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Why you should visit the Suffolk Wool Towns

PUBLISHED: 11:12 17 January 2018 | UPDATED: 11:12 17 January 2018

A collection of the floral arrangements in the  Holy Trinity Church and the Lady Chapel.

A collection of the floral arrangements in the Holy Trinity Church and the Lady Chapel.

(c) copyright citizenside.com

Lavenham, Long Melford, Hadleigh, Clare and Sudbury are ideal for a day out or as a picturesque base while exploring the region. Here we offer a quick guide to the individual charms of each of these dyed in the wool Suffolk classic attractions.

Kentwell Hall Spring Awakening in FebruaryKentwell Hall Spring Awakening in February

The fate of a handful of Suffolk towns was changed forever in the 15th and 16th century by the wool trade, and Lavenham, Long Melford, Hadleigh, Clare and Sudbury produced woollen cloth that was in great demand across Europe and as far away as northern Russia.

As the towns grew richer, grand churches and fine half-timbered merchants’ houses were built, giving the towns their distinctive beauty.

The boom time of the wool trade was short lived, but the strikingly well preserved Suffolk Wool Towns have kept their delicate history intact and still exude a sense of their former wealth. Visiting feels like stepping back in time to the 15th century, when the trade was at its peak, and the Suffolk Wool Towns were among the richest places in the country.

Hadleigh Town HallHadleigh Town Hall

LAVENHAM

In 1524 Lavenham was once the 14th richest town in the country. It prospered from the trade of its cloth, Lavenham Blewes. The largesse of the rich merchants created some of its most striking architecture, such as the Church of St Peter and Paul. However, it was the town’s plunge into penury a generation later – undercut by the production of cheaper and more fashionable cloth in Colchester and cheap imports from Europe - which kept it so unspoiled for centuries to come with next to nothing being built or demolished. So the rich-coloured half-timber homes remain - the town has 340 listed buildings - and many now house independent shops, galleries, teashops and some of the finest hotels in the country.

What to see

The beautiful staircase covered in Gainsborough's paintings. Picture: GREGG BROWNThe beautiful staircase covered in Gainsborough's paintings. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Standing tall on the western side of the village is the remarkable St Peter and St Paul’s Church. John De Vere, the 13th Earl of Oxford, was one of the major benefactors of the church. Look up at the tower and you can see the star emblem of his family on every face. Some believe the church was built as a thanksgiving for a Tudor victory at the Battle of Bosworth – De Vere was principal commander of Henry VII’s forces - which ended the Wars of the Roses in 1485. The sound of the church impresses as much as its sights. There is a ring of eight bells, but according to the Lavenham Deanery guidebook the great tenor bell, which was cast in Colchester in 1625, has been described as ‘the finest toned bell in England, probably in the world’. When a member of the royal family dies, the tenor bell of Lavenham is rung to mourn the death.

The influence of the De Vere family, the second richest family in the county, after the king, in medieval times, extends into the town with De Vere Hall, which Henry VII visited when taking part in a day’s hunting in Lavenham in 1498, but today is more well known for its appearance in the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Harrows as Godrick’s Hollow, the birthplace of the young wizard.

What to do

Clare Country Park; Clare CastleClare Country Park; Clare Castle

Visit the Guildhall. Located on the edge of Lavenham’s marketplace and dating from around 1530, the Guildhall of Corpus Christi is one of the village’s most impressive historic timber-framed buildings. Originally built as a religious meeting place for wealthy Catholic merchants, the Guildhall has also been used as a prison, a workhouse, a pub, a chapel and a social club for US troops stationed nearby during the Second World War.

It is now owned by the National Trust, and houses a permanent local history exhibition, sharing the stories of those who lived and worked there, including Widow Snell who ran the 18th-century workhouse and created some peculiar remedies to treat the ailments of her residents, such as a cough mixture containing 20 live woodlice.

If you’re not a National Trust member, entrance cost £7.50 for an adult, £3.75 for a child and £18.75 for a family ticket. For more information, visit here

What to buy

Lavenham has more than 30 independent shops and galleries. Worth a browse is No 8, an Aladdin’s cave of China, glass, metal ware, small furniture and many weird and wonderful things. The Market Place shop is open 10am to 5pm. Closed Thursdays. Call 01787 249624.

Doing her bit to keep the wool business alive in Lavenham is Maggie Warner, the owner of The Wool Room, who spins Alpaca wool from her own flock and then knits it into beautiful creations. The shop, in Lavenham High Street, is a treasure trove of knitted garments, accessories, jewellery and vintage bags. Call 01787 249757.

Where to eat

For a light bite, try Chilli and Chives, a deli-style cafe in Lavenham’s High Street serving freshly prepared snacks, lunches, puddings and cakes, as well as a wide range of teas and coffees made using the renowned Butterworths brand from Bury St Edmunds. Call 01787 249028.

