Travel back in time with a visit to Suffolk’s pretty-as-a-picture wool towns, thriving centres of the woven cloth trade in the Middle Ages
Words: Monica Woods
Spend a long weekend in a certain patch of southern Suffolk, nestled along the River Stour and its tributaries, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you had slipped back in time. The five towns of Sudbury, Lavenham, Long Melford, Clare and Hadleigh seem to encapsulate an England of yesteryear, with their market squares, winding streets lined with crooked timber-framed houses and often disproportionately grand churches.
These ‘wool towns’ owe their architectural appeal to the boom and bust they experienced as centres of the medieval wool trade. In the 15th century, these quiet villages became hubs of feverish industry, with much of the work to produce woollen cloth taking place within local people’s homes. As the region flourished, impressive houses, guildhalls and churches sprang up – and almost all remain standing, a consequence of the sharp decline that followed the boom.
The bustling market town of Sudbury is a natural gateway to the area, with its proximity to Colchester and fast rail connections to London. It lies roughly at the midpoint of the five wool towns, prettily located on the River Stour. Location and transport links were key to Sudbury’s success; the wealth that the wool trade generated is clear to see in the imposing St Peter’s Church and handsome timber-framed merchants’ houses along Stour Street.
Textile manufacture is still thriving in Sudbury today – in fact, the town is known as England’s Silk Capital. When demand for woollen cloth started to dwindle in the 16th century, enterprising Sudbury weavers found a new outlet for their expertise, turning first to lighter fabrics such as cotton and crepe. Silk weaving followed, as the industry first established by French Huguenots arriving in east London in the 17th century moved out to East Anglia.
Wandering around the town, look out for terraces of three-storey silk weavers’ cottages. Large windows on the first floor were designed to admit as much light as possible onto this workroom space, where silk thread was hand-wound and looms operated. Today, there are five companies continuing this long tradition, including Stephen Waters & Sons, which made silk for the wedding dresses of both Princess Diana and Princess Anne.
Sudbury’s most famous son, Thomas Gainsborough (whose father was a weaver), found inspiration for his acclaimed landscape paintings in the surrounding acclaimed landscape paintings in the surrounding countryside. The tranquil, ancient water meadows
on three sides of the town also crop up in Constable’s paintings. The artist’s bronze likeness, palette in hand, continues to survey the town from Market Hill, just outside St Peter’s Church.
Incidentally, author Dodie Smith lived just outside Sudbury and featured St Peter’s in 101 Dalmatians (1956). The dalmation duo, Pongo and Missis, head to Suffolk from London to track down their missing puppies and stop en route for a drink at the church fountain.
A short drive or bus ride northwest takes you to the almost absurdly charming, quintessential Suffolk wool town of Lavenham. With Grade I- and II-listed, and listing, buildings at almost every turn – half-timbered and painted in a cheering range of ochres, pinks and greys – this is one of the country’s best-preserved medieval villages.