I’d never heard of Lavenham before I was taken by a friend recently on a day trip from Cambridge. Last time I visited Cambridge I experienced some of the alternative activities the city had to offer, and this time I was keen to explore some of the surrounding area. You can tell that my friend knows me fairly well as it was pretty much my prefect day out. A pretty village, picnic, National Trust property (and tea room!) and some time walking around in the fresh air. Before we went I was banned from looking it up online, as I was told that it would spoil the effect when we arrived. If you’ve not been, consider this the spoiler alert for the rest of the post. But if you want to see some of what the village has to offer, read on.
Lavenham was once the 14th richest town in the country, and was prosperous as a medieval wool town. It was granted a market charter in 1257 and exported its cloth, Lavenham Blewes, as far away as Russia. However, the fortune of the village began to change when skilled Flemish weavers began to populate the South East and produced cheaper, lighter and more fashionable cloth than Lavenham. Combined with cheaper imports from Europe, Lavenham began to lose its relevance, and its wealth. Why is this important? Well the period of impoverishment that followed is why the village is so well preserved. Villagers couldn’t afford to upgrade their oak-framed houses to brick or stone, and so they remained as they were.
Today Lavenham is home to over 300 listed buildings (and I’d be surprised if there were many more buildings than that which made up the village). it’s also acknowledged as one of the best examples of a medieval wool town in England. If you like your history, it’s an interesting place to visit, but if you also just really like pretty villages with quaint, wonky houses then it’s also worth taking the time to see.
We parked our car in the car-park closest to the church and started our walk around the village from this end. We went to see St Peter and St Paul’s Church to begin with, the 141 foot church tower looking atmospheric against the threatening skies. The height of the tower was a sign of the wealth that the village used to have. The bushes either side of the path make the walk up to the church feel quite stately, and when we got inside I have to say it’s one of the most welcoming churches I’ve ever visited. Immediately we were encouraged to come in out of the cold, to have a wander round, were pointed in the direction of the shop and generally just made to feel very at home.
From here, we walked down Water Street, home to number of independent retailers stocking beautiful gifts made in the local area. Further down the road we came to De Vere House, once owned by the De Vere family who were the second-richest family after the king. Nowadays, the house is probably better known as being featured in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows film as Godric’s Hollow, Harry’s birthplace. Passing even more beautiful wonky houses, we made our way to the market place which is the heart of Lavenham.
The medieval Guild Hall of Corpus Christi dominates the market place and is the best place to go to learn more about Lavenham’s past. The Guild Hall is managed by the National Trust and inside are a series of different exhibitions, going from room to room, which will tell you more about the building’s history. From a Guild Hall, to a jail, to a workhouse and almshouse, the hall has had multiple uses for the community. There’s a small garden behind the hall, and a tea room attached (perfect for an afternoon slice of cake).
From the hall, we continued our way round and down the High Street, again popping into multiple independent retailers. The only thing the village didn’t seem to have was a bookshop! There were several holiday cottages which caught my eye – it would be lovely to live somewhere with so much character, even if only for a couple of nights. We had lots of questions about how people get their furniture to stand without wobbling, and how they manage their curtains, because you could tell from the outside how warped a lot of the cottage walls were.
Had we not had evening plans in Cambridge, we probably would have spent slightly longer in Lavenham by going for one of the walks surrounding the village. There were several different options, from a series of circular routes to a walk that led to Melford Hall, a stately home situated in the nearby wool town of Long Melford. If I come back to Lavenham I’d probably do one of these walks to take in the rolling countryside and see some more of the surrounding area, rather than staying entirely within the village.
I’ll be honest, Lavenham isn’t that big and it won’t take you all day to see. However, I’d still advise taking your time to that you can soak up its charm. It’s best viewed at a slow pace and, surprisingly for such a pretty place, it’s not over-run by tourists (or it wasn’t on a Saturday in the Easter holidays at least) which allows you to enjoy the experience rather than just being one of a crowd.
Have you ever been to Lavenham? Are there any more pretty villages you’d recommend?