of the owners.  I’m also uncomfortable about displays of wealth for their own sake – slightly ironic, I know.

Basically, this is about Medieval, Renaissance and earlier Stuart homes – timber roofed great halls, carved panelling, plastered ceilings, ornate chimney pieces, high kitchens and open fireplaces, big (especially bay) windows.

I shall go around England in groups.

Old Rufford

Old Rufford, Lancs

My first is the STRIPY BLACK AND WHITE TIMBERED houses that grace the west of England, especially the north west, in Cheshire and Lancashire. I immediately come across my first gripe –

Most stately homes are one room wonders.

Out of the 6 – 26 rooms you might see – even 66 in a big palace – I find myself lingering and wanting postcards of no more than 2. Old Rufford’s got my favourite great hall, but it’s a little too carved – I’m not sure I’d want to do much in it, because it’s quite overwhelmingly rich. Little Moreton has a justly famous long gallery. The others are on my wish list, including Ordsall in Salford. Others – like Speke – are places I’m glad to have been, but have no special favourite rooms.

 

Another group is a county, and it’s all wish list. An extra reason, beyond the buildings themselves, is their familiarity as filming locations. Haddon Hall in DERBYSHIRE has been in 4 of the most recent Jane Eyre adaptations, three of them as Rochester’s Thornfield Hall, although the real inspiration is meant to be close to Bronte’s native Haworth in Yorkshire. Haddon’s a fortified medieval manor with a great hall and a splendid long gallery. (See where I set my Jane Eyre). Another stately home shown in those Jane Eyres is Bolsover, a castle, but being mostly 17th C and not fortressy, I felt it belonged here. I dislike ruined castles but I find the roofless block here appealing. The stables even are impressive and there’s an amazingly detailed Star Chamber. Lyme House stood in for Pemberley in the BBC 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, but it’s the unseen interiors of the Elizabethan house encased in the classical one which make me include it. The elephant I’m not saying ties into another home by the same family – Ms Shrewsbury of “I think I’m Queen Elizabeth” fame. (I sort of sympathise!) There’s another  pleasant ruin by Bess of Hardwick’s glassy mansion whose grandest room is practically a Presence Chamber with a heraldic canopy over a conspicuous chair. She’s got a long gallery, rich tapestries and room height marbled chimneys – but what’s happened to her ceilings? (I’m suspicious some later owners zapped the plasterwork I’m expecting).

Stamford4

Burghley near Stamford on the East Anglia/Midlands border

Hardwick Hall leads me to my next group – the PRODIGY HOUSES, spread about England, which are late 16th C and supposed to be for impressing the above Queen, should she visit. They are near palaces in themselves, full of renaissance details with stone facades. The largest of all – Holdenby Hall – is now dead, except for a small wing which in no way hints at what once stood there. Its builder, Christopher Hatton (Elizabethan Wayne Sleep?), didn’t even get to welcome his beloved Queen. All these homes – Nottingham’s Wollaton Hall, Stamford’s Burghley, Longleat in Wiltshire – look fantastic outside. But inside, there’s little Elizabethan going on. At least Burghley has a strong theme from another era – the late 17th C, with its cascading wall and ceiling paintings. But only the kitchen is Tudor. Kirby in Northants (another Hatton job) is a favourite, although it is ruined, but in a good way – it’s got all the details, just no windows and roofs, except the stately bit. It too is special due to featuring in a familiar film – the 2000 version of Mansfield Park, my favourite Jane Austen adaption for being a naughty one. When I visited, the great hall was part restored, now yellow with a gold and blue ceiling; both it and the state rooms where pleasantly simple and empty. Now I hear they’ve brought these back with full furnishings – to Georgian times, though it’s a 16-17th building?! I’d rather they got that long gallery going again or left it as it is. Mind the peacocks! [Insert sound here!]

Kirby

Kirby, Northants

I also single Longleat out chiefly because of its owner. Alexander Thynn is not your average marquess. His father put zoo animals in the park and opened it to the public. Alexander did more outrageous things. When I first glimpsed Lord Bath, it was on a leaflet for Longleat: on seeing a man in multicoloured clothes gesturing like a jester, I thought – that’s a magician. Then I saw the signature – in a hand quite unlike usual noble borns’ – and realised this was the owner, welcoming us in his normal garb. Brilliant! Alexander defected from the traditional Tory family seat in the House of Lords to the Liberals. He writes poetry and went to art college. He made bright murals depicting his struggle as [what colour sheep? -a bright one] of his family. His Karma Sutra murals wrestle with his former sexual hangups – which he overcame quite dramatically, judging by his wifelets.

