On a Suffolk road trip? For a real treat, head out on the A1141 for some lovely Suffolk scenery between Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury and prepare to be blown away by Lavenham…a medieval time capsule!
This is Suffolk’s fairy-tale kingdom!
Lavenham’s Tudor timber-framed buildings helps put present-day reality on hold for a few hours. Find a magic wand and swooooosh away the modern trappings of commercialism and you are standing in the middle of a childhood fantasy…
Suffolk’s fairytale village
Ask yourself: Why is Lavenham still a Tudor village? Why are the houses so wonky?
And most importantly, if you’re travelling by motorhome, is there anywhere to park here?! Let’s get straight to that question…
Lavenham is a very popular tourist destination in Suffolk – understandably so – and parking a motorhome, especially at weekends, usually means arriving early.
We use the public car park beside (and possibly owned by) The Cock Horse Inn just about opposite the impressive 14th century church. Coaches have allocated bays and although there are no such spaces for motorhomes, those on the left hand side of the car park are large enough for a 20 foot van.
Parking is technically free, but donations are requested in a box by the toilet block at the entrance. A worthy request given the delights of Lavenham where you can easily spend the entire day.
Prentice Street in the middle of the village (that leads to the Guildhall) also has a car park, albeit smaller and it’s usually quite full. But this too is free, provided you display a ticket.
Neither car park allows overnight parking although we wondered if the pub would allow it if you purchased a meal. No harm in asking (if it is indeed their land).
Having driven past the wonderfully wonky timbered houses along the main street and parked up, you will wonder where to visit first! Just be prepared to spend a good few hours marvelling at the houses and enjoying the tea rooms, galleries, hotels, church and gift shops.
Lavenham – a living history
Lavenham’s history is far more detailed than we can record here – but dive in with us for a whistle-stop tour…
Starting way back in this unusually hilly part of Suffolk, there is evidence of a Neolithic hill settlement and a Druid’s Mound.
Perhaps this explains the lack of Roman roads in the area? (It’s well-known that Romans tried to avoid the Druids for various reasons). However, as there are reclaimed Roman bricks in several of Lavenham’s buildings it can be assumed that a Roman villa or two existed nearby.
The Saxons possibly called Lavenham ‘Lava’s Ham’ before their land was seized and given to William the Conqueror’s brother in law – Aubrey de Vere. The de Vere family poured wealth and affluence into the village, aided by the sudden growth of the wool trade in East Anglia.
The blue dyed woollen cloth was used throughout England and was even exported as far as Russia. By 1524, Lavenham was briefly listed as the 14th wealthiest place in England, paying more tax than the cities of York and Lincoln!
The village was growing quickly but what explanation do we have for those weirdly wonderful, wonky houses…
Why are Lavenham’s houses so crooked?
There’s a simple explanation…
As the wool merchants’ wealth increased they quickly wanted to show how successful they were. So, they had large houses built – from unseasoned wood. Over time as the wood matured, it twisted and bent, giving the houses their famous crooked look.
And by the 16th century, any thought of replacing the warped beams soon vanished when Flemish weavers arrived in nearby Colchester. These invaders could produce more colourful cloth for less money. The English weavers sealed their own fate by wanting higher wages around the same time that higher taxes were demanded by the exchequer.
Those taxes were used to fund wars being waged on the continent, closing many export markets. A perfect storm. The near monopoly of the wool industry in East Anglia was broken; the wool merchants no longer had the reserves to repair or replace the crooked houses. Lavenham appears thus to have created its own time capsule.
By the 17th century many of the meaner buildings were in such disrepair that orders for their demolition were issued by the Lord of the Manor. The five Guildhalls were reduced in number to just two. Some repairs were made but not always in the Tudor manner. Later Georgian “improvements” saw the Tudor style rendered behind plaster and carved embellishments were hewn off. Today, we’d call it vandalism!
The witches of Lavenham!
Also in the 17th century, Lavenham, like so many other towns and villages all over the world who were tyrannised by Christian fundamentalists, became embroiled in witch hunts. Innocent local people were denounced as witches and burned at the stake in the market square. Three hundred years later, the village formed the backdrop for the 1968 movie ‘The Witchfinder General’…
As if witch hunts weren’t bad enough, two plagues struck in 1666 and 1699 and then at the beginning of the 18th century smallpox killed one in six of Lavenham’s residents. Difficult times indeed (and we think Covid-19 is bad!)
Into the 20th century, during World War Two, Lavenham and nearby Alpheton hosted American airmen from the 487 Squadron, flying B24 Liberators and the famous B17 Flying Fortresses. During their tour of duty the American airmen were wowed by the people of both villages and helped restore many of the buildings that had been damaged by Nazi bombing raids.
Today, much of the airfield has been returned to agricultural use or is being reclaimed by nature. However, the Control Tower is still maintained and ‘Pill Boxes’ still dot the surrounding countryside.
Present day Lavenham could have been built for a film set. It is a tourist hot spot with people coming from all over the world and sometimes it is easy to lose sight of the significance and history of it all. We advise you to try to see past the hubbub and drink in the charm.
Lavenham’s Guildhall in the market square is one of the most impressive buildings in the whole village. Initially built (in 1529) as a religious meeting place for wealthy Catholic merchants, it has served as a prison, workhouse, pub, chapel and a social club for American Airmen in WWII.
Now housing an impressive museum, the Guildhall tells the story of Lavenham, often in the words or via the deeds of its own citizens.
Little Hall, one of the oldest buildings in Lavenham is also now a museum. The Swan Inn is stunning, inside and out. And The Crooked House appears to match the incline of the hill it is built on rather than being level. You will see what we mean!
De Vere House, now offering accommodation, is a well-photographed building in the village. Its modern claim to fame is that it was used as ‘Godrick’s Hollow’ – the place where Harry Potter’s parents met an untimely end in the film The Deathly Hallows.
During one of our visits, we were carrying our crystal tipped staffs – and a photograph outside the house seemed almost obligatory. Hobo Gav suddenly seemed terribly enthusiastic…a new Potter fan perhaps?
No, he had spotted a vintage VW van to add to our photo gallery!
Circular walks and the magnificent church
We have visited Lavenham’s magnificent 14th century church of St Peter and St Paul several times. Not only is it peaceful and beautiful, there is a second-hand bookstall inside from which we always leave with an armful of yet more reading material.
The tower stands 141 feet in height and is one of the tallest village church towers in England. It certainly showed off the wealth of Lavenham and was financed chiefly by Thomas Spring III. Today, Spring Street, Spring Close and Spring Lane are named after his influential cloth and wool merchant family.
Another nod to the wool trade is a series of footpaths made through Dyehouse Field Wood. This is a local woodland project with nuttery planted to create a natural environment for wildlife and people to enjoy. We chanced upon it whilst meandering our way through Lavenham’s footpaths from the church.
Another great walk is along the route of the Lavenham to Long Melford railway track – part of the closed Long Melford to Bury St Edmunds line. Click the link for a route map and more details.
Or if you’d prefer an auditory guide of Lavenham (with walking route maps and more history) we recommend you check out Voice Map which is a wonderful resource.
In summary, we think Lavenham is a “must visit” if you’re heading to Suffolk. It is a rare opportunity to experience authentic Medieval England on such a grand scale whilst enjoying all the treats of modern commerce. Chances are, you will want to return.
Check out our other favourite places you must visit in Suffolk including the location of Britain’s biggest UFO story, secret nuclear bunkers, and the desolate seaside hamlet where the Nazi’s purportedly landed in World War Two.