Sunday, 25 October 2009

Lavenham living

Spending a cold night sleeping on a hard floor with only a part-share of a dead flat cat for covering is a small price to pay for waking up surrounded by the beautiful landscape that is Suffolk.

Big Bro took over this house, where we've spent last night, from mum and dad. It's a small house, not old, part of some new housing expansion years ago, built in a village which reached capacity with maybe 200 inhabitants, so there's no more now to be made. Who would want to live in this backwater village anyway? There's no shop, a bus every Wednesday and the post office ran from the side of the local labourer's pub. In the house there's no gas mains and the radiators are fed by an oil tank out in the yard, refilled once a year.

But there are compensations to village life in the middle of nowhere. Best would be sweeping back the curtains to these windows and seeing wide vistas of ancient weathered landscape fringed by bony hedges and raddled woodland. That would be perfect. But no matter. My wakeup view is the back garden of two bins, a washing line, and a battered shed.

But I still love Suffolk. I really do. Both my parents are dead here, resting or dozing. Perhaps mum is still pegging out the washing, or bringing it back in again, because she can't sit still until it's done, but her continuous activity, shaped by the wind and the likelihood of rain, is just another measure of how I remember her here in this house, busy in the back garden, worrying over the washing line.

I don't know everything about my parents, like why they saw Suffolk and stayed; perhaps it's the ideal retirement place, just far enough away yet close enough. I know why I like it. It's a mix of the hard-edged farm labouring life, with all the raw rook woods, grey clod fields and bleak misery of cold dark mornings which an agricultural heritage describes, set side-by-side with secluded gated mansions and ancient fifteenth century timbered manor houses, composed with the estate all around and bordered by peep-proof fences.

Such is that mixture of history, poverty, incomers and money, you can be walking away from this village on the unmarked single track road, up to the farm where the wife once sold eggs if you hammered on the kitchen door, and Claudia Schiffer might sweep by in her Audi, flicking you into the ditch by the cow field.

We're definitely from the poor side of Suffolk, so today we're off to look at what wealth meant in the 1500s. For us, it's over these fields to Lavenham, to look at gentry from the eyes of an elderly gentleman on a walking tour of the town.

Lavenham is a perfect medieval town. The weather is mild, a wind is stirring around the market square and the sunshine is intermittently breaking through, promising a bright autumn day. It makes a wonderful backdrop for the old gentleman who'll lead us gently on the Sunday morning tour.

A small party of us has assembled between the timber framed estate agent and pub, and as we wait for the walk to start, I listen hard, in case I snatch the sound of a pageant or a wandering minstrel finding their way here, to this old medieval town in the fields, strung along the roads from Long Melford or Sudbury. You never know; Lavenham's the place to come if you wanted to make some money and work in England's medieval cloth making industry. Broadcloth - a thick dense woven cloth - was exported from here as far as Russia and North Africa in the fifteenth century. Such was Lavenham's success and industry that in 1524, it was England's fourteenth wealthiest town.

But within a decade or so, developments in weaving elsewhere, a steep decline of demand for broadcloth, and sudden loss of overseas markets, meant the end for Lavenham's prosperity. The timber framed buildings put up in that period of expansion between 1460 and 1530 were left and stayed untouched; merchants who built them followed fortunes elsewhere; the money ran out for rebuilding or replacement. The oak timber houses simply stood here, frozen in time, while other towns around transformed themselves with new economies: redesigning, redeveloping, expanding. Lavenham, a little town, was saved by its own decline. Now we're told there are some 300 listed buildings here. And it's true you don't have to walk far to see the first fifty. After five minutes I wouldn't be surprised if I might look down to my feet and discover I'm dressed in a woollen kirtle with a chatellaine strapped to my middle, the keys to the family chest jangling as I move.

Really, it's a beautiful walk. The town is peaceful and quiet, and I can fantasize about living in those beautiful steep-roofed limewashed houses, where pewter mugs, dried lavender bunches, leather tankards and wooden bowls would be our everyday use. We walk up the long street where the culvert once spilled over with the blue woad dye which created the famous Lavenham Blue cloth and made the merchants wealthy. I'm sure, if I were on my way to market right now to buy that ha'penny of goose fat, then I'd stop at the street end here and clasp my hand to my nose to complain about the awful stench that rises from piss on woad and how it stains the very earth as blue as the devil's arse.

Seriously, I wanted to live on every street we went along, call every wooden carved door my own, and I can only imagine the pleasure for those that live here. I bet if they come here, they must never want to travel away, because to live in Lavenham means your family can stay forever not knowing about the grimes and crimes of places like Norwich, or that godforsaken place of London.

So we come away after the walk has ended, and I'm struggling to emerge from the fifteenth century, pretending not to be a tourist, but imagining that the houses, if not mine, are lived in by families who can trace their lineage back beyond the 1400s. They might be sat there now in wonky kitchens where the story of how Richard II once travelled through these parts are still told as if it were grandmother's favourite tale.

It's difficult to maintain that fantasy. There are too many Mercedes, Saabs and Jaguars lining roads like Silver Street. But don't tell me anymore about that. Let me keep my fantasies intact.


Angela said...

Beautiful walk! Thanks for taking us along. I am always one for fantasizing, too. How it must have been, back then, with no loos or water in the house, a church that dominated our lives, guilds perhaps, self-grown vegetables... A dreamy post.

Tattie Weasle said...

It really is a lovely place to look at and I know it to drive through on my way to Sudbury - you've inspired me to stop and have a walk in spite of those Mercedes and Audis!

Mr Farty said...

Life seems to run at a different pace out there. Just imagine it:
No tv.
No X Factor.
No Jeremy Kyle.
No Ant and Dec.

Where do I sign?

Brad said...

Thank god places like this survive. It's one thing to read of it in books, but to be able to walk around and through it must be really transporting.

kellyi said...

What I lovely post. Really well written - felt like I was right there with you.

sharon said...

Thank you for the lovely walk Grit. Lavenham is a truly beautiful place. If you win the lottery you might one day be able to live there ;-)

Grit said...

thank you for your comments, people. i am just settling back in my carved wooden chair with a tankard of warm beer and handful of fresh baked bread and I'll get back to the blog refreshed.