For fine dining, visit the award-winning The Great House in Market Square. Built by the Caustons, an important weaving family, in the 14th and 15th centuries it now offers award-winning French cuisine. Visit here

Where to stay

The Swan is a stunning 15th Century luxury hotel which blends medieval style with modern luxury. Its range of bedrooms and suites are ideal for a romantic getaway or family break. In the Airmen’s Bar you can sip cocktails surrounded by Second World War memorabilia and there is an award-winning spa offering a range of pampering treatments. The lounge area’s cosy nooks, open fires and sumptuous sofas also make it one of the best places to while away an afternoon with a selection of newspapers and a cream tea served on Royal Worcester crockery. Visit here or call 01787 247477.

Where to walk

Get to walk a crooked mile with this route which takes in the town’s beautiful but undeniably wonky homes. The medieval wool town grew so fast that wood that had been recently cut was used in the building and, as the wood dried, the twisting began. The National Trust has a walk that takes in the best examples. Visit here

Long Melford

The town is well named, with its stunning High Street stretching out for 2.5 miles framed on either side by Medieval half-timber homes, many given an exterior facelift in the Georgian and Regency periods, and topped by two turreted Elizabethan stately homes and a spectacular church, built from the profits of the wool trade and widely regarded as one of the best in England.

What to see

There are not many village parish churches that look like the massive and extravagantly ornate Holy Trinity Church, but this is one of the richest ‘wool churches’ in East Anglia. In 1467 wealthy local wool merchant John Clopton, who lived at neighbouring Kentwell Hall, was one of the main investors in the 30-year rebuilding of the church, which had been on the site since the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066). Look out for the ornate flushwork which covers all walls of the church, then head to Lady Chapel at the east end of the church to see the surviving medieval stained glass. In the churchyard you can find the grave of Edmund Blunden, the First World War poet, and a recent theory suggests Saxon king St Edmund could be buried under the floor of the Clopton chancery chapel. The church is open from 10am to 4pm during the winter months.

What to do

Brick-built moated Tudor manor Kentwell Hall built in the early 16th century by the Clopton family is a wonderful sight, but the much restored interior and events re-enacting Tudor life are saved for the spring and summer months. The amazing gardens, though, are available to visit and in February and March they will be awash with drifts of snowdrops and daffodils. You will also be able to explore the Walled Garden, the Courtyard Maze and the Pied Piper Topiary. To book for the snowdrops and spring bulbs events, visit here

What to buy

Long Melford was a thriving centre for antique stores – even inspiring the TV series Lovejoy – but now art galleries have taken over. The longest established is the Hunter Gallery, which exhibits well known artists from Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex alongside some of the UK’s most respected creators of paintings, sculpture and furniture. With artwork to suit all tastes and budgets, it is worth dropping in. Call 01787 466117 or visit here

Where to eat

Bistro style restaurant Scutchers, set in a converted medieval hall house, has been awarded several Good Food Guide Awards as well as the Michelin Bib Gourmand. Expect classic dishes with a modern twist and everything from the bread to the sorbet is homemade. The wine list features some top class producers. Call 01787 310200 or visit here

Where to stay

Built in 1450, the majestic Bull Hotel offers 25 hotel rooms, two restaurants real ales, cream teas and an Elizabethan fireplace. John Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed here in the 1980s while shooting scenes for their short film Apotheosis. A guest who some believe has never left is Richard Evered, who was violently murdered at the inn in 1648, but whose spirit is supposed to still haunt the place. Call 01787 378494.

Where to walk

There’s a beautiful ramble to be had through the Suffolk countryside if you head from Melford Hall past Kentwell Hall and towards Kiln Farm before returning past the village of Bridge Street. The circular walk is around six miles.

HADLEIGH

Woolen-cloth production is so intrinsically linked with Hadleigh its crest features three woolpacks and a paschal lamb. Wealth from the trade funded its church and the neighbouring Deanery tower built in the late 15th century by Archdeacon Pykenham, as well as the earlier Guildhall, originally built as a market house and wool hall. Its centre, packed with listed medieval buildings and the River Brett running to its west is a picture postcard perfect place to explore.

What to see

St Mary’s church stands guarded by the mediaeval Guildhall and Deanery Tower. At the foot of its tapering and slightly twisted 135ft lead covered hangs Suffolk’s oldest inscribed bell, which has been heard over Hadleigh since 1280. Take time to look at the stone built South Porch and the early 15th Century timberwork of the great South Door. The church is open 8am to 5pm every day.

The imposing Deanery Tower can claim a significant role in the start of one of the most influential movements in the intellectual life of this country, as it was the scene of the first meeting of the Anglican clerics who went on the found the Oxford Movement, which transformed the Church of England in the mid 19th century.

If your prepared to walk to the outskirts of the town you’ll find 16th century farmhouse Benton End, which was where artist, art teacher and plantsman Sir Cedric Morris opened The East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing. Described in a prospectus as “an oasis of decency for artists outside the system”, the school housed students such as Lucien Freud in 1940. Suffolk artist Maggi Hambling is also known to have studied here, and she worked in the kitchen during her school holidays.

