A Time Warp in East Anglia
Lavenham, one of Suffolk's best Medieval wool towns, is pretty much unchanged since the 14th century. Here's why and what you'll find if you go.
When you walk down the street in Lavenham, a Suffolk village about 75 miles northeast of London, it is easy to imagine you have stepped into the Middle Ages. The village, home to fewer than 2,000, has 320 listed buildings of historical significance. Now in use as homes, shops, businesses, restaurants and hotels, the houses that make up the fabric of Lavenham have changed little in more than 500 years. It's at the heart of a small cluster of ancient Suffolk wool towns and there is really nothing quite like it in England.
A Very Modern Ancient Tale
It's a story familiar to most of us in the modern world. New technologies and a cheaper work force take manufacturing businesses abroad. Changing consumer demands lead to falling prices, closing factories, followed by labor disputes, industrial action, and, ultimately, the failure of an industry.
Only this isn't a modern story. It's what happened to Lavenham and its neighboring wool towns in the mid 1500s.
From the mid 13th to the mid 16th century, Lavenham's blue wool broadcloth, dyed with woad and woven in its local workshops, turned the town into one of the wealthiest in England. Between 1465 and 1469, Suffolk was the most important cloth producing county in the country, shipping as many as 60,000 "cloths" a year to London and Europe. (A "cloth" was a specific, taxable measure of fabric, 28 yards and 28 inches long by 1 3/4 yards wide.) Multi-millionaires were made, enormous guild halls were built and spacious half-timbered houses for prosperous wool merchants lined the village streets.
And then it was over.
How Time Stood Still in Lavenham
The merchants and weavers of Lavenham enjoyed wealth and power for more than two hundred years. They set the standards for their trade and established Guildhalls of merchants and tradesmen. Then, almost overnight, it ended and time virtually stopped in this pretty Suffolk Town.
When the Dutch invented a lighter, cheaper worsted cloth, fashions changed and the wool towns of Suffolk went into decline. Wages of freemen working in the trade fell. Then in 1525, striking against a Tudor tax, 5,000 people gathered in Lavenham. It was the largest gathering of people ever seen in Europe.
The local lords broke up the demonstration but it was the end of boom town Lavenham. By 1530, more than 200 years of prosperity was over. By 1618 the wool trade had completely finished.
Preserved by Chance
By then, the town was full of impressive, two story half-timbered houses. Some fell into disrepair but as time went on and housing fashions changed, the people of Lavenham - including one of the lords of the manor who frittered away his fortune - had no money to build anything new.
The reason so many fabulous ancient buildings remain in Lavenham is that the village was simply too poor to replace them.
Talk about bad luck, over the years, every time it looked like the town was about to experience a revival fate stepped in and squashed it. There was the Plague - hitting the village in 1666 and 1699. Smallpox in 1712 and 1713 wiped out a sixth of the population. Losses from World War I and the influenza epidemic of 1918 once again squeezed the life out of a nascent revival.
Enter the USAAF
Between 1943 and 1945, US Army Airforce Station 137 near Lavenham was home to the USAAF 487th Bombardment Group. Visiting pilots were charmed by the village with its ancient buildings. They drank at the Swan - where the Airmen's Bar still commemorates those days - and made long-lasting local friendships. When the war was over, those links were often maintained and the interest generated led to the restoration and preservation of many of Lavenham's historic buildings. The veterans brought their families and now their children and grandchildren are among the many who have rediscovered Lavenham, leading to its revival as a delightful destination and touring hub for the Suffolk wool towns.
Things to See and Do in Lavenham
Lavenham, despite its astonishing charm, is a pretty quiet place.Think of it as comfortable base for a tour of the area or a half-day stop in a Suffolk itinerary. It is so gobsmackingly lovely that it is worth a special detour. You won't be disappointed. Don't forget to bring your camera.
