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Lavenham is a place that is well worth a detour, a special journey. It is a fine place to stroll with your camera. It has some excellent choices for lunch. On some days there is a market in the square. It boasts many lovely independent shops. It is quintessentially, historical England. It is a must see.
Lavenham, despite its popularity, is one of the easier places, and one of the cheapest places, to park your car. Perhaps there is a local bylaw that prevents ugly ticket machines spoiling the view when people are photographing the town. There is always Photoshop I suppose, but long may this state of affairs continue. Today, we are able to park in the town square. There is no market taking place, just a travelling fish van that has gathered a substantial queue.
A bit of background. Lavenham is a marvellous survivor from Medieval times. One of the finest examples in the UK of such architecture. From the atmospheric town square to the surrounding winding streets the amount of preservation is staggering. Most towns in England have lost all their connection with their medieval history but here it is laid out like a theme park, all still in use. Lavenham was prosperous back then because of its buoyant wool and cloth trade. This eventually died away due to intense competition and the town went through a long period of decline, but its architecture remained. The building were divided into smaller units but because no one really was interested in developing the town, its poverty did in fact save it. A visitor from the 15th Century would certainly recognize where he was.
The starting point of any walk around Lavenham will no doubt be in front of the Guildhall in the village square. This spectacular building is now in the care of the National Trust, dominating the town just as it did back in Tudor times. The guildhall has served many purposes over the centuries from its early religious guild associations. Many of its uses, including its role as the town workhouse, could have ended this fine structure. In WW2 it had a variety of roles to play. The area was home to a large American Air Force base and the Guildhall was a focal point in their integration into town life.
Walking anti-clockwise around the town square, with the town cross in the centre of your stroll, you will be attracted to the colourful 14th Century Little Hall. This is now a museum and has a delightful garden attached to it. The colour is extraordinary. Is it orange, sandy maybe? You will have to decide. You certainly won’t be able to miss it. Next to Little Hall, inevitably, is The Great Hall. This is now a boutique Hotel and restaurant. An enticing place for a fine lunch or today just for an envious glance inside.
The square has a number of independent shops displaying their wares and inevitably attracting you inside. As you walk around, by all means enjoy the shops, but do not forget to look up and admire the architecture. The angles will play with your head and may make you dizzy but it is worth the discomfort. Enjoy too, the views down the streets leading away from the square. Some give great views over open, rolling countryside.
Lady Street leads the way out of the square and at the bottom of this architectural gem of a street is the restaurant Number 10. An exceptional lunch made us ready to continue our exploration. Opposite the restaurant is the rear of the Wool Hall, its former use self-explanatory. This is now part of the Swan Hotel. As you round the corner of the structure onto the High Street you get the full experience of the size of what is now the Swan – in your imagination exactly the type of Hostelry that may have survived the centuries. It sets the tone for the entire High Street. This street will take you some time to explore with one extraordinary building after another. Some seem to be defying gravity, but they are still standing after all these centuries. Gift shops, antique shops, cafes, wine bars, art galleries all vie for your attention. It may cost you a little expenditure along here but you will at least go home with or have enjoyed quality. Today it was a fine leather handbag that came home with my wife. Check out the tea room in the crooked house, again a self-explanatory name. It is impossibly shaped, but yes, still standing.
There is so much to see and do in Lavenham. The architecture is unforgettable. The sense of times past, and a way of life, being preserved is all around you. I am certain you will not find any cheap or chain shops here. The town is a haven from all that seems to bedevil English town centres. If it takes you a very long time to make your tour of the town and all the shops on offer then there is a compensation for that – you can always stay for dinner.
The town has an excellent website and includes this helpful map to enable you to walk the town and not miss anything :