A Cultured Country
If the recent Olympics has inspired you to visit London, keep in mind that with a couple of hours driving you could escape the hustle and bustle for the charms of the English countryside, much beloved of England’s poets, thinkers, and landscape painters.
While wandering lonely as a cloud by the placid waters of Lake Windermere, (though history suggests he was with his sister Dorothy), poet William Wordsworth immortalised the Lake District’s picture postcard scenery, with lines at least half-remembered by every schoolchild.
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze
Later in the 19th century English painter William Turner embraced ruined abbeys, country villages, storms, sunsets, and woodland copses. During the same era, John Constable found inspiration in the idyllic landscape of his native Suffolk, where a part of the county is now referred to as ‘Constable Country’.
Best Dressed Window, Lavenham
Constable was born in the village of East Bergholt, whose other claim to fame is the set of 16th century church bells housed in a bell cage at ground level and said to be the heaviest rung in all England, weighing 4.25 tons. Cardinal Wolsey, Catholic chaplain to Henry VIII, promised the bells for a proposed church tower, but when the cardinal died in 1530 after spectacularly falling out with King Henry over his planned ‘divorce’ from Catherine of Aragon, work on the church tower came to a halt and was never recommenced. Thus the Church of St Mary the Virgin is the only church in the land without a tower; but even so, the bells are still rung at the following times.
Practice - Wednesdays 20:00 to 21:00 (Summer time only)
Morning service - Sundays 09:30 to 10:00
John Constable spent part of his school life at a grammar school in Lavenham, Suffolk, an award-winning former medieval ‘wool’ town said to be one of England’s prettiest - and according to the locals, England’s finest medieval village. The village has a connection with the arts and English literature, as poet and novelist Jane Taylor composed the poem/children’s song Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star while living at Shilling Grange in Shilling Street, in 1806. The house is situated quite near the town’s market square (in this case a circle), the centre of the village. The market place, distinguished by a tall stone cross monument, is surrounded by timber framed buildings and many, including the Guildhall and the market keeper’s cottage, date back to the 15th century. Without exception, all are in a remarkable state of preservation.
Private homes in Lavenham, Suffolk
Lavenham - Old Wool Hall
Around the market square a hotel, an award-winning French restaurant, an art gallery, and a butcher, baker, grocer and antique shop brush shoulders in medieval elegance, and from behind colour-washed, timber-framed walls modern day commerce thrives. Overhead, chimney pots of all shapes and sizes lean atop grey slate roofs, and in a nod to a more contemporary age, a sprinkling of television antennas waver in the breeze. Turn down a side street and you’ll discover cosy tea rooms, craft shops, an inn or two, and pretty cottages, most with the familiar half timbering and obviously inhabited by some very keen gardeners. The most photographed building in the village is the aptly named Crooked House, now a trendy gallery where paintings, ceramics, and jewellery are on display along with some amusing, whimsical eccentricities. And if you adore old buildings, Lavenham has over 300 that have been listed by the National Trust as having architectural or historical interest. A guided walking map can be obtained from the chemist shop in the High Street.
Crooked House, Lavenham, Suffolk
Lavenham - shops in the Town Square
The monthly Farmers Market (every 4th Sunday) is held in the village hall, but come June the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, just baked baguettes, and garlicky saucisson drifts over the village as stallholders set up in the market square for a ‘traditional’ French farmers market in a scene well worthy of a Turner or a Constable canvas.
After exploring this delightful market town, you could head for the richly timbered Swan Hotel which dates from the 14th century and is well known for its decadent Suffolk cream teas served with signature swan-shaped pastries. The hotel occupies a vast corner position opposite the old town priory, now a lovingly preserved, upmarket B & B. And just as it was in the 13th century, the Old Priory is still a haven of tranquillity, bursting with charm. While the exterior of the building appears to be untouched by the centuries, the Benedictine monks who once lived here would be mightily surprised by the present day ambience and the extravagant, earthly pleasures available inside.
Swan Hotel, Lavenham
Old Priory, Lavenham
There are no guestrooms here, only ‘chambers,’ all with sumptuous beds, sloping oak floors, timbered walls, and period furniture. Guestrooms are ensuite with colour television, internet connection, hairdryer, and tea and coffee-making facilities. Shuttered windows overlook secluded, luxuriant gardens from where a great fragrant mass of climbing roses adds colour and charm. The grand and spacious Great Hall is superbly appointed with a huge open fireplace, squishy sofas, and a generously stocked ‘honesty’ bar. A separate reading room with a big plasma television is hidden away in a cosy nook.
Full English breakfast is served in the warm and inviting period dining room, on a table spread with crisp white linen and with added old world touches such as place names for seating. These days, meals aren’t eaten in silence and the food is deliciously less frugal than a monastery repast. However, I think the monks who once called the priory home would heartily approve. Pass the salt and serenity