Friday, 18 October 2013

Lavenham - Half-Timbered Heaven

This post comes with a health warning for anyone who is either in love with - or who can't stand - half-timbered houses of picture-book perfection. What you're about to witness is but a fraction of the 250 photos I took today. You have been warned.

Lavenham in Suffolk is one of those places that you don't really believe till you visit it yourself - "OK so there are some old houses there, but I bet there's not as many as the photos make it look. Like it's probably only part of one street or something." Wrong, I'm afraid. There are over three hundred listed historic buildings in this tiny town, most of them worth a photograph. Not that this is some historical exhibit; it's still a busy little community and at this time of year there was hardly a tourist in sight - except me!

Here's how conservation is done:
The modern approach - we knock nearly everything down then we start to feel nostalgic for what we've lost and we pour huge amounts of money into maintaining impractical buildings.
The historic angle - when there's an economic boom people build the most elegant and sophisticated houses they can afford. Then when the bust comes they go on living in these buildings because they can't afford to build anything new.

Both kinds of conservation have taken place in Lavenham. But what kind of economic boom could have taken place here in sleepy Suffolk? A gold-rush? Growing narcotics? No, growing wool. Back in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries wool made this the fourteenth richest town in England. It paid more taxes to the government than the much bigger cities of York and Lincoln. Local merchants made vast fortunes.

And the first thing they did with the money was to build grand houses in the tradition of the day. First they built a sturdy oak frame and then the spaces between the massive timbers were filled in with wattle and daub, a framework of wooden laths in-filled with clay. If you ever go inside one of these buildings and examine the amount of timber they used for the beams you'd think they might as well have made a completely wooden house!

In many of the buildings the upper storeys are "jettied", that is they stick out above the lower floor. All very much the height of sophistication at the time. Then Flemish refugees settled in Colchester in the neighbouring county of Essex; they were willing to work for less money and undercut the Lavenham producers. Along with the availability of cheap imports this led the market to collapse. Building of such fine houses ceased and no one in Lavenham ever had that kind of money again, so they just went on living in and repairing the old buildings.

 There seems to be a rule in Lavenham that no two buildings should be the same colour.

Perhaps the finest building, certainly the most photographed, is "The Guildhall". There were two kinds of guilds in Medieval Britain; the craft guilds which were associations of tradesmen, and the religious guilds which were a combination of fund-raising committee, insurance company, the welfare state and an amateur dramatics club. They did much good work on behalf of the whole community. Strangely this Guildhall is not built near the church, as was usual for religious guilds, but right next to the market place.

As befits such an important building there are beautifully carved windows and doors. The Guildhall now houses a museum, but more of that another time.

Nearby stands Little Hall which is also usually  open to the public, but not today.

At every turn yet more beautiful old buildings simply begged to be photographed! Many had interesting old doors or windows. Regular readers will have guessed that I spent a lot of time entranced by the windows! And, yes, you'll probably get to see some of them in the fullness of time!

There's only one thing to do when motorists insist on parking in front of the building you want to photograph - use the well-polished roof to provide an interesting reflection!

This fine old building has had the wattle and daub replaced with fancy brickwork. Brick noggin is what they call this kind of infilling. I think it's wonderful!

Now I've been so busy taking these photographs for you that, despite passing the pub, I haven't had a drink all morning. But that building on the right makes me feel distinctly tipsy! I think I'd better steer clear of alcohol and get a nice cup of tea; which, as chance would have it, can be had in that rather wonky looking building. I bet it's a bit weird inside too.....

.......thought so.

Take care.


  1. I do like the architecture and really enjoyed learning about why these buildings have survived through. How creative the reflection in the well-polished car.

  2. Lovely visit to Lavingham. Good thing the tea house is well buttressed on each side. Great history lesson, John - a long time for the countryside to go without a wool boom, but times change, and even here in Canada selling wool calls for a lot of innovation.

  3. I love that little tipsy building. How wonderful that you could visit this village when it was not over run by tourists. It is so unique and whimsical that it looks like it would be from a movie set. You must be having a wonderful time, thank you for sharing this adventure.
    Have a marvelous day,
    Your blogging sister, Connie :)

  4. A very interesting post John. I really like that third photo.

  5. I absolutely love Lavenham! The church is fantastic too but maybe you have that in store for another time. I'm in Suffolk at the moment but not for long enough to get to Lavenham, your photos are a great substitute though.

  6. You have outdone yourself with this post, John. Wonderful! I have heard of Lavenham but never visited it. It is remarkable that there are so many well-preserved historic buildings. It is hard to understand that that tilted building was originally built and even harder to understand that in all the subsequent time someone has not had the urge to straighten it.

  7. Incredible captures, all! It's like a great blog-post version of some terrific documentaries I've seen on British history and its architecture. I love that second to last crooked one.

  8. Beautiful visit to Lavenham. I love that brick noggin building - colours and texture.

  9. The last building does look as if it is leaning on the other one for a bit of support! I've only visited once and remember going into the Guildhall - I think it was the Tourist Information Office then. Your photos are wonderful as always and I've had a great time looking at them all:)

  10. Thank goodness the titled building has neighbors to hold it up! Think it was once a pub, and is now on the wagon and serving tea instead? Adding another place to visit when I come back. This town looks like broonies and fairies and boggarts could be running amuk in the gloaming.

  11. Wonderful, as always, John. I seem to learn much from your "travels". Keep the stories coming!

  12. Thanks to everybody who has taken the time to comment; I always enjoy receiving them.
    Connie: Yes, it's been used for movies in the past. I believe one of the Harry Potter films has some scenes filmed here.
    John and Sinbad: You'll notice that one of the houses in the picture you like is for sale. You'll fit in just fine.
    Rowan: Church coming up soon!
    Jack: Well, I have the urge to straighten that building every time I see it but so far I've resisted the temptation.
    Sue: Yes, come back soon.
    Liz: You come too.

  13. What an interesting place and so many great buildings - another enjoyable and informative post :)

  14. Definitely a town to smile about. I think there is a nursery rhyme about a crooked man who had a crooked house - must be from Lavenham. Now, my question is: Did they build those houses crooked or did they simply shift over time? You wouldn't think that solid oak would twist. Maybe they were in a hurry to build, or maybe they had been using their extra money for wine and ended up building tipsy houses. I think living in Lavenham, and being used to lopsided buildings, would help one to withstand
    the cockeyed world we live in. The brightly coloured paint reminds me of Newfoundland.

    1. You're not the first person to wonder whether the rhyme is about Lavenham but I don't know how true it might be. Incidentally the lady who wrote "Twinkle, twinkle little star" lived in Lavenham.

  15. What a wealth of half timbered buildings. I especially like the bricked one - you don't see that very often. My camera has had plenty of excercise first and last on half timbered houses. The more higglety pigglety it gets the more photos get taken.


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