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.




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?

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I think I was a little harsher on BM in my Bus Named 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.


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’s 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?

Thaxted and Finchingfield , 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.