colourful timber frame buildings

Colourful Timber Cottages, Lavenham © TAB

This attractive picture-postcard community is one of the best preserved old Suffolk wool towns. With over 300 timbered buildings of architectural and historical interest, Lavenham is probably one of the most photographed places in the country. It has been used as a period movie and TV set on many occasions, including episodes of Lovejoy, The Canterbury Tales and Harry Potter.

Built with wealth from the medieval wool and cloth-making industry. Lavenham became one of the richest towns in England, during the 14th & 15th century. Thankfully, due to its isolated location, it has retained almost all of its original medieval character. The ancient streets are packed with beautiful old timbered houses, decorated with carvings and finely executed pargetting (plasterwork).

So why do so many old timbered houses survive here today? During the 14th-c, stone was in short supply in the Suffolk area but oak trees were plentiful. Houses were erected quickly based on a simple timber frame. Gaps being filled with wattle (slender sticks) and daub (chalk and straw). In the 17th-c the cloth trade slumped dramatically, which meant few owners could afford to upgrade their houses to brick.

The original medieval town layout remains extant, with street names that echo the old crafts such as Roper's Court, Trinity Gild and Tenter Piece; named after the tenter and its hooks on which cloth was stretched out to dry after washing or dyeing. The name of Shilling Street derives from a medieval Flemish immigrant called Schylling, who built Shilling Old Grange, with its fine 17th-c upper front and narrow windows under the eaves.

Higgle-de-piggle-de houses

Church Street © TAB

Lavenham has a unique and distinct charm that encourages visitors to amble around and enjoy its historic atmosphere. Some buildings have a pronounced lean, with quirky angled gables and lurching, sagging roofs of red tile. In Church Street a number of houses lean several feet from the vertical. Family emblems are proudly embossed on many of the merchant halls, houses and weavers' cottages.

For the visitor there are gift and antique shops, pubs, tea rooms, hotels and fine restaurants. Guided walks take place here between April and October. A large visitor's car park is provided at the top of the hill near the church, where a useful information board provides a map of the town, listing the places of interest. If you are looking to stay, Lavenham has a good variety of Guest Houses, cosy cottages and attractive wood beamed hotels.

Swan Hotel, Lavenham © Travel About Britain

Ancient coaching inns such as the Angel Hotel and Swan Hotel look very much as they did during the middle ages. The Angel contains some fine 14th-c wall paintings and the Swan incorporates a splendid old Wool Hall to its rear. The old porch at the front was once the coaching entrance to the stable yard. The Swan's name is taken from the emblem of the the 'de Vere' Earls of Oxford, the local Lords of the Manor.

The town was once famous for its blue cloth and a type of horse blanket called a Lavenham rug. During Henry VIII's reign there were over 30 cloth making businesses in the village. Cottage workers in their homes twisted wool fibres into yarn on a wooden spindle. The spun
yarn was then wound onto a frame and dyed before weaving. By 1524 the town was the 14th richest in England. The wool trade declined quickly after the industrial revolution and from cheap foreign imports. Many of the traditional tools of the clothiers can be seen in the Guildhall museum.

Lavenham Market Cross

Lavenham Market Cross © TAB

The Market Place has a few flint faced houses and some of mellow brick. The main two buildings of interest here include the early Tudor Guildhall and Little Hall. The old timbers of which have been silvered by lime-wash, a more natural process than the black tarring the Victorians once applied. A busy market thrived in the square every Tuesday, from 1257 into the mid 1700s. The tolls due from the traders were collected by a keeper who lived in the little white cottage near the cross. The broad stepped base of the Market Cross is part of the original 16th-c construction funded by local merchants.

The magnificent two-storeyed half-timbered Guildhall, built in 1529, was originally the headquarters of the Guild of Corpus Christi, controllers of the local cloth trade. It is now managed by the National Trust and contains a small museum with exhibits covering the story of the wool trade. When the wool industry declined the building became a jail, a workhouse and later, almshouses for the poor. Little Hall, a 15th-c orange coloured house, beside the market place, is also open to the public and contains the Gayer-Anderson collection of antique furniture, pictures and books.

Other buildings of particular interest in Lavenham include the Wool Hall, Priory, De Vere House, the old grammar school, Mullet House, Shilling Old Grange, Swan Hotel, Woolstaplers, Little House and several very old houses in Church Street.

Lavenham Wool Hall

Lavenham Wool Hall © TAB

The Wool Hall was built in 1464 by the religious Guild of Our Lady. Simply constructed, it has a central open hall rising to a magnificent timbered roof.

The 13th-c town priory, on Water Street, was never actually a priory but a group Benedictine monks did live there until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Its external pargeting is some of the finest in the town. The house has a fine medieval and Jacobean staircases, a Tudor brick fireplace and mullioned windows. During its restoration the remains of Elizabethan wall paintings were discovered in a bedchamber, now called the Painted Chamber. The priory is currently run as a guest house.

de Vere House © Travel About Britain

Another striking facade in Water Street is the 15th-c de Vere House, which featured in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One. The mellow brick nogging between its ancient leaning timbers was added in later years. It is now luxury Bed and Breakfast Accommodation.

The Old Grammar School on Barn Street is a fine 16th-c timber-framed and plastered building. Among the school's most lustrous pupils was the painter John Constable.

The cathedral-sized Church of St Peter and St Paul, set high on a hill overlooking the town, was funded by the local wool merchants.

Church of St
Peter and St Paul

Church of St Peter & St Paul © TAB

The church's 140ft buttressed tower, one of the finest in the county, dominates the town. The church bells are a well-known feature. In fact they are so famous that on 21 June a special peal is rung to celebrate the "birthday" of the tenor bell. Believed to be the finest toned bell in the world it was made in 1625 by Miles Graye of Colchester.

John de Vere, leader of Henry VII's vanguard at the Battle of Bosworth, rebuilt the church in 1485, in thanksgiving for Richard III's defeat. One of the church's other benefactors 'Thomas Spring', is buried in the church and his coat of arms appears several times on the tower.

Places of Interest to Visit in Lavenham


The lavishly timbered hall was once the home to the Guild of Corpus Christi. John de Vere, the 15th Earl of Oxford, granted the guild its charter in 1529. On the porch down posts is carved the Guild's emblem, two lions rampant. Today the Guildhall is a local community centre and museum. Within are detailed displays illustrating the different stages of broadcloth manufacture, using models and illustrations. Attached to the east end of the Guildhall is a well preserved Tudor shop, now a tearoom.

Opening times: see website for details - Admission Charge
Location: Market Place, Market Ln, Lavenham, Sudbury CO10 9QZ
Tel: 01787 247646 - Run by National Trust

Little Hall

The building began life in the 14th-c as a clothiers hall. The Gayer-Anderson brothers later bought it as a home and as a repository for their collection of books, pictures, china and antiques, much of which is on display today. The house and gardens, which are open to the public, have been restored by the Suffolk Preservation Trust.

Opening times: see website for details - Admission Charge
Location: Market Place, Lavenham, Sudbury CO10 9QZ
Tel: 01787 247019

Map of Lavenham

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Towns and Villages in Suffolk

Aldeburgh, Beccles, Bungay, Bury St. Edmunds, Felixstowe, Framlingham, Haverhill, Lakenheath, Lavenham, Ipswich, Lowestoft, Mildenhall, Newmarket, Southwold, Stowmarket, Sudbury

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