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Ethereally medieval

17 April 2014

By Sue Dobson

One of England's finest and best-preserved medieval towns, Lavenham lies in the heart of rural south-west Suffolk.

Half-timbered houses lean in crooked formation over streets that have changed little since the 15th century, when Lavenham was a prosperous wool town, known for its blue broadcloth that was exported across Europe and beyond. Today its fame lies in its wealth of medieval and Tudor architecture - it has more than 300 listed buildings.

What to see
The lime-washed Guildhall of Corpus Christi gives an ethereal air to the Market Place. Built in about 1530, this spectacular timber-framed building has had a chequered existence since the Guild was dissolved during the Reformation, but is now in the care of the National Trust, and hosts a little museum that explores the town's history. Its tea room sits behind the best-preserved Tudor shop-front in Lavenham.

A few steps away, Little Hall is a fine example of a medieval hall house built for clothiers, modernised in Tudor times and rescued in the 1920s by the antiques and art-collecting Gayer-Anderson brothers.

In a rich pageant of heritage colours, higgledy houses with a history line the narrow streets sloping down from the triangular Market Place. Dating mainly from the 15th and 16th centuries, they range from the grand houses of rich clothiers to the modest cottages of the craftsmen weavers. Pick up a walking-tour pamphlet from the helpful Tourist Information Centre just off the Market Place in Lady Street. On the High Street, an antiques and collectables centre, art and craft galleries, and boutiques vie for attention with cosy cafés, pubs, and the black-and-white-timbered Swan Hotel

One of the finest parish churches in England, the late perpendicular St Peter and St Paul was the subject of much rebuilding between 1485 and 1525; but the elaborate central screen, the font, and the chancel, with its pinnacle stair-turret, all date from the 14th century. The sheer size of the church is a reminder that, in Tudor times, Lavenham was richer even than Lincoln and York.

Where to eat and drink
Two temples to fine dining face each other on the Market Place: Marco Pierre White's Angel Hotel, and the Great House. On the High Street, the friendly Chilli and Chives café serves good soups and tasty sandwiches, and the historic Swan Hotel delivers oak beams, open fires, and traditional afternoon tea.

Near by
Visit Long Melford for its mile-long main street lined with typical Suffolk architecture, antiques emporia, two Tudor manor houses (Kentwell Hall and Melford Hall), and the spectacular Holy Trinity, arguably East Anglia's finest "wool church". Gainsborough's House, his birthplace, is a fine museum and gallery in Sudbury, a town on the edge of Constable Country with lovely walks amid the water meadows.

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