The Best Thing to Do in Laveham
By far the best thing to do in Lavenham is to simply walk around and take in its magnificent buildings. Browse its independent shops on the High Street, on Water Street and in the Market Square. Enjoy it's galleries featuring the work of local and Suffolk artists. We particularly liked Lavenham Contemporary, owned by leading British landscape artist Paul Evans. Attend Lavenham's award-winning Farmer's Market, judged the best in Suffolk, held on the 4th Sunday of every month.
And Five More Things to Do
- Visit The Guildhall of Corpus Christi - This National Trust property is the last of Lavenham's five Medieval guilds. With its prime position in the market square it was probably the most prestigious. Once Lavenham lost its preeminent position in the wool trade, it served as a prison, a workhouse, an alms house, a wool store, a school and even a welcome club for American airmen during World War II.Today it's a museum of local history. You'll notice that the timber frame of the Guildhall is not stained black but is instead a silvery white. Staining the oak timbers with tar was a Victorian innovation. In the Medieval period, a silvery lime wash was used. The Guildhall, like many other listed buildings in Lavenham, retains the original lime finish. Don't miss the small bench upholstered in Lavenham blue fabric, made using the same methods as the Medieval weavers used to make the textiles that once made the town rich.
The Guildhall has a small National Trust cafe attached for teas and light lunches. There is also access to a period kitchen garden where you can see woad growing. Woad was used to dye Lavenham fabric its characteristic blue. The Guildhall is open year round but opening days and hours are limited during the winter months. Admission is charged. Check the website for the latest hours and prices.
- See Lavenham Little Hall - The bright orange half timbered house on the market square was built in the late 14th century, around 1390 for a family of clothiers. It is one of the oldest houses in a village packed with ancient buildings. In the 1920s it was rescued from ruin by the Gayer-Anderson brothers, a pair of eccentric English twins. Soldiers, art collectors and Egyptologists, they filled it with their collections and made it their family home. It was opened to the public in 1978 and today is owned and maintained by the Suffolk Building Preservation Trust. Visit the house to see its ancient construction as well as the brothers collections of art and artifacts. It's open from the end of March to the end of October and admission is charged. Opening hours are somewhat complicated so it's best to visit the website for the latest information.
- See The Church of St Peter and St Paul - Completed in 1530. just as Lavenham's fortunes began to turn, this is one of Suffolk's great "wool churches" built on a grand scale in the "Perpendicular" style to reflect the Medieval wealth of the village. Its tower is 141 feet high and its Gothic stonework, inside and out, is magnificent. You can easily imagine you are seeing a cathedral instead of a simple parish church.
- Take tea in an amazing place - Munnings Tea Room at 7 High Street, occupies one of the village's most amazing houses, known locally as The Crooked House. They serve breakfast, lunches and teas and you can explore the house which is also a shop selling antiques. Or, you could choose to have tea at Sweetmeats, a tiny place in a 500-year-old weavers cottage at 71 Water Street.
- Visit the Airmen's Bar - The bar at the Swan Hotel on the High Street was popular with USAAF pilots in World War II and displays memorabilia from that period. The Swan also has a fine dining restaurant and a bistro as well as extremely atmospheric rooms you can stay in.
How to Find This Medieval Gem
One of the reasons the small towns of East Anglia have remained so unspoilt is that transportation links to this part of the country are not as well developed as elsewhere. You won't just happen upon Lavenham as an exit off a main highway. Here's how to go.
- By Car - Lavenham is at the intersection of the A1141 and B1071, about 11 miles south of Bury St Edmunds. From London, join the M11 Motorway on the northeast edge of London. Exit to the A120 and follow it around Braintree to the A131 to Sudbury. Leave Sudbury going northeast on the B1115, then head north on the B1071 and follow signs to the town center. It's a 76 mile trip. Parking is free.
- By Train - The nearest train station is Sudbury, seven miles away. Trains leave Liverpool Street station approximately hourly and take between 1 hour 20 minutes and 1 hour 50 minutes. See National Rail Enquiries for latest times and prices. The Chambers 753 bus from Bury St Edmunds to Colchester stops near Sudbury station and travels to Lavenham on a regular schedule.