What can you discover at Laxfield Museum?
PUBLISHED: 12:59 14 August 2018 | UPDATED: 12:59 14 August 2018
Laxfield's family-friendly, much-loved Mid-Suffolk guildhall is packed with village treasures and colourful characters | Words & Photos: Lindsay Want
Fancy time-out with buckets, spades, jetties and fishy stuff of a different kind? Then whisk the family away to put a toe in Suffolk’s backwaters.
For whether you dip into Laxfield as you dive cross-country from Framlingham Castle to the coast, or come to a halt there after letting off steam at the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway, you’re sure to spot an impressive medieval pile that turns out to be a springboard into another world.
Anchored to some tiny white cottages opposite the stone-clad church tower, Laxfield’s historic guildhall is like some mighty vessel tethered on a slip way, straining on its ropes and seemingly ready to drift off downhill towards Low Street any minute.
So how come this rather slippery fish has survived for centuries, complete with its protruding first floor ‘jetty’ (think alternative medieval guttering) and exquisite herringbone brick ‘nogging’? To catch all the answers and piece together the past, just stop and pop inside. Laxfield’s fascinating little free and family-friendly museum will soon have you hooked.
‘Museum upstairs‘ declares a notice pinned to an ancient beam at the back of the ground floor parish council meeting room, currently decorated with reverent memories of local Great War heroes. “Do take care coming up,” calls a kindly voice from on high, as a first distinctive creak from the steep spiral staircase announces the imminent arrival.
The time-tunnel ascent is all dark wood and deep steps. At the top, somewhat unexpectedly, daylight floods into big rooms through 20th century windows.
Where to look first? Ron Fuller’s whimsical automaton entitled ‘Laxfield Singing Class 1948’, or his eye-catching Mr Pratt the Sausage-maker, perhaps? The toy shop window across the room that’s home to magic lantern slides and marbles, spinning tops and tea sets?
Or what about the ‘General Store’, busy with cottons and cocoa powder, lotions, potions, even thimbles and mouth organs? There’s a harmonium and everything including clocks, crocks and candle-snuffers to gaze upon in the Victorian parlour.
Rows of milk bottles and a wash-day mangle sit alongside the old privy shed, itself a rare village treasure transported lock, pot and family-friendly double-seater from the garden of Mill House up the road.
Making very full use of another corner, the odd job man’s workshop has shelves dangling with rusty keys, cans and measures, every item stored and saved as ramshackle real life would have it, for that rainy day or can-you-just job.
And by the pond scuppit and long-handled flasher (a dastardly gadget for thinning out hedges), the turnip hook, cart plates, curry combs and horse harnesses, old Suffolk boys look on – a shepherd, a farrier, a lunching labourer with wicker-basket and stone flagon, their moment captured, their precious photos shared by loving local relatives, proud of their rural roots.
“Back in the late sixties, a parish councillor invited people to bring along village bygones and old photos for an exhibition,” explains curator Elaine Nason, herself involved with the museum for over 40 years. “It was an idea to get people to the AGM really.”
The cunning plan worked. The exhibition-cum-meeting attracted 70 locals and, over an additional couple of days, 600 came to view the displays. “When they went to return the artefacts, lots of people didn’t want them back. That was how it all started, and we still accept donated items today.”
The vast reserve collection lives alongside the rare queen posts in the guildhall attic, but the ten-strong museum committee is forever enterprising under the mentoring hand of Museum of East Anglian Life’s Lisa Harris, and creates new annual displays in the Marchant Room.
In this year’s royally inspired exhibition, you’ll even find Elaine’s own wonderful ‘Mum-made’ wedding dress, alongside stylish examples from the 1920s and fashionable ‘70s nylon creations.
It all fits naturally with the other bustling bygone village memories close to hand, tales of Victorian tradesfolk like Anna Ball, the ‘gloveress’, the straw-bonnet makers and drapers, the cobblers who just might have mended those shoes found under farmstead floorboards in Monk Soham or stuffed up Ubbeston chimneys for good luck.
Over the years, Laxfield had a thriving community of makers and merchants even though its market days came and went. One 17th century wholesaler even ran his business from within the guildhall itself.
Laxfield guildhall has a distinctly chequered history. Locals who founded a religious guild in 1452 to care for their spirits, educate their children and secure a social space, were eventually granted land and by 1515/1520 had raised enough money to pop up the timber-framed building.
Their hall was at the heart of the community from day one. Over the centuries, it was a place for medieval get-togethers, a school room from 1597, tenements for the needy in the 1800s and, in living memory, the school kitchen and dining hall (just ask committee member Colin about the school dinners), a working men’s club, bank, doctors and parish council offices.
Oh, and a welcoming museum that’s home to Winston Churchill’s head – the maquette for the Parliament Square statue courtesy of local sculptor Ivor Roberts-Jones – tales of heroes, martyrs and artists, and amusements from solitaire to shove ha-penny.
“We’re also at the centre of the monthly community market, organised by my wife, Catherine,“ shares steward Rob Capp. The market is one of the friendliest around with about 40 stalls, selling everything from plants to pork sausages. “We open up the museum during market times, “ adds Barry.
“Families enjoy coming in for a whole string of reasons, including our new puzzles and games.”
Who knows, maybe a few who happen upon Victorian tales of Laxfield produce seller James Fisk and his ‘sausage-maker’ wife, Mary, will make the connection and marvel at such a traditionally caring community that so loves sharing its past.
Famous Laxfield folk
Alfred Munnings, Sheila Fisher, Mildred Holland, David Gentleman, sculptor Ivor Roberts-Jones – Laxfield’s museum honours the area’s artistic connections. Don’t miss the tribute exhibition to Laxfield model-maker, Ron Fuller.
Magna Carta baron William de Huntingfield also puts in an appearance alongside falconer to Edward the Confessor, Edric of Laxfield. Australian first fleeter Henry Keable, shoe-maker martyr John Noyes and that dubious defacer of churches, William Dowsing.
See it for yourself
With 1,000 visitors a year including special group tours, Laxfield’s free museum is always looking for helping hands. “From digitising old photographs to dusting and DIY, there’s always lots to do,” says committee member Lynne Ward.
T: 01986 798531/798295
Laxfield & District Museum, The Street, Laxfield IP13 8DU
The musuem is open until Sept 30, Sat, Sun & Bank Holiday Mon 2pm-5pm, first Sat of month mornings (market days). Group tours by appointment.
Free entry (donations welcome)
Access: The museum is upstairs in an ancient building. By appointment arrangements can be made for visitors with limited mobility to view some artefacts, photos and documents downstairs (steps into building). Family activities located at child-friendly heights.