The Suffolk village of Lavenham makes quite a claim for itself. But after a day wandering around its streets of black and white half timbered buildings, I can well believe that it is the “best preserved mediaeval village in England”.
The late Middle Ages was Lavenham’s heyday and its prosperity was built on wool. It was famous for its Lavenham Blue Cloth that was traded far and wide. The village had several guildhalls and other grand buildings. There was so much affluence that on a visit in 1487, King Henry VII fined several Lavenham families for displaying too much wealth. By 1600, fashions were changing and Lavenham Blue was losing out to competition from cheaper cloth produced elsewhere. The village hit hard times which meant residents could not afford to build new properties or modernise existing ones in the latest styles. This is the reason why so many mediaeval buildings have survived.
S and I started our exploration at the surviving guildhall on the market place. There was no market on the morning of our visit, but on the positive side, it provided us with somewhere to park.
Lavenham Guildhall’s proper name is the Guildhall of Corpus Christi. While it was a craft guild, it concerned itself with the social and religious wellbeing of its members, who were regarded as the elite of the village. Originally a Catholic institution, it didn’t survive the religious reformation and the building had many uses afterwards including a prison, a workhouse, a pub, a chapel and a social club for American soldiers stationed nearby during World War 2. Now owned by the National Trust, the guildhall takes the visitor through 500 years of history, starting with its original use of social and religious gatherings in the main hall. We saw an old loom with a number of examples of Lavenham Blue. An information board explained how the cloth was made. It was interesting that much of what was needed was not locally sourced. Wool came from Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire while the woad plant used to dye the cloth was imported from Toulouse in the south of France. Other rooms told the stories of families in the village. We read about people who were sent to prison and others that found themselves in the workhouse. The Guildhall has a lovely garden and cafe which we found an ideal place to rest for a drink.
The Guildhall was one of the buildings used as a film location in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. The other Lavenham property featured was the DeVere House in Water Street, which became Harry’s parents’ home. Walking from the Market Place down Lady Street, along Water Street and up the High Street, we saw the mediaeval core of Lavenham. Tudor buildings abounded on every corner, with very little sign of modernity other than the cars.
We were hungry by the time we arrived at the Greyhound and enjoyed some delicious tapas in its beer garden. As with the village’s former industry, not quite local, but I did wash it down with some Suffolk cider.
Not long after lunch, it was time to leave this Tudor time warp. We concluded Lavenham is definitely one of the finest mediaeval villages in England.
Lavenham is in Suffolk, England, UK, 12 miles south of Bury St Edmunds, 19 miles west of Ipswich and 77 miles north east of London
A frequent bus service from Bury St Edmunds takes about 30 minutes to reach Lavenham. Bury St Edmunds can be reached by train from London via Ipswich or Cambridge. Lavenham is on the A1141 road between Hadleigh and Bury St Edmunds