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The Swan Hotel in Lavenham combines three 15th-century houses in a historic British inn.
The Swan Hotel in Lavenham combines three 15th-century houses in a historic British inn. (Diane Foulds For The Boston Globe Photo)

Village works to preserve colorful, medieval England

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / June 24, 2007

LAVENHAM, England -- Until the Great Fire of 1666 , London was a jumble of Tudor houses. Quirkily asymmetrical, their sagging oaken beams braced top-heavy upper stories. Some protruded so far over cobbled lanes that neighbors in houses opposite could swap sweetmeats from second-story windows. The brick and stone that replaced them was gloriously fire proof, but sorely lacking in atmosphere.

So to blunder into Lavenham, England's finest medieval village, is to realize how devastating a loss it was. Though less huddled than the London of old, the village's preservation takes you back to the Middle Ages. Rows of timber-framed houses tilt and slump . Those painted Pepto-Bismol pink are kept that color, as early inhabitants added iron-rich ox blood to the lime for durability.

Many have retained the diagonal beams typical of the 14th century. Indeed, most of the village dates from 1500 . Yet for all its storybook appeal, Lavenham (pronounced LAH-vun-um) manages to be a normal, functioning town. Bookshelves and flower arrangements peek from flowery curtains. Locals stand about chatting or walk their dogs. On High Street, the main thoroughfare, a pharmacy and green grocer ply their wares between gift shops, while the aroma of baking scones wafts from the Tickle Manor tea room.

Footpaths wind through flower gardens and wisteria, with pastoral views in every direction. There is plenty to see, starting with the magnificent Little Hall, a 15th-century house museum on the central Market Place. They have left the period furnishings so you get a sense of what life was like . The rambling Guildhall of Corpus Christi dominates the central square, a 1529 feasting hall with massive oak beams and planks set higgledy-piggledy in the floor.

"They used far more oak timbers than were needed," says Derek Wolsten-Croft, who greets visitors at the entrance. "This was made just to say, 'We're rich .' "

And Lavenham was. The exhibit upstairs charts its ascent to the pinnacle of Suffolk's wool trade. At its peak in 1524, at least 33 enterprises were churning out blue serge -- a heavy broadcloth dyed "in the wool" rather than after weaving -- a prime export.

As if humbled by such bounty, the town, which is about 60 miles northeast of London, erected a stone cathedral. The Parish Church of St. Peter and St. Paul stands on a hill at the south end of town, its squat gray tower the only straight line in the landscape. Until it was completed, the guildhall was the place to worship, and superstition was entrenched.

People etched daisy wheels into the lintels of their hearths, believing they would repel evil spirits flying down the chimney. The pointy leather house slippers framed under glass in Lavenham's sumptuous Swan Hotel were discovered in the chimney; stashed slippers, along with cat carcasses, were thought to bring luck.

It must have worked, as Lavenham prospered for a century and a half. It wasn't until the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) that its luck ran out. The Dutch had devised a lighter-weight fabric that took off on international markets . But in one of those odd reversals of fortune, its indigence became its wealth. Too cash-strapped to remodel, homeowners left their houses unchanged. By the end of World War II, the community's antiquity was drawing visitors.

It still does. Some 300 houses are protected by Britain's Landmark Trust . A mid sized home fetches about $1 million, and because of the historic listing, can be restored, but not altered. Few of the locals seem put out. At The Angel, a cozy, low-ceilinged lunch spot on the central square, they tuck into such delights as cream of broccoli and Stilton soup, and steak and ale pie . The mood is friendly, even jovial. Utter perfection, in fact, as if it were 1524.

Diane Foulds, a freelance writer in Burlington, Vt., can be reached at dianefoulds@burlingtontelecom.net.

If You Go

What to do

lavenham.co.uk
Church of St. Peter and St. Paul
A 15-minute walk from the town center. A classic stone cathedral finished about 1523, filled with the coats-of-arms of medieval families. Open daily.

Guildhall of Corpus Christi
In the town center, a National Trust museum housed in a cloth-makers' guild dating from 1520. Tea room and gift shop. Open daily 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. May-October; Wednesday-Sunday in April; weekends 11-4 in March, November. Admission $4.

Little Hall
In the town center, a perfectly preserved 15th-century home, and the headquarters of the Suffolk Preservation Society. Open Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday April-October and by appointment. Nominal fee.

Where to stay

Swan Hotel
High Street
011-44-870-400-8116
theswanatlavenham.co.uk
An elegant gem with tapestried furnishings, low ceilings, and two restaurants. Rooms $120-$540.

Lavenham Priory
Water Street
011-44-178-724-7404
lavenhampriory.co.uk
A 13th-century mansion with luxurious Tudor furnishings. Rooms $196-$256 include multicourse breakfast.

Where to eat

Angel Hotel and Restaurant
011-44-178-724-7388
theangelhotel-lavenham.co.uk
Small, homey dining room in a Tudor-era house in the town center. Daily 11-11, Sundays noon-10:30. Entrees $20-$39.

The Great House Restaurant and Hotel
On the Market Place
011-44-178-724-7431
greathouse.co.uk
Acclaimed French cuisine in a manor adjacent to the town center. Closed Sunday night and Monday. Entrees $30-$52.

Tickle Manor
17 High St.
011-44-178-724-8438
Tea house with scones and light snacks on two floors of a crooked, half-timbered house. Daily 10:30-5.

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