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.
Of course, Lavenham owes its time-warp charm to its changing fortunes. The town prospered thanks to the trade of its woollen cloth, Lavenham ‘Blew’. Using woad imported from Toulouse, raw wool was dyed prior to spinning (hence the phrase ‘dyed in the wool’). The spun yarn was then woven into broadcloth whose deep blue and high quality proved extremely popular, with the fabric exported as far afield as Russia.
By 1524, Lavenham was the 14th richest town in the country, paying more tax than cities like Lincoln or York. Wool merchants built themselves fine houses and helped fund the construction of the Guildhall of Corpus Christi and the Church of St Peter and St Paul, with its soaring 141-foot tower.
From these dizzy heights, though, Lavenham’s fortunes plummeted as tastes changed, exports were affected by military campaigns and cheaper European cloth-making techniques gained ground. During the 200 years of poverty that followed, many of the wealthy clothiers’ grand houses were divided up to accommodate multiple families. Thankfully, their exteriors were left untouched. Look out for motifs in the plasterwork, first-floor ‘jetties’ jutting out over the ground floor, and wicket gates, in addition to an often-comical wonkiness – caused by the green oak timber frames warping over time.
And so it is that on a fascinating guided walk around Lavenham today, you can admire the Swan Hotel (a former coaching inn, guildhall and wool hall), Molet House, once visited by Elizabeth I, De Vere House (which stood in for the boy wizard’s birthplace in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), the tiny market keeper’s cottage, and any number of picturesque dwellings behind whose carved wooden doors at least half of the population once busied themselves with cloth-making.
While in the village, you can visit the beautiful 5-acre private garden of Lavenham Hall (by appointment only), now the home and studios of sculptor Kate Denton, whose works can be found dotted around the garden and in her gallery.
Walking from Lavenham to Long Melford, much of the way sheltered along an old railway cutting, gives you the chance to fully appreciate the beautiful Suffolk countryside. With the crunch of windfalls underfoot, hedgerows dotted with bright red haws and rose hips
and tangles of old man’s beard, it’s easy to see what so entranced Gainsborough and Constable.
Long Melford is less clustered than Lavenham, with its similarly pretty houses, pubs and many galleries arranged in a long sweep taking in an outstanding church and the National Trust’s Melford Hall. At the northerly tip, don’t miss the Tudor manor of Kentwell Hall, set back from the main street by a stately drive lined with ancient lime trees.
The original owners, the wealthy Clopton family, channelled their profits from the wool trade into rebuilding Long Melford’s Holy Trinity Church, with its stunning collection of medieval stained glass, before turning attention to their own abode. The result was a splendid red-brick turreted manor house, with a full moat and moat house.
Fast forward around 400 years and the current owners, Patrick and Judith Phillips, bought Kentwell in an uninhabitable state. While the house remains closed to visitors for now, the couple’s remarkable restoration efforts are more than evident in the magical gardens. There is plenty to see, including playful topiary, a yew castle and, in the potager, gnarled apple and pear trees with evocative names, such as Orleans Reinette, Lemon Pippin and Norfolk Beefing. Plus, the moat teems with carp, the dovecote is a-flutter, a lone peacock stalks and there’s a traditional working farm.
Heading a short distance west from Long Melford brings you to the thatched cottages and picture-perfect village green of Cavendish and then on to Clare, Suffolk’s smallest town. Here, the legacy of the wool trade is clear in the attractive medieval centre, including the Gothic church and Clare Ancient House Museum, with its ornate pargeting. The museum considers the town’s long history, both before and after the booming wool trade period.
In the other direction lies the fifth and final wool town, the larger hub of Hadleigh. Some medieval timber houses were refronted in Victorian times but the town is still proudly positioned around three Grade I-listed buildings that hail from the wool trade era: the turreted Deanery Tower, Guildhall and St Mary’s Church.