Suffolk's Wool Trail
PUBLISHED: 11:14 26 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:16 20 February 2013
The textiles industry survives in Suffolk but at Lavenham, and other 'wool villages', tourism is now the big earner. Sam Rosebery finds that the past still echoes down the centuries in Kersey, Lavenham and Long Melford
A sense of place...
ON THE WOOL TRAIL
Anyone might hope to see at least a few woolly jumpers gambolling about the fields. After all, this small corner of the world was once a centre of huge wealth generated by the woollen cloth industry that in medieval times made East Anglia a byword for quality.
Yet travelling between the villages, you soon become aware how eerily empty is our countryside of livestock.
To be fair, I did see a cat in Kersey and spotted a camel hair coat in Lavenham, while near Long Melford theres a herd of the cutest alpacas you could ever hope to find.
Its hard to imagine that Suffolk, today one of the most sparsely populated counties in England, was in medieval times among the most densely populated.
By the late 12th century, English wool was much in demand all over Europe and Suffolk was well-placed to take advantage of this trade, with its Roman roads to London and navigable rivers to ports at Dunwich, Woodbridge, Ipswich and Manningtree.
However, it was during Tudor times that the English clothmaking industry rose to prominence and here the county in particular excelled.
The burgeoning trade brought new wealth to the towns and villages, the merchants built fine homes for themselves, as well as guildhalls from whence to control their expanding empires.
In time, usually when the Grim Reapers shadow crossed their path, the richest among them bought their tickets to the afterlife by building the wool churches, those vast and elaborately decorated buildings that today attract visitors from all over the world.
By the way, the wool from Suffolk sheep was too short and curly for the heavy broadcloth for which East Anglia became renowned and so the necessary long staple fleece was imported from Lincolnshire, the Midlands and Norfolk.
However, towards the end of the 16th century, Suffolks cloth trade went into decline, as the fashion shifted to lighterweight stuff that could be produced in the county and taxation to pay for Henry VIIIs wars on the Continent began to bite.
Towns and villages like Sudbury and Long Melford had other industries, silk weaving, brick making and malting, to fall back on. But places like Kersey and Lavenham, which had little else to offer, simply atrophied.
For us this is good news of course, as without the cash to pull down, alter or modernise, the old buildings survived the intervening centuries more-or-less in their original state.
But enough of the history lesson.
To Kersey, and I challenge anyone to find a more picturesque Suffolk view than that to be had from the churchyard, looking down the steps to the village street, which drops away to the famous water splash, or ford, at the bottom, before climbing up the hill on the far side of the valley. The scene is a jumble of timber-framed houses and steeply-pitched roofs, today colourwashed by gentle spring sunshine.
The tower of St Marys dominates the skyline and while it never quite made the grade as a grand wool church, it is nevertheless a beautiful and fascinating building the nave and side aisle like two churches welded together by an arcade of ancient arches.
There are numerous medieval wall paintings and intriguing arched seats for the priests, set into the wall and with peepholes between for whispered conversationsPssst! Whos the old woman in the silly hat?The Bishop.
The High Street is stacked with ancient timber-framed buildings in great nick and painted all the country creams through to taupe, pink and pumpkin. Only Ye Old River House of 1490, beside the water splash and one of the villages most important buildings, looks a tad sad.
Yet its amazing how quickly memories fade. Kersey was once famously the home of thriller writer Hammond Innes, who died in 1998. Unsure of which was his house, I ask a thirty-something mum walking her children to the tiny school opposite the church.
Is that Di Sitandcatchits ex?
The drive to Lavenham, via the villages of Lindsey and Monks Eleigh, is stunning at any time of year, but especially in spring. And no one could be left in any doubt of what is occupying the minds of local residents at the moment, or the strength of their feelings.
The approaches to Lindsey are lined with placards shouting, NO MORE PYLONS SAVE OUR COUNTRYSIDE. There are posters in house and car windows, banners draped over hedges and flags spelling out the message.
Lavenham offers free parking, behind the Cock Inn, which conveniently stands opposite the villages great 15th and 16th century church of St Peter & St Paul, among the finest of the wool churches, the massive tower of which can be seen for miles around.
In the churchyard, someone has gone mad with tightly clipped, six-foot box pouffes, about 70 of them line the pathways and with a few extras dotted about just in case.
The interior is a rich testament, as intended, to the wealth of the villages wool merchants and there is much to marvel at, including a series of carved figures on the roof beams that lost their heads to the Puritan onslaught and five 15th century misericords. These are fold-up seats, decorated with some pretty unholy-looking half-humans/half-beasts and which allowed the users to rest their bums as the service dragged on and on.
In medieval times, Lavenham was among the 20 wealthiest settlements in the country and its compact streets are lined with ancient timbered cottages and houses as well as shops, pubs, cafes and restaurants. You could spend a whole day here and, of course, crowds of tourists do just that.
Perhaps the historic essence of the village, however, can be found in the market square, overlooked by some fine buildings, especially The Guildhall, built in the early 17th century as an HQ for the wool guild of Corpus Christi.
Today, the hall is managed by the National Trust and includes a museum not to be missed that tells the story of Lavenhams wool trade.
On to Long Melford, with its three-mile High Street, said to be the longest of its kind in the country. At the northern end is a large triangular green, beside which stands Melford Hall and beyond Kentwell Hall, both mellow red brick mansions originally built on the wealth of the wool trade.
At the top of the green, behind the Hospital of the Holy & Blessed Trinity, built as almshouses in 1575 and serving that purpose to this day, is the magnificent, cathedral-like Church of the Holy Trinity, one of the finest of all the wool churches.
Here the pathway is guarded by just 25 clipped yew sentinels, for some reason shaped like Smurfs hats, the tops flopping drunkenly to one side. But the building itself, both inside and out, is an ancient architectural symphony, with much of the original medieval glass incorporated into later windows and, at the east end, a striking stone relief that looks alarmingly life-like.
The church is even bigger than it first appears, because beyond the east end is the three-gabled Lady Chapel, built in 1496 and highly unusual in that it is a completely separate building a sort of enclosed cloister wrapped around a little chapel.
A delightful building, which few enough people might think to visit, it served as a school from 1670 to the early 1800s and set into a wall is an old multiplication table that dates from this period.
The High Street is lined with wonderful old buildings, many of them timber-framed, some with Georgian fronts and with a scattering from the Victorian and later eras, while away at the far end is the massive 18th and 19th century range of malting buildings, now converted to homes, that took over as one of the big wealth generators once the wool industry faded.
Today the village street is a tribute to the resilience of independent traders. For among the private homes and public buildings are any number of food, fashion, hair and beauty and home interior, saddlery and toy shops, art and antiques galleries, tea shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs and you can park right outside the door.
Yet the abiding memory of Long Melford actually comes as a rude shock although at first I mistakenly take it as a sign that the woollen industry has not deserted the village entirely.
Hanging on a rail in the churchs visitor shop, surrounded by the elegance and serenity of this gracious building, is a hand-knitted woollen shopping bag in the most violent imaginable shade of fluorescent orange, brighter than a begonia bloom and with infinitely more impact.
At 3 I am so tempted. However, closer inspection reveals that it is not what I thought the yarn is from a synthetic fleece.
Yet it turns out there are real sheep in the village.
Youve just missed the lambing at Kentwell Hall, a country woman in one of the tea shops tells me.
So where are they now?
Probably on the meat counter.