Somewhere else privately owned with cool contemporary paintings is Athelhampton in Dorset. Not sure what the pyramid trees mean (I’m suspicious about secret messages in parterres, even the guidebook hints at it) but this lovely manor house has a great Great Hall and several other good (ie contemporary) rooms – and best of all, it felt welcoming and lived in. In the attic is two of my favourite things – a cinema, and modern paintings. The former even showed a film of itself, From Time to Time, a gentle ghost story with Maggie Smith that didn’t get anything like a suitable theatrical airing; the latter is from Russian cubist Marevna who visited in the 1950s.

 Christchurch Ipswich, SuffolkChristchurch Ipswich

I shouldn’t have taken this, but I am naughty!

I also commend Ipswich’s Christchurch Mansion for being free, unstuffy and community friendly. I remember the day Asian music was drifting through the servant’s hall for school event. It also has modern paintings in it – in a changing gallery off the fake marble entrance hall, and an upstairs area which includes impressionist Philip Wilson Steer’s work. My favourite rooms are all pinched from elsewhere, such as the 16th C bedchamber (above), the hall below it and the Wingfield panelling you almost miss on the way to the Wolsey gallery. Christchurch leads me into my penultimate group – the RED BRICK ones – which occur on the east side of England from the south coast as far up as Yorkshire. Like the stripy ones, they look fabulous outside, but often disappoint within. At least the stripy ones usually retain great hall and chamber or long gallery of the period. But many of the red ones don’t even have that. I can only think of one which looks how I’d hope on the inside – Hatfield, in Hertfordshire.

Hatfield oldHatfield New

Hatfield Herts: Old and New

Hatfield is exciting to me because the old part is where Queen Elizabeth I grew up. The newer part is connected with her advisor, the Cecils (also at Stamford, above mentioned). The only remaining part of Elizabeth’s time is one side of a quadrangle containing a great hall, built on the cusp of her family’s era. It’s long and open timbered at the roof, of especially mellow brick with just enough furnishing to make it homely. The main house was wrongly used in Sally Potter’s Orlando, for it wasn’t built til after Quentin Crisp’s ‘Eliza our fairest queen’ (as sung by Jimmy Somerville) had passed on. But it’s a splendid Jacobean house, though you see little of it on visiting. There’s a post medieval style great hall, slightly heavy in décor, and a wonderful staircase with the Rainbow portrait of ER I, and one of the best long galleries where you see Lizzie’s little gloves, as well as letters from her and her contemporaries. The other rooms are later, except ceilings and chimneys and also a little overdone – which is also true of fellow Jacobean and once vast Audley End, not far off in Essex.

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Audley End and Layer Marney, both in Essex

Layer Marney is a tower without a house. I believe it’s the earliest surviving renaissance architecture in England. I think its 80ft high dolphin decorated gate would go well with Hampton Court, also of the 1520s. This is going to lead to my final Quest in this group, as I’m running out of space here – PALACES – because my favourite houses are in fact, royal residences and they deserve a full post to themselves.

I finish with a wish list: Montacute Somerset, perhaps Chastleton, Oxfordshire… Gainsborough Lincs for being a perfect medieval hall, Penshurt in Kent, and Knole – courtyards, gates, ballrooms and a bisexual Bloomsbury bohemian – what’s not to like!?

Feel free to tell me more places to put on it. Her Ladyship is always looking for new homes!

The Elspeth Quest for Britain’s best Palaces will appear in the future, when this Faraway Tree land comes round again

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Elspeth’s Quest for Britain’s Best Castle

There’s a little season coming of Elspeth Quests – I’ve not got out much in a while, not to anywhere new 😦

However, the mind, the net and books are ever here to do the walking for us…

LIKE WINTER, PICTURES ARE COMING! (and are now here! Keep scrolling)

I’d first like to state my issues with castles – symbols of domination, feudalism, torture and military.

