The tiny Suffolk village that was once among the richest places in England
Trust a medieval wool town to tell a good yarn. If you’re wondering why Lavenham, a small village in south Suffolk, has so extraordinarily well-preserved a collection of creaking, half-timbered Tudor buildings, there’s a pleasing storyline that takes the place from great wealth to terrible poverty and back again.
We lay our scene in 1524, when Lavenham - whose population hasn’t ever exceeded 2,000 – was the 14th richest town in England. Thanks to its woolmaking, specifically its blue broadcloth, it paid more tax than even the big cities of the time, such as Lincoln and York.
Lavenham was at this point exporting its fabrics as far as Russia. Its wool merchants were so rich that, when visiting in 1487, Henry VII fined some of them for being ostentatious. A better way of showing off turned out to be church-building: the height of Lavenham’s wealth is marked by the 141-foot tower of the Church of St Peter and St Paul, a lavish Perpendicular Gothic construction that must weigh as much as the rest of the village combined.
But this rich tapestry was soon to unravel. Skilled Flemish weavers, on the run from war at home, began to populate the South East. For Lavenham, it was no longer weavers but irrelevance that loomed.
What followed was a 300-year period of impoverishment. The villagers who inherited the expensive oak-framed houses were unable to upgrade them to brick or stone. So by the time Lavenham emerged from its slough, its wonky half-timbering was so rare and olde-worlde as to be fashionable again. And thus a twee film set of a town was born. Tah-dah!
That’s the party line, anyway. I have an alternative theory. It’s almost… too picturesque. If you squint a bit on Market Lane and ignore the parked cars you can well believe you’re no longer in 2020. As generations of film producers will tell you, Lavenham is a perfect period setting. What I’m really trying to say is: it’s suspiciously quaint.
So here is what I think is going on. I think Lavenham was concocted some time in the 20th century by out-of-work film set designers with a lot of time (and timber) on their hands. They chucked together the Guildhall, added some cottages, weathered them convincingly and waited for the tourists to roll in. They brainwashed a few locals into believing their half-baked backstory and set up Visit Lavenham. And, believe me, they will not rest until Lavenham is restored to its rightful status as the 14th richest town in all England.
I invite you, then, to join the ranks of the Lavenham Truthers. But even if you don’t believe me, you can spend an enjoyable day in this strange village. It’s not much more than a handful of winding streets, but there are tea rooms, pubs and restaurants (all soon to reopen), plus a few historical things to see. Try the Guildhall of Corpus Christi, which illustrates Lavenham life over the centuries, and, close by, Little Hall, filled with curios gathered over the first half of the last century. And then, finally, figure out whether this village is too pretty and medieval to be true. Don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes.
Seven good reasons to visit Lavenham
The hotel and spa
The Swan at Lavenham (reopening on July 4) is the tried-and-trusted mainstay of the Lavenham holidaymaking scene. Charming half-timbered setting and an award-winning spa (still closed).
Housed in gorgeous limewashed timbering, the Guildhall was once a centre of local commerce and is now a National Trust property (reopening TBC).
When you’ve finished at the church, cross the road for a pint at the Cock Horse. Friendly service and cask ales, all under a huge thatched roof (currently offering takeaway food and reopening on July 4 with expanded outdoor areas).
Kate Denton, a sculptor who lives locally, has a seven-acre, topiary-filled sculpture garden here. Find Kate online to book a visit.
The tea room
Lavenham Blue Vintage Tea Rooms is the best-located of the various tea rooms here, opposite the Guildhall on Market Lane. Cutesy and antique, but friendly to vegans and gluten-intolerants (it will reopen on July 4 with a reduced capacity).
The great big church we mentioned earlier is dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, and, honestly, it could pass as a small cathedral. Look out for the loopy 15th century misericords (wooden hinged ledges that assist standing), which feature a man holding a pig and a half-woman, half-beast playing a viol.
The Harry Potter bit
Lavenham provided the inspiration for the Harry Potter village of Godric’s Hollow.