Lavenham is considered by many to be the finest medieval village in England. It’s also the food capital of Suffolk so you can come for the peace and rural charm but still dine well every night. The half-timbered houses here help create a quintessential English village.
There are over 320 listed buildings in Lavenham and I stayed at The Swan Hotel, well loved for its 15th century architecture and excellent service.
Many of the buildings in Lavenham date back to the 15th and 16th centuries. It was during King Henry VIII’s reign that Lavenham was declared the fourteenth most prosperous town in England because of the wool trade and cloth-making.
One of the last buildings to be built before the wool economy collapsed was the lime-washed Lavenham Guildhall of Corpus Christi, built in 1529. Another was the parish church of St Peter and St Paul which is excessively large for the size of the village – its tower is 141 ft (43 m) high.
Lavenham Guildhall is in the centre of the village in the Market Square and is now managed by the National Trust. There are local history exhibits inside plus a couple of reminders of our more superstitious times such as the ‘daisy wheel’ protective mark on the chimney lintel and the mummified cat, known locally as Rameses. During the 17th and 18th centuries cats were often placed in roofs near chimney stacks to prevent evil spirits from using the otherwise unprotected flue to enter the house. The sign informed us that many remain in local buildings, and most, if not all appear to have died before they were laid in place. Well, that’s good to hear.
Speaking of superstitions and fears, during the English Civil War of the 1600s, ‘witches’ were executed in Lavenham by the order of Matthew Hopkins Witchfinder General who charged the town for his services. (I found out more about Matthew Hopkins when I visited Lancashire for the Pendle Witches Trail 400th anniversary.)
The village was used as a film location for possibly English cinema’s best ever horror: The Witchfinder General (1968), starring Vincent Price. The burning of a witch in the Market Place was one of several scenes filmed in Lavenham.
A more recent film location was De Vere House, used in the last two instalments of the Harry Potter film series as Godric’s Hollow: the place of Harry’s birth, where his parents were killed by Voldemort and where Harry got his characteristic scar. The ‘cottage’ on Water Street was recently up for sale for nearly £1 million.
Back to the Guildhall, outside there’s a walled garden where there are traditional dye plants which produce colours that are bright even for today. There’s also Bug-ingham Palace, a wildlife stack for common garden insects. The top 10 to look out for are: ground beetle, ladybird, snail, slug, centipede, worm, woodlouse, caterpillar, ant and spider.
At the Guildhall I read about the Lavenham Railway Walk which is a 1.5 mile walk along a disused section of the old railway line that once linked Sudbury to Bury St Edmunds but sadly it was too wet and muddy when I was there. Locals tell me it’s a lovely area to see cowslips in spring. (Hat tip to Wikipedia for having the origin of the flower’s name as being from the Old English for cowshit meaning “cow dung”, probably because the plant was often found growing amongst the manure in cow pastures.)
I mentioned that Lavenham is the food capital of the county so I was surprised to see most of the tea rooms were shut by 5pm and I wondered where everyone went out to eat in the evening. It turned out I was staying in one of the best locations as The Swan has fine dining in the Gallery restaurant, a more contemporary menu in the Brasserie and for an evening drink the Airmen’s Bar has plenty of memorabilia of the American airmen who were stationed in Lavenham in the Second World War. This tiny village also has a Marco Pierre White restaurant in the Market Square at Wheeler’s at The Angel Hotel.
For such a small place Lavenham is a real treat to visit. There are cute gift shops and tea rooms for the daytime visitors and the Lavenham Pharmacy & Perfumery has a 1.5 hour audio tour you can enjoy for just £4. It’s abundantly clear why people love to live in the area and why visitors come every day for the picturesque setting.