What to do

Take a guided tour of the Hadleigh Guildhall. There is an opportunity to see inside the magnificent Grade 1* listed 15th Century building and learn about its occupants and its place in the history of Hadleigh. The tour is topped off with cream tea in the Guildhall’s gardens. Tours are £3 and cream teas £3.75. Visits must be pre-booked. Call 01473 822544 or email info@hadleightownhall.co.uk

What to buy

The Suffolk Craft Shop, based at Kersey Mill, sells locally handmade produce, craft items and gifts from some of the regions most talented craft makers. Call 01473 517 404.

What to eat

Boutique restaurant and bar The Hadleigh Ram, in Market Place, has been awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand for good quality, good value cooking. It has a vegetarian and vegan menu and also offers a Bottomless Brunch every day from 10am to 2pm in which you can get free refills of Prosecco, Bloody Mary’s or smoothies with your food. Visit here

Where to stay

Stylish bed and breakfast The Gables is a Grade II* listed seventeenth century house with many original features, situated in the centre of the town. Breakfast is a feast of locally sourced fresh produce. Rooms from £95 per night.

Where to walk

This circular walk takes you through the historic town before a pleasant amble through the nearby countryside. Part of this walk follows the line of the disused railway that once linked Hadleigh with the main London - Ipswich rail line. The railway walk is a lovely two-mile stroll that can be taken as an extension from the Hadleigh Circular Walk and it offers lovely views onto the surrounding countryside. For full directions, visit here

Clare

Suffolk’s smallest town sits on the banks of the Stour river and boasts a wool church, a 13th Century Augustine priory, a castle that dates back to William the Conqueror and country park. It also offers a wide range of shops, antique outlets and high quality local cafes and pubs.

What to see

Clare Ancient House was built in 1473 and became the town museum in 1976. The museum is only open in the spring and summer months, but the amazing building is worth a look for its decorative plasterwork on its exterior, an example of pargetting, a technique popular in Suffolk and Essex.

Cross a footbridge over the River Stour from the town and you’ll find Clare Priory. Established in 1248, it is one of the oldest religious houses in England and still home to a mixed community of Augustinian friars and lay people. Visitors are welcome to stroll the garden and grounds.

What to do

Explore Clare Castle Country Park. As well as having gorgeous open green spaces, including a children’s playground, the park contains the remains of a Victorian railway station and a 13th Century stone castle set upon its 60ft high motte overlooking the town. In the 14th century the castle was the home of Elizabeth de Clare, one of the richest women in England.

What to buy

You can lose track of time browsing the four floors of antiques and collectables for the home and garden at Clare Antiques and Interiors. It is even got a café to fuel more bargain hunting. Open seven days a week. Call 01787 278449.

Where to walk

There is a gently 3.5 mile circular walk in the countryside around Clare using the Country Park as your gateway. The route is clearly marked with green public footpath signs and yellow waymark arrows displaying a circular walk symbol enabling you to walk in either direction. It offers fantastic views of the town as it crosses Upper Common. Visit here to download the map.

Sudbury

Sudbury is a pretty market town on the Stour with its half-timbered streets and gentle meadow walks. It dates back to Anglo Saxon times but took off as a centre for the production of textiles. First known for weaving woollen cloth in medieval times, the town transitioned to the production of silk by the 18th century, buoyed by an influx of talented Huguenot silk weavers who fled. Today, the three silk mills that carry on this proud legacy produce roughly 95 per cent of the nation’s silken fabrics.

What to see and do

Gainsborough House, the childhood home of Sudbury’s most famous son, portrait painter Thomas Gainsborough, is now a museum and gallery. The founding member of the Royal Academy was born in 1727 at the house, which itself dates back to 1520, and also attended Sudbury Grammar School. The collection encompasses the artist’s whole career, from early portraits and landscapes painted in Suffolk during the 1750s, to later works from his Bath and London, including Gainsborough’s only mythological painting Diana and Acteon. Take time to explore the spectacular garden using only plants that were available in Gainsborough’s lifetime. The museum is open Monday to Saturday 10 to 5pm and Sunday 11 to 5pm. Visit here

What to buy

You can’t miss gift shop Bazaar in Gainsborough Street with its violet coloured shop front and it is a cavern of loveliness inside with all manner of quirky gifts for the home as well as clothes and furniture. It is now run by local charity The Bridge Project, which oversees a range of inclusive projects in the town, including a hot meal delivery service and creative workshops for all ages. Call 01787 370992.

What to eat

Chef Alain Jacq, who has worked at London luxury hotels the Park Lane Hilton, Sheraton, and Lanesborough, along with co-owner Stéphane Chapotot have brought French high style to Buzzards Hall, a wonderful Grade 2* listed premises and one of Sudbury’s oldest buildings. The restaurant offers mouthwatering dishes such as Celeriac soufflé on a bed of roasted beetroot, carrots and kale with crumbled Stilton, pomegranate and orange salsa while the café is famous for its freshly cooked pastries. Visit here

Where to walk

The 3.5 mile Meadow Walk is part of Sudbury’s Gainsborough Trail and takes in plenty of the natural landscape the artist would have walked, sketched and sometimes painted. The meadows are home to a wide variety of wild flowers, insects, birds and mammals and offer stunning views across the Suffolk countryside. Start at the Kingfisher Leisure Centre – parking free for three hours – and follow the Kingfisher waymarkers.

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