Why are so many castles lumps of stone and decay that in no way convey what they used to be like? I prefer something that a ghost would recognise.

I don’t like Georgian and Victorian remodelling or the chintzy sofas of some lived in castles.

Defining castles against fortified houses and palaces is difficult and there may be overlap when I have a quest for those.

Castles1 - HeverI suppose I have a list of favourite castle qualities: setting, silhouette, tall walls and gates,  alive – recent reconstructions are my favourite; being part of national history and featuring people I care about – so Hever, pleasant as it is, means more to me for being Anne Boleyn’s family home. I like palatial splendour and pre 1700 architecture; lack of horror and military; a large great hall, chapel and kitchens, and square Norman keeps.

I haven’t been to all Britain’s castles yet so I may miss off some obvious ones, but they may also be precluded for other reasons, so there will be elephants not in the room.

Here’s a few castles I recommend:

Stirling

Stirling

The Great Hall and chapel from my scrapbook

The craggy rock with its backcloth of hills is surmounted by a dour and frankly, not very fetching fortress; but I don’t see that. I see David Simon’s illustration from the Historic Scotland guide – a 15-16th Century gold renaissance palace, entered through a gate over twice the height of the existing one and flanked by satisfyingly round drum towers. I see the King’s Building as James (Johnny Depp lookalike) IV’s bachelor pad, not the military museum hotchpotch it is today. I focus on the building that cheers across the city from the train, peeping slightly awkwardly from afar, but now comfortable and proud and rather large. The Great Hall has been returned to its fetching yellow, “King’s Gold”, with crow step gables and turrets and lions and two big bay windows. It is Scotland’s largest secular medieval room and must be among the largest anywhere. Inside (sadly a little plainer than I’d like to see), the hammerbeam roof is back, so’s the minstrel’s gallery and Queen and King seats – can you resist?! And lots of green sort of voile curtain. You feel as if they’re between banquets and the tables will come out later (you can hire this castle for just that). The large chapel doesn’t please me outside, but it’s more gold within, and some early 17th C friezes round an annoying modern ceiling, but it feels like a place you’d actually want to attend a service.

The Palace, though small by other countries’ standards, is bigger in life than in pictures and the Auld Alliance with France is very obvious in its flamboyant external decoration. Inside are 6 rooms, recently refurnished – the only 16th C set of state rooms in Britain. I love to walk where Mary Queen of Scots did. I’d like it even more if her Dad’s rooms weren’t so sparse (did they run out of money and pretend it’s because it’s the year he died?) and yet a little over the top – I was looking forward to more David Simon pictures made real, with panelling and not too many colours in one room.

Me in my newly refurbed apartments, and during the revamp

This is my favourite Scottish castle and a contender for the whole of Britain

Other Scots castles I like or want to see:

Crathes and Craigievar for their names and for the painted and plastered decoration inside – and for looking nice and Scottish and turreted;

and fortified Linlithgow palace for being much like Stirling but contained all in one square. I amuse myself trying to put the things of one palace into the other. Shame about the lack of roofs. Again – I see this as it was, not as it is, though the great hall has power even as a ruin. Anyone else worked out that Linlithgow fits with the theme tune of The Simpsons?! I’m also intrigued by Dirleton and Crichton, whose eggbox patterned courtyard I’m sure is a sign of the Illuminati…

Moving down into England…

Durham

or Dur–ham as an American friend pronounced it. Do I like this better for being a snob university instead of the seat of Prince Bishops?

Castles2 - Durham

As a castle, it ticks many of my boxes, save its Gothickisation: it is on a peninsula and ridge by its cathedral, it has a gatehouse, a large (but annoyingly restored and Oxbridge-ised) great hall, a medieval kitchen arch where students stand to get their food; a C17 tall black wooden carved staircase; a Norman chapel and two corridors of that era which are especially superb, including a ceremonial doorway. There are unseen rooms for university dignitaries.

Other good castles around: large and high walled Bamburgh has a square keep, great hall and a sparse beach location, but it was home of a Victorian magnate who got rich on making armaments with sticky and overzealous architectural fingers, and is filled with armoury.

Newcastle’s little keep is one of the few Norman castles with rooms in it; the best two are in the basement, with stone vaulting. It has excellent city views from the top.

