The first thing to say about Lavenham is that it’s in the middle of nowhere, or at least it certainly feels that way. Heading cross country from the A12 seemed to take forever and when I left later to head up to Beccles, it took almost an hour before my satnav finally got me back onto an A road.
The second thing to say about Lavenham is that it’s pretty enough to warrant the trek into the Suffolk outback. Walking from the free car park at the top of the village opposite the Church, you see only Tudor or Georgian buildings as you head down the High Street to the Market Place. I spotted just one modern building – New House – whose name seems simply to have evolved from visitor directions: ‘look for the new house and that’s us’.
Timber-framed Tudor buildings abound and some of them seem to be leaning so far over that their collapse seems imminent, although I suppose if they’ve lasted over four hundred years they could well last several hundred more. Their presence makes Lavenham something of a tourist trap, though, and it is likely that it gets over-run in the summer months. Even today, on a chilly, slightly foggy day in October, there were a couple of coaches dropping off and picking up.
The survival of so many old buildings is unusual and it is interesting that our gain was probably due to Lavenham’s loss. The town was once ranked as the 14th most wealthy town in England thanks to its cloth trade but when the cloth-making industry hit a recession in the 1520s and 1530s, it was akin to the bursting of the dot.com bubble (the cloth.com bubble, perhaps?) and the town suffered economically. Although a lot of the larger merchants’ houses were torn down at that time, it is believed that the survival of many of the other old buildings is largely due to the lack of funds available in the area to modernise.
The Guildhall of Corpus Christi is what brought the National Trust (and hence me!) to Lavenham. The NT took over responsibility for the Guildhall in the 1950s and it now houses a museum about the gild (as the Trust spells it), the Hall and the history of Lavenham as a whole. Apart from the combined hall and parlour downstairs, there is also a cellar (closed during my visit owing to flooding that had made the floors treacherous) and then five rooms upstairs, each presenting detailed information about a different topic: Room 1 covers the construction of the Guildhall and background to the gild itself; Room 2 the cloth-making industry; Room 3 the history of the railway in Lavenham (here in 1865, gone in 1965); Room 4 the local Taylor family, the father being an artist and engraver and his daughter Jane a poetess who wrote Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star; and Room 5 other local jobs and notable Lavenham folk, some of whom still have descendants in the area.
I have to admit that I prefer the personal stories of the rich and famous and their stately homes to this kind of museum and I found myself glazing over a few times while standing in front of the information boards. But I imagine most people would find at least one or two things to interest them. Personally, I was drawn to the stories suggested by the carved daisy-wheel motif over the fireplace lintel and the mummified cat… yes, I did just say ‘mummified cat’! Both of these things were supposedly intended to ward off evil spirits, with the daisy design believed to stop spirits coming down the chimney, while the cat (which the Trust have named Rameses!), found in a nearby roof alongside the chimney stacks, was believed to have been placed there for the same reason. Either Suffolk folk are particularly superstitious or there’s a lot of evil in these here parts!
I must just mention some things about the gild. Before my visit, I had assumed this was a trading guild of cloth-makers but this isn’t the case and the Corpus Christi gild was actually a social and religious gild, believed to have been made up of wealthy merchants who not only benefited from liaising with other local businessmen but who also felt that their membership fees and collective praying would help to pave the way to heaven and reduce their time in purgatory. In many towns, these old gild halls were located near the church so the priest didn’t have to come far to pray with the townsfolk, so the Corpus Christi gild (one of five Lavenham gilds) is a little unusual in that it is some distance from the town church.
After the Reformation, when such religious gilds were closed down, the Corpus Christi Guildhall became parish property and it has since been used in many different ways. For a long time, it was a prison and later a workhouse, and the workhouse lock-up and mortuary can be viewed at the end of the garden. It also served as a central meeting place during the war, being the first stop for many evacuees, while a British restaurant operated from the building for a while, bringing in many American servicemen billeted in the area. Today, the NT tea room is located in one of the old buildings adjoining the Guildhall, but I’m sorry to say there were no American servicemen in evidence today.
Although I didn’t manage to pick up a US airman, I did pick up a few interesting titbits about the English language during my visit. When apprentices were indentured, the term apparently came from the contracts that were cut down the middle with jagged or ‘indented’ edges so that the two sides could be put together to prove the contract between apprentice and master. I have also heard and used the phrase ‘dyed in the wool’ many times but have never really thought about its origins. It’s obvious really that it comes from cloth-making and was a simple phrase to describe wool that was dyed before weaving.
So, although I can’t admit to being riveted by Lavenham’s displays, I still left with a few new pieces of knowledge, which seems to be par for the course with these visits and makes each one worthwhile. After all, learning something new every day makes life much more interesting. And to top it all, I got to meet Rameses the cat, who is a bit icky to look at now but was probably a beautiful fella back in the days when he had flesh and fur!
Highlights: The timber-framed exterior, Rameses!
Refreshments: Mixed vegetable with thyme soup and crusty granary bread, apple juice
Purchase(s): Guidebook, birthday cards