Take a 'headless horseman' tour with the owner of Suffolk's Harry Potter house
- Credit: Phil Morley
Undoubtedly one of the most picturesque places in the region – and perhaps the entire country – Lavenham attracts huge flocks of visitors annually.
The Suffolk village has been continually settled for thousands of years and is, unsurprisingly, chock full of history.
If you’ve ever wanted to know more about Lavenham and its roots, then Tony Ranzetta is your man. The local resident has been living in the village for decades, and has spent years uncovering its history.
But where did his interest in Lavenham stem from?
“My wife and I visited one Valentine’s Day weekend, and instantly fell in love with the place. We’ve lived here since for 31 years now, and interestingly enough, shortly after moving here I discovered that my mother’s family had been here in Lavenham, right the way through from the 1460s. That came as a nice surprise.”
Prior to moving to the village, Tony had no idea his ties went so far back.
“My mother moved here after we did, and it was when she was working in The Little Hall that she started doing research into her house and ours. That was when she found out her family had been connected to the original family who built our home, De Vere House,” he explains.
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Lavenham through and through, Tony began to conduct his own research into the settlement and dedicated his time to learning more about the place he lives in and loves.
“I fell in love with the history of the village because its history explains its shape and beauty,” he says.
“There’s something about the village as you walk around it. It has this marvellous combination of various periods of English architectural history - a touch of Norman, Tudor, Georgian, and Victorian as well.
“The parts of history I’ve always liked have been the romantic parts. Somewhere like Lavenham offers someone like me so much. I always wanted to find out why it was designed the way it was, and why there are so many listed buildings.”
Did you know that Lavenham was once one of the wealthiest places in not just East Anglia, but the entirety of the United Kingdom?
“The De Vere family who lived here during the 15th century appointed all of the sheriffs, MPs and magistrates in the whole of East Anglia.
“And at the time, East Anglia was almost run as its own country during the reign of Henry VII and Henry VIII. This was under the command of John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, who was Henry VIII’s mentor, and had complete control of East Anglia, which was the most populous part of the country at the time.
“John De Vere was also Lord High Admiral of the Fleet, so he had complete control of the merchant fleet. He absolutely monopolised the wool merchant trade for the whole of Europe.”
This, combined with the friendships between the De Veres and the monarchy meant that Lavenham became a tax haven – with residents in the village paying just one percent of the tax of elsewhere, and being exempt from all tolls.
“The net consequence was that between 1460 and 1520, 72% of the richest 100 people in the country all moved to Lavenham, and in doing so, brought all of that wealth, cosmopolitan ideas and architecture with them.
“Suddenly, Lavenham became the forefront of Tudor design. For instance, the first gable fronts in the country were built in Lavenham, alongside the first piped sewage. It was the Venice of Tudor England.”
Following years of research, Tony has been able to successfully collate centuries' worth of fascinating information.
“In the National Archives alone there are over 2,800 documents on Lavenham going all the way back to the 1200s, and through to the modern era. And it is not just wills and testaments – there are also royal visits, heraldic visitations and various other documents.
Chock full of historical facts galore, Tony was originally going to put everything he discovered into a book - but had a change of heart soon after.
“I actually spent years compiling a lot of the ghost stories I uncovered, and I planned to publish them in a book – but at the last minute, I decided it wasn’t worth it. The stories needed to tell themselves and become alive – not on the stale pages of yellowing parchment, but dancing, hauntingly associated with the places in Lavenham itself.”
So instead, Tony began conducting historical walking tours around Lavenham, in order to really help people visualise and immerse themselves in the lore and beauty of the settlement.
“American friends moved to the village just down the road from us, and we soon got chatting about the village's history. Eventually I offered to take them on a tour if they wheeled me around in my chair. Later, I thought to myself if they were interested, others might be too.”
Tony put a post out on his village's local Facebook group, to see what interest would be like – and he was soon inundated with people eager to join him.
“The response was overwhelming. I had no idea how many people wanted to find out more about Lavenham and seeing the village in a new light.”
Armed with his arsenal of fascinating information and dressed as a headless horseman, Tony has since been taking small groups around Lavenham, showing them the sights, sounds, and wonders of his village.
But why as a headless horseman?
Tony took the costume inspiration from the Harry Potter character Nearly Headless Nick, who was in fact based on Sir Francis de Vere, a former resident of De Vere House, and whose ghost reportedly lingers around to this day.
For anyone who is interested in going on Tony’s tour, you will certainly get your fill as he expertly takes you through every nook and cranny Lavenham has to offer.
Starting off at the Grade I-listed De Vere House – which is known locally as ‘the Harry Potter house’ - you might find yourself joined by a few extra ‘guests’.
“We’ve got three ghosts here in the house, plus a witch’s curse. And in 2012, a 400-year-old murder mystery was solved here by uncovering the puzzle of the carvings on one of the doors.
“Moving on from there, we then go to the Manor House on Water Street, which is home to the ghost called Boy. Along the way we also pass the longest uninterrupted line of Tudor houses in the country, in the space of about 200 yards.”
Tony will then take you to Jane Taylor’s Cottage – the former home of the eponymous poet and novelist, who is best known for penning the lyrics to ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’.
“We then go to Bolton Street, and at the bottom of it we uncover the origins of the village, about 10,000 years ago. Neolithic finds have been discovered there, and there used to be a bridge between the two hills where the ancient settlers once camped and traded.”
The next stop on Tony’s tour is the former Anchor pub, which is inhabited by the ghost of a Victorian chimney sweep boy who sadly perished after getting stuck in the chimney.
“He was suffocated and mummified by the smoke. His remains were found in the year 2000 when renovations were done. He continues to haunt the village and, when I was doing one of my walks, a guest and friend of the owner of the Anchor and had seen the ghost boy looking out of the window.”
Tony will then take you up Prentice Street, where you will look at the 15th century Woolstaplers Hall, before heading to the all-important marketplace and high street.
“This is where I get a chance to talk about the White Lady in Tatums, and the clock that ticks backwards to pre-announce a death in the village. We also discuss the ghosts of former World War II pilots who circle the airfield and try to bring their planes in to land after all these years.”
Tony then takes you to The Swan and Blaize House, where he discusses the patron saints of the village, and its Saxon history before finishing up in the churchyard.
With so much in-depth history and lore covered over just a few hours, it is no surprise Tony’s walking tours have received such a warm welcome.
"Feedback has been unbelievably positive, far more than I was expecting,” he says. “Most people treat the ghost stories with the scepticism they deserve – they are certainly interesting and fun. But people love learning about the village and its history, and I am more than happy to share that. I can’t wait to do more tours over the coming weeks.”
Tony is planning to do two tours this month– on Sunday, December 26 between 7.30 and 9pm, and one on Friday December 31 between 6.30 and 8pm.
To find out more or to book onto a tour, call 01787 248383. Alternatively, just turn up on the day with a lantern or torch. Tony’s tour is free of charge.