While we’re on complete keeps, Castle Hedingham in Essex also has four storeys all with roofs and the biggest Norman arch in Europe. A ghost would be happy here – so so am I.

The Marches and Wales have many potentially special castles but too many ruins; I’d single Ludlow out as a better one though I’m sad only Caerphilly in Wales has a major room with a roof. Stokesay has a large open roofed great hall and carved panelled solar. I like the contrast of stone and timber framing – more of that gold at Stirling. But I think the best castle on the west side is

Berkeley

(pronounced as in Sesame Street’s dog). I can’t get away from the horror with Edward II, but otherwise this is a welcoming looking red/pink stone family home. Well done to the Berkeleys for keeping chintz out and making it look like a real castle (and not doing an Alnwick) and yet still comfortable. There’s a large enough great hall which still feels usable and homely, and other rooms – one with medieval paint traces. Shame I’ve not yet been.

Tower of London

Tower of London1 - Copy - Copy   Tower of London (2)

medieval palace in St Thomas’ Tower and a bit of Byward Tower

It surprises and delights how this rather shiny remnant of medievalness sits amidst Europe’s biggest and most impatient city. It has two sets of full height walls which can be walked on with big towers. It’s interesting to know who was held in there, such as seeing Walter Raleigh’s rather comfy room; and for me, the high poignancy of knowing that Anne Boleyn both was crowned and executed here, and her daughter held possibly in the same room. There’s Tudor timbering, gate houses, a redecorated medieval palace (though alas no great hall), and one of the best Norman keeps – outside. However, there’s no rooms in it that look anything like what William evil eye of Normandy would have built himself – and much of this early stone tower is filled with armoury. There is also the horror factor, which can be avoided, though the official guide claims there was less torture and execution here than in public imagination. The ravens and beefeaters add to the mix, though my military views and dislike of ridiculous ceremonies (the nightly keys) – and having to be bag checked do cast a shadow of a raven’s wing over this. And I’m not sure how much standing on a Generation Game conveyor belt trying to recall which sceptre and orbs you’ve just seen appeals either.

There’s two great halls in the South East that I wish still had castles to go with them – Winchester (with its Arthurian link) and Eltham (with a rare monogram of Henry and Anne – Boleyn, did you need to ask?)

Of Kent’s many castles, I think

Dover

is the most special. It sits on cliffs as a symbol of entering the country; and its edifices go from Iron Age bumps, Roman lighthouse, Saxon church, late Norman keep to World War II control station hidden in the cliffs. Best of all, the Keep had a makeover, Henry II style, and you can see just how bright 13th C furniture was. Wish T of L had one, because empty rooms – however many drawings and virtual computer animations are displayed – don’t feel very exciting. It’s when I visited Stirling after the refurbishment that I realised that no amount of imagination and illustration was a substitute for standing in the recreated rooms of the period.

I realise that despite Britain’s many and various castles, most are dismissed (by me) as being too ruined (majority) or chintz fests. I would love it if more got the Stirling treatment.

If you want to know why the elephants aren’t here, or to recommend me somewhere, please drop a comment

Elspeth’s quest for the best pre 1700 merchant town house

We’ll start floating round Britain without ado…

SCOTLAND

My favourite in Scotland – and a contender for all of Britain – is Provost Skeen’s house in Aberdeen. Hiding behind a modern building, and overlooked by the mighty Marischal College, this FREE folk museum includes several 17th century plastered ceilings and a wonderful painted hall that you have to shut the door on to protect it.

Edinburgh Riddles Court  Edinburgh Moray House

Edinburgh: Riddle’s Court and Moray House, both on the Royal Mile

In Edinburgh, you’re likely aware of Gladstone’s Land, John Knox House and the Huntly House/Museum of Edinburgh; but I’d like to speak of two lesser known homes which are not normally publicly accessible. They are both on the Mile. Riddle’s Court is on the Lawnmarket, and is reached through a pend. Within it is one of the lively decorated ceilings distinct to Scotland (to see one in its original vibrant colours, visit The Study in Culross – and the photo below). There is also a plastered ceiling and a green room with  a flat pattern on it. Moray House is on the same side, on the Canongate, and is part of the university’s education department. Two rooms have an open plastered ceiling, which make this house fascinating and unusual.

Stirling Argyll's Lodging

Argyll’s Lodging from my scrapbook

I would have liked Stirling’s Argyll’s Lodging a little more if it had retained a more early 17th instead of late appearance, but the exterior is everything I’d wish for in a Scottish mansion – turrets and gables, buckle quoins – fairy tale and French. But you can’t visit it as easily as one once could. I recall fondly when entry was added onto my castle ticket and having a random chat with staff that James V looks like Johnny Depp and discussing that Nigel Tranter’s historic novels have the same wedding night scene pattern! (This is called Naughty Guide for a reason!). Alas for the most part, it’s behind bars and quite fiddly to arrange a visit to now.

NORTHERN ENGLAND

Nerwcastle Sandhill Newcastle Sandhill

You’d have a naughty view of Bessie Surtsee’s escape from here!

Newcastle has two special town houses.
One might be drawn to the two renovated brown brick Georgian houses on Pilgrim Street with their green sashes. If one peeked over the parapet of the right hand (north) one, you might just glimpse something that hints more is here than you think. You may observe that the top windows on that same house are different, and are older, if you could get access to the back, you’d be clear that this isn’t a Georgian home you’re looking at. Fenwick’s is 17th century and has a tall staircase the height of the building and a copula with a balustrade (posh top of stairs rail thing). Inside are panelling and plastered ceilings. It is not normally open to the public.
There’s a group of 7 houses in Sandhill, but you’d not know that the red brick ones are actually timbered houses in disguise. All have some accessibility as pubs and clubs (the Quilted Camel is a the most bizarre bar I’ve ever entered), and Bessie Surtees House is open free as the regional HQ of English Heritage. Except you only see about 3 rooms and the courtyard. I understand that there’s one more interesting room on the 2nd floor, much like the one below but without the exciting ceiling. Which means that Bessie Surtees, despite its incredible frontage, is a one room house. But what a unique front – one can tell the proximity to Scotland (cf the type of peg like overhang with John Knox’s house in Edinburgh), 5 storey alternating bands of glass and renaissance columns. And you’ll have heard of the story of how Bessie snuck out of the window and eloped with her lover… That room is the one with the panelling, overmantel (ie posh fireplace, pinched from elsewhere) and the plastered ceiling. Apart from the house-height stairs, there’s little more to see here.

York Barley Hall

Renewed Barley Hall in York (above) is one of the best early medieval homes you’ll come across, and the voice of Judi Dench gives you a tour. The large open hall is in are in medieval techicolour brilliance/gaudiness (delete to your taste).

Chester Bear and Billet Chester Leche House

The Rows – the medieval two tiers of shops along Chester’s roman axis of streets – are stuffed with nice surprises. The house I’d like to champion isn’t one that externally you might single out of the very detailed patterned frontages, such as the Bear and Billet above. When I last went to Chester, 17 Watergate was a shop – the Sofa workshop, but it’s very special conglomeration of 14-17th centuries. Leche House (ie after the physician’s favourite sucking invertebrate) is the best preserved example of a Row House – shop at the front, open hall with a gallery in the middle – this one has a Jacobean overmantel and plastered pendant (above right) – and more plaster in the front and back rooms. It has studded doors to the stone cellar beneath.

WALES
Conwy in North Wales looks very much the medieval little town and it has an Elizabethan town mansion  – Plas Mawr – which is probably the best of its date in the country. It was recently restored – now whitewashed with crowstep gables and a distinctly Celtic stair turret. It has about six plastered rooms, some in colour, and you can explore the attic too and see the studded trusses of the medieval original house. It has a kitchen with a wide arch and a gatehouse. Worth adding onto your castle ticket.

THE SOUTH

Bristol Lllandoger - Copy Bristol Lllandoger1

Bristol had a much wider range of merchants’ houses, both large hall houses and complicated Tudor/Stuart frontages. Bombs, slum clearances and industrialisation have taken many. Although the house to visit is Red Lodge with its amazing chamber (I’ve not seen a room so big in a town house), what I  like best is an inn, which is part of Travelodge. A door takes you Mr Benn-like from a modern hotel into a 17th century hostelry of distinction, the Llandoger Trow (above), with Ipswich windows (see Ancient House below), ceilings of  plaster and fireplaces.

