The construction of main trunk roads and motorway systems across England has made journeys between major conurbations much easier. But travelling this way means that places of cultural and historic interested are nearly always bypassed.
The last time I visited Suffolk, I drove to Ipswich along the A14 trunk road that links the industrial Midlands to the port of Felixtowe. Some of the most beautiful towns in the county were simply names on road signs along the way.
The paintings of Thomas Gainsborough (born in Sudbury in 1727) and John Constable (born in East Bergholt in 1776) drew inspiration from the wonderful landscape to be found in their home county. Visitors to Suffolk today will find a countryside little changed from when these gifted artists were putting paint to canvas.
We chose the historic town of Lavenham as our base during a recent visit.
The area around the town has been continuously occupied for thousands of years but the first settlement dates to Saxon times.
Through the 14th to 16th Centuries the town prospered as a result of the growth of the wool trade, especially dyeing and weaving.
Wode, used by the Iceni tribe of Ancient Britons to cover their bodies, was now the key ingredient in the dyeing process that produced various shades Lavenham Blue Wool that was then woven into the famous Lavenham Blue Broadcloth. Much sought after, it was exported all over Europe making the ruling families in the town very rich.
During the 16th century the wool trade in the town declined as a result of the introduction of cheaper, lighter and more fashionable imports.
When Henry VIII, introduced a new tax, not sanctioned by Parliament, to pay for the war with France, thousands of men from the town, and the surrounding villages, took part in an uprising in protest and demanded more pay. When the revolt threatened to extend to other areas it was brutally suppressed.
After this event the wool trade in Lavenham went into terminal decline. By the time of the visit of Elizabeth 1 in 1578, much of the town’s wealth and trade had moved elsewhere.
The pace of this change of fortune resulted in many of the towns medieval and Tudor buildings remaining in their original form. There was not the money available to remodel or rebuild them in the latest styles.
The misfortunes of the 16th century inhabitants has ensured that Lavenham is now regarded as one of the country’s finest examples of a medieval town. There are over 300 listed buildings and its small narrow streets are a magnet for tourists.
During our short visit, we stayed at the historic Swan at Lavenham Hotel. Built in about 1400, it comprises a number of medieval buildings and includes the Grade 1 listed Lavenham Wool Hall.
Whilst the exact date of the conversion of the Swan to an inn is not known, records show that it was well established in 1667 and has offered refuge and hospitality to travellers for well over 350 years.
Today, the Swan combines a deep sense of history combined with the very best contemporary styling.
Its professional and efficient staff gave us a friendly welcome ensured that nothing was too much trouble throughout the whole of our stay.
It is easy to see why it has earned an AA 4 Star hotel rating.
The nature of the building decrees that every one of the 45 rooms is slightly different from the rest.
Our own feature room combined a spectacularly high medieval beamed ceiling and leaded windows with stylish fittings, a large comfortable bed, and ‘must have’ modern amenities including flat screen television, Wi-Fi plus all the little luxuries that you would expect.
Public rooms have been laid out to make the most of the oak beamed interiors with open fires and cosy nooks and crannies.
The Airmen’s Bar is full of memorabilia of the airmen of the US Army Airforce 487th Bombardment Group who were stationed nearby between 1944 and 1945, during World War II. Here visitors can enjoy light snacks and drinks in an evocative and relaxed atmosphere.
The informal Brasserie looks out to a secluded Suffolk garden and offers excellent food in lovely surroundings.
We chose the fine dining option of the elegant AA two Rosette Gallery Restaurant. The quality of food and service was outstanding and explained why the restaurant was full of satisfied customers on a midweek evening in October.
Next morning after a hearty, beautifully cooked Suffolk breakfast, we had some time to explore the town of Lavenham.
The Swan is ideally situated in the centre of the town which enables the visitor to visit most of the key attractions on foot.
Walking around Lavenham is like stepping back in time. Medieval and Tudor timber frame buildings are all around.
A stand out example is the magnificent Guildhall of Corpus Christi on the Market Square. It was founded in 1529 and is one of only two of the four original Guildhalls in Lavenham to have survived the Reformation (the other being the Wool Hall that forms part of the Swan hotel). It is now run by The National Trust as a tea room and museum.
Nearby is Little House, claimed to be one of the oldest and best preserved timber framed buildings remaining in any of the Suffolk wool towns. It was built in the 14th century for the Causton family of clothiers. Enlarged in the 15th century, it is now a museum and craft centre.
De Vere House was once a hunting lodge that was owned by the influential De Vere family between the 14th to 17th centuries. It is, perhaps, more recognisable today for its connection with Harry Potter as it was used by the filmmakers to create Godric’s Hollow, birth place of both Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore.
More evidence of the former wealth of Lavenham can be found in the town’s church of St Peter and St Paul.
After the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the 13th Earl of Oxford, a major landowner in the area since the Norman Conquest and one of the commanders of Henry VII’s army during the battle, suggested that the old Anglo-Saxon church should be rebuilt to celebrate the victory of the new Tudor king.
Thanks to donations from the Earl and a prominent cloth merchant, Thomas Spring, reconstruction took place between 1485 and 1525.
It was extensively restored to its former glory by the Victorians and today is one of the most visited churches in the whole of East Anglia.
Lavenham is the ideal base from which to explore the hidden beauty and heritage of the Suffolk countryside.
For the art enthusiasts, the birthplace of Thomas Gainsborough, in nearby Sudbury, is open for visitors. Constable lovers can follow in his footsteps along a clearly designated Constable Country Trail.
Heritage buffs will find great country houses within a short drive and the other Suffolk Wool towns of Sudbury, Clare, Kersey and Long Melford are well worth a visit.
For addicts of Beatrix Potter, a visit to nearby Melford Hall is a must. Home to her cousins, the Hyde Parkers, she was a regular visitor. Today a special Beatrix Potter room in the house features her watercolours of Hall and many original illustration used in her books.
So much to see, so much to do!
During our short stay we were only able to scratch the surface of what Suffolk has to offer the visitor. Rest assured, we will return to see more in the not too distant future.
Group Cultural & Heritage Tours of the Suffolk countryside are available through Ambient Tours from Spring 2015.