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.....