History of Suffolk Architecture

Elvedon Hall in Suffolk

Timber-frame and flint, pargetting and thatched roofs, moats and chimney stacks: the vernacular architecture of the county of Suffolk is a heady mix of colour and character.

By Jenny Woolf.

Scattered around the flinty-grey churches of Suffolk, you will sometimes see groups of brightly-coloured cottages, for all the world like flowers growing about the stumps of dark oaks. This contrast is typical of Suffolk, for this Eastern county has no quarries or brickworks, and its people have always collected bits and pieces with which to create their buildings. As a result, many Suffolk buildings are glorious jumble of flints from the beaches, rushes from the marshland, and clay and timber from the farms.

Elvedon Hall in Suffolk
Elvedon Hall in Suffolk

That is not to say that Suffolk lacks grand homes. There is Elveden Hall, where Angelina Jolie filmed part of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, not to mention Framlingham Castle and Ickworth House. Yet somehow it is often the humbler homes that engage the emotions and delight the eye.

Just inside Suffolk’s southern border, Long Melford’s rambling village street is lined higgledy-piggledy with five centuries’ worth of typical vernacular houses. Some are plastered, some are timbered, and some boast the enormously tall chimney-stacks that betray their Tudor origin.

Five hundred years ago, those quaint buildings represented the last word in homes and warehouses for hard-nosed modern businessmen, for medieval Long Melford was a thrusting, busy place. Like many other Suffolk towns – notably beautiful Lavenham – it was built with money from the cloth trade, and it did very well indeed. In Lavenham, the beautiful timber-frame Guildhall of the Wool Guild of Corpus Christi still stands in the market place and is now under the care of the National Trust, with a museum and exhibitions on the medieval cloth industry.

There were around 30 weaving businesses in Melford, plus associated craftsmen like dyers who made pigments from the plants they gathered in the surrounding countryside. Yellows and greens came from nettles and cow-parsley, reds from ladies-bedstraw, and mauves from damsons and sloes.

Indeed, it was probably the dyers of Suffolk who first stumbled upon the idea of Suffolk Pink – an exquisite example being the pink cottages by St Mary’s Church in the village of Cavendish. The Suffolk Pink concept has now become so popular that a new variety of apple (discovered in Suffolk, of course) has been named for it.

Traditionally, though, it is a style of decoration: some have diamond-paned windows and oversailing upper storeys. Others are medieval moated halls, or cottages with low doors and steep thatched roofs. What they all share is their colour – pink. Shell-pink, rose-pink, geranium, even raspberry.

Centuries ago, these pink shades were created by adding natural substances to traditional lime whitewash. The cottager might perhaps stir in some elderberries – small black globes that release an amazing carmine red – or dried blood, or crumbled red earth.

Long Melford’s wealthy burghers also built the longest church in Suffolk – the amazing Holy Trinity. The size of a cathedral, it is as splendid inside as out. It contains, among other treasures, Suffolk’s largest collection of medieval glass.

Most of this glass commemorated the Clopton family, who lived in the village’s Kentwell Hall. A large brick mansion, Kentwell is essentially Tudor, with a Gothic centre block. Its latest owners insist that it is no stately home, just a family dwelling – albeit a very unusual one.

Kentwell has moats as well, and so do many smaller old Suffolk houses. By the 1500s, moats had become popular ornamental features and although many of Suffolk’s smaller moated houses are not open regularly to the public, although many offer private tours by arrangement. However, some have exquisite gardens which they do open during the summer months, such as those at Helmingham Hall, for example, home of the Tollemache family for 500 years. Here, there are two drawbridges which are pulled up every night as they have been since 1510, and the hall reverts to being an island, protected by its wide moat.

The historical gardens at moated Otley Hall, just north of Ipswich, are open by arrangement, and they include such curiosities as a croquet lawn and a nuttery. The gardens of nearby Heveningham Hall are also often open, and they contain many secret bridges and tunnels, as well as an elaborate parterre.

Parterres, popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, capture the curlicued decorative style of this period perfectly. They are hard to create, hard to maintain, and you cannot use them for much; so they made a perfect status symbol.

So, too, did the pargeting which became popular in Suffolk and adorned the walls of so many Suffolk houses. First seen around Henry VIII’s time, this elaborate custom-made plaster decoration has undergone something of a revival in recent years, although few modern displays can equal the best of the old ones.

In fact, gorgeous though pargeting looks, expert Tim Buxbaum believes that the craft developed partly as a way of covering up second-rate timbering or untidy new extensions on the outside of houses. “Coating the structure with a decorative coat of plaster was a good way to give an old building a new lease of life,” he says.

Buxbaum, who runs a conservationist architectural practice in Lower Ufford, draws special attention to the Ancient House in Ipswich, one of the finest surviving examples of pargeting in the country.

Commissioned in the 1600s by Robert Sparrowe, a widely travelled spice merchant, the house carries representations of Neptune with a trident, riding a sea-horse, St George and the Dragon, and Atlas carrying the world upon his shoulders – and that is just a fraction of its ebullient imagery.

Suffolk’s churches offer an exterior contrast to its ornate or colourful houses. One of the most famous Suffolk churches is Holy Trinity, Blythburgh, near the coast. It is full of light yet also shimmers with mystery. Inside, its wooden roof is covered in carved angels. Not far away, at Huntingfield, the rector’s wife, Mildred Holland, hitched up her skirts, climbed onto scaffolding and lay flat on her back for eight months in the 1860s to paint a stunning, Pugin-esque masterpiece of Victorian Gothic angels all over the ceiling.

In contrast, the parish church of St Peter and St Paul of Lavenham is typical of the wool churches of the county – completed by 1530. After visiting the church, stroll down the hill into the town, which has nearly 350 listed buildings. It’s regarded as one of the finest surviving medieval towns in England. Some parts of the town must still look much as they did when Elizabeth I made a grand state visit in 1578.

Indeed, when Robert Louis Stevenson visited Lavenham in 1873, he thought it looked, even then, like “what ought to be in a novel.” Now, of course, he would be imagining Angelina Jolie in a movie. Which all goes to show that times may change, but Suffolk does not.

Editor’s choice

  • Invitation to Viewallows small groups of visitors a great chance to see private historic houses which are not otherwise open. To book, tel: (01284) 827087.
  • Constable and Gainsborough came from Suffolk and drew inspiration from the landscapes. Admire Constable’s unspoiled Flatford Mill near East Bergholt, with the Hay Wain’s famous Willie Lott’s Cottage. Visit the nearby National Trust museum and Gainsborough’s House museum in Sudbury which has a huge collection of the painter’s works.
  • The Great House (5-star), Lavenham: 15th-century restaurant with rooms on Lavenham’s Market Place, across from the Guildhall. Tel: (01787) 247431.
  • The Suffolk Punch Trust in Hollesley: visitor centre and museum for these working horses with the longest written pedigree in the world. Tel: (01473) 612639.
  • Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds: beautifully restored Georgian theatre, one of the earliest theatres in the country. Tel: (01284) 755127.
  • The Swan at Lavenham (4-star), The Old Bar has a collection of memorabilia from American airmen stationed at Lavenham Airfield during World War II. Tel: (01787) 247477.
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