GuildhallIt’s a Bank Holiday weekend and thoughts are turning to a day out, so we thought it a good time to take a look at the beautiful village of Lavenham in Suffolk, one of the finest “medieval villages” remaining in England.

While settlement of the village, which is about an hour and 45 minutes north-east of London by car, goes back to before Saxon times (indeed the village apparently takes its name from a Saxon thegn called Lafa) it was in the medieval period that it attained the charming character which is still so evident today.

Crooked-HouseThe village was awarded its market charter in 1257 and it was from this period until about 1530 that its ‘golden years’ occurred, based on its prominent role in the wool trade (in particular the production of sought-after blue broad cloth – ‘Lavenham Blue’) and its location between London and the key ports like Kings Lynn.

It was during this period that its several guildhall were constructed and it was recorded as one of the richest parts of England with some of its most prominent families becoming extremely wealthy, like the De Vere family headed by the Earl of Oxford, and the Spring and Branch families who used their wealth to raise themselves to the nobility.

Lavenham’s decline began in the later 1500s and followed a sharp downturn in the wool trade amid greater competition from Europe. Its fortunes reached a low in the late 18th century before industrialisation in the 19th century revitalised the village somewhat (although nowhere close to the prominence and affluence it once boasted).

Today Lavenham is something of a tourist mecca, boasting an amazing collection of timber-framed buildings – more than 320 of which are listed – mostly dating from between 1450 and 1500.

Central among them is the Guildhall (pictured top), located on the market place, which dates from about 1530, and as well as hosting religious guild activities (its formal name was the Guild of Corpus Christi), has also served as a prison, workhouse, almshouse, and wool store and now houses a National Trust-run museum.

One of the most famous photographed buildings in the town is the Crooked House on High Street (pictured above right), so-called because of the dramatic lean its upper story is on.

There’s also the Little Hall, which, dating from the 14th century, was the wool hall of clothier William Causation and is now home to the Suffolk Preservation Society (open to the public over the warmer months). And among other notable homes is De Vere House, a grade I-listed property (now available to stay in) which still had elements dating back to the Middle Ages (and was the last home in the village to be owned by the Earls of Oxford).

The Church of St Peter and St Paul (pictured below) is also notable – described as “one of the finest parish churches in England”. The current version (there has apparently been a church here since Saxon times) was apparently funded by the 13th Earl of Oxford and wealthy cloth merchants including Thomas Spring III (whose coat of arms appears 32 times on the parapet) to celebrate their safe return from Battle of Bosworth Field where King Henry VII was victorious in 1485.

A couple of interesting notes to finish on. Among the residents in the late 18th century was the London-born Jane Taylor who lived in Shilling Street with her family. Jane and her sister Ann published a collection of poetry which included the poem, The Star, from which the lyrics for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star are taken.

There’s also a John Constable connection – the landscape painter was a student at the Grammar School which opened in Barn Street in 1647.

And, as you might expect in such a well-preserved location, Lavenham has also appeared on the big screen, notably De Vere House as the birthplace of Harry Potter and his mentor Albus Dumbledore.

A charming village to pass a few hours walking around (and, relax in, there’s plenty of pubs and cafes to refresh yourself at afterwards).

For more, check out www.discoverlavenham.co.uk and www.visit-lavenham.co.uk.

Lavenham-church

Advertisements

ReculverThis striking ruin perched on the shore of Herne Bay in Kent is all that remains of a 12th century church which once stood here, itself constructed on the ruins of a Saxon monastery and, earlier still, a Roman era fort.

The site once faced the now swallowed up Isle of Thanet across a narrow waterway to the east and it was this location which made it a prime spot for the Romans, in the early to middle years of the 3rd century AD, to build one of what became known as Saxon Shore forts, constructed to watch over waterways and resist raiders from across the sea. The square fort – known as Regulbium – featured walls supported by earthen ramparts containing a range of military buildings including a headquarters building at the centre. It’s main entrance was located in the north wall.

Reculver-smallThe fort ceased to be garrisoned by regular troops by the end of the 4th century and archaeologists have found little sign of any activity there at the start of the next century.

Following the arrival of St Augustine in 597 AD and the conversion of local Saxon kings to Christianity, Egbert, the King of Kent, gave land which included Reculver (Raculf) to one Bassa for the foundation of a church or minster (this has been dated to 669 AD). A monastery was subsequently founded on the site which remained there until the 10th century after which the church, which stood roughly at what was the middle of the Roman fort and which had been enlarged during the Saxon period, became a parish church of Reculver.

Remodelled in the 12th century (from which period the towers date), it was visited by Leland in 1540 who wrote of a stone cross which stood at the entrance to the choir and was carved with painted images of Christ and the 12 Apostles (fragments of the cross are now in the crypt at Canterbury Cathedral).

The encroaching sea, meanwhile, continued to move closer and closer to the northern side of the church, seriously so by the end of the 18th century when the vicar persuaded parishioners to demolish the church and build a new one at nearby Hillsborough. Thankfully, while much of the stone from the church was used in the new building, the twin west towers were left standing.

Their value as a landmark was recognised in 1809 when the ruin was bought by Trinity House as a navigation marker. They subsequently strengthened the towers’ foundations to ensure they weren’t undermined any further. Further strengthening measures took place in later years. About half of the Roman fort remains. The site is now managed by English Heritage.

Reculver is a site richly evocative of England’s past with a history going back more than 1,700 years. The remains may only be fragments of what once stood there but they nonetheless tell a myriad of stories.

WHERE: At Reculver, three miles east of Herne Bay (nearest train station is Herne Bay (four miles); WHEN: Any reasonable time in daylight hours; COST:Free; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/reculver-towers-and-roman-fort/.

Trafalgar Square has been transformed with a temporary hedge maze which takes visitors through a potted history of some of the streets of London’s West End. The maze, created by the West End Marketing Alliance, is full of fascinating facts – did you know, for example, that the area we now know as Covent Garden was originally known, during Saxon times, as Convent Garden? Or that the Beatles last ever gig was performed on a rooftop in Savile Row? The maze is only in Trafalgar Square for this week, so get in quick if you want to visit (and pick up a free badge for your effort in conquering the maze). When Exploring London visited, waiting time was only about 10 minutes. For more, see www.WestEndLondon.com.