MIDLANDS
Ludlow’s Readers’ House seemed to be an in the know place to visit, but it was one of the very best things I saw in this timbered Shropshire town. The doorbell was answered a little ominously by its custodian, but the building inside is a special Tudor house.

Worcester Commandery Worcester Commandery1

It’s dark inside – and a bit spooky – hence the camera shake

Worcester’s Commandery (above) has probably the largest medieval hall I can think of in a town house, and its scale suggested it may not fairly be placed in this category. As a museum, it was very interesting – the only time I’ve tried out Braille (it was used as a blind school).

EAST ANGLIA

Ipswich St Stephen's lane St Lawrence Ipswich Ancient house barrel room

Alas this is the only internal photo I have – it’s hard to sneak your camera out when pretending to browse PLASTIC utensils

Ipswich’s Ancient House (above) will draw your eye if you walk down Buttermarket. The pargetting (ie plaster decoration) is particularly fine, and the Ipswich windows (so called even when they occur elsewhere) exemplary of these kind of bow crossed with venetian fenestration. It seems 17th century, but it is actually several structures from 15th C and includes work from 18th and 19th centuries. There’s a hall house with a hammerbeam roof at the core. It’s surmised that a builder from the West Country was brought in for the type of ceiling is not common in these parts, and neither’s the wooden decoration on the courtyard. There are 16th century ceilings, an earlier 17th century heavy fireplace, and a late 17th C panel and plaster room at the first floor of the building. The side in St Stephen’s Lane has exposed timbering and there’s a barrel roof towards Arras Square by the shopping centre (both pictured). It had a long association with books, as a library and then Dillon’s bookshop, but is now a branch of Lakeland Plastics. You can get to many rooms but the attic with its gallery is not open due to safety concerns (snore), and the small room about information on the building is covered in boxes.

PHOTOS COMING – SNEAKING IS YET TO TAKE PLACE

Curat and Edmund Wood’s houses  in Norwich share a general pattern of shops to the street, a courtyard and two very alike large Tudor hall rooms on top of each other. The top rooms have the same kind of flat timber ceiling, the lower one a timber and plaster design that I’ve not found anywhere else. But while Edmund Wood’s is known and open to the city as an arts centre (formerly King of hearts, now Anteros, bottom right), Curat’s is specialist knowledge and not even enjoyed privately, for it’s an expensive largely unused extension to a shop.

I’d like to end by taking you round Stranger’s Hall (above left and top right). It has the best domestic undercroft in the city of the most of these cellars in the country; it has a 15th C hall with two large bay windows and stairs added in the next two centuries; it has 16th and 17th rooms which aren’t as good as I’d expect for a mayoral residence, and then the more impressive Georgian dining room in its much older skin…and finally, recreated rooms of varying eras, from a counting house/kitchen of 16th century to Victorian parlours and a modern display of dummies with tights for hair.

Do I have a favourite? – well I would have said, Crosby Hall, London. Moved from Bishopsgate (where it became unfashionable for the growing financial sector) to Chelsea for safekeeping, it is the grandest merchant’s town house I’ve ever heard of. Its great hall is castle sized; its long panelled and plastered rooms fit for a palace. But – it’s owned privately by Mr Moran, who lives in it, and has a vault for himself built ready. The way it was written in a book on London’s hidden interiors (of course that means, no photos, no access) makes it sounds as if this entrepreneur is trying to revive the feudal medieval ideal of bearing oneself to glory for eternity. Of course I don’t know the man – this may all be wrong. But he is hogging UK’s grandest pre 1700 townhouse all to himself. Hands up who thinks it should be opened to the nation?! (yes I’m aware much of it is neo Tudorbethan and 20th C but my point still stands).

Elspeth’s Quest for East Anglia’s prettiest village

This is a new strand, a quest which will go round the country – seasides, cities, spa towns….

This first post is about villages.

As I’ve been writing about it most, I start with East Anglia.

As I was denigrating Burnham Market (below), who claims to be Norfolk’s prettiest, I began thinking – where is the prettiest village?

North Norfolk2 - Copy - Copy

I think I was a little harsher on BM in my Norfolk/Pocahontas post than I really meant to be. As with all those gentrifying places, I am ambivalent, and sometimes intrigued. But I do share the resentment of locals who see their communities being taken over by those capital dwellers with Jezebel eyes…

Politics aside, I find that Burnham Market is not overly pretty in its own right; it appears appealing because there’s an unusual amount of shops and a trend to visit. I’m still intrigued to know why the London influx was on this village, and not others. The coloured rendering and the red brick – common in Norwich but not this part of Norfolk – helps its perception of prettiness; but I still think: there is nothing to visit other than those puffed up shops and a certain inn. Even on its own website, the things to do in Burnham involve facials, or links to further afield.

And Burnham’s hardly fodder for the National Trust, is it?

Unlike Suffolk’s Lavenham, which is where I’ll champion, though there’s some wonderful Essex villages I’m getting to know. I’m not alone in thinking there’s not much of note in Cambridgeshire other than its cities, and even the brochures and glossies don’t offer any dissent from that. I would defy anywhere in the country to do better than Lavenham, though I am aware of several very lovely villages in those famous counties such as Gloucestershire, but whom get more attention – but not necessarily deservingly.

Lavenham1

The whole of Lavenham really does look like this

Lavenham is part of a swathe of lovely Wool Towns who I’m sure I’ll write about as a Day Out, and who ignore the county border and run from south Suffolk into north Essex. Coggeshall might well compete – alas I’ve not visited yet – and Thaxted is a serious contender and contester for prettiest village, though like many others listed here, it was once a town because of having a mayor and market. It has a guildhall, large church, important timbered and brick buildings, a windmill and the homes of a famous composer and infamous highwayman. But I think Thaxted isn’t the best because you can see all these in one well framed view, and it has few places to eat and shop (photo below).

Lavenham et al would be impressive even if they were purely residential. I expected a single old street, cunningly photographed to appear as many, but it is as well preserved as it appears – and better. It does have several shops and one could meet many needs without ever leaving the village – alpaca products, theatre set curios for three thousand pounds, artwork, chemists, and places to eat and drink. It’s also got a publisher, two museums (none in Burnham Market) and several societies – is this something that Burnham has? – they aren’t on the BM website, which was more welcoming and inclusive sounding than I’d expected. There are individual buildings worth seeing at Lavenham, and not just that church and Guildhall. You need to walk around, not just pass through a single spot. Lavenham’s not revealed all in one postcard, unlike popularly photographed nearby villages such as Kersey or Cavendish.

I also think its undulations help Lavenham’s picturesque quality. Fun to descend on a bike too.

Long Melford2

Long Melford (above) has something Lavenham doesn’t – the green and the two mansions – but I think I still prefer Lavenham for a more compact feel (ie herring shaped town grid round a market rather than one long street). Perhaps I need to do a post on not well known but pleasant villages of the region, for I can think of many who again would be famous by other counties’ standards. Why is Burnham prettier than Hingham, or Woolpit, or Bildeston? Why does Finchingfield get on postcards, but Haughley and Gt Bardfield don’t? (Why does my spell checker not know their names but it does Burnham’s?) Clare is very special, but it kind of a town. It has a castle and a priory which Lavenham doesn’t, but the church is less interesting and its museum in Ancient House is small. It is pretty and has good facilities – or am I just getting inured?

Finchingfield Thaxsted

Finchingfield and Thaxted, both in Essex

I still rate Little Walsingham (see previous article) because it’s unusual to have an abbey in the heart of a village built for pilgrims. I like that today (though not medievally), Walsingham’s focus is not on commerce, but on genuine spiritual seeking; and that it’s still a real village. I love its antiquity, and the many timbering and flint facades.

My ideal village has history – that’s pre 1700, timbered buildings, maybe some warm stone and brick; authentic (not manufactured) charm; local but not yokel; something to visit other than just shops, although I like several of those; an outstanding medieval church, something else heritage to visit, and something to do by night. A monthly film club/dramatics club/some quality concerts would be suffice for a village (but not for me, I do need my city). Colour is also important, and a little variety. Lavenham, you’re still winning.

Suggestions for contesters welcome. Or people who want to stick up for Burnham Market – I would gladly be proved wrong.

(More on Burnham in ‘A Day Out With Elspeth on a Bus named Lady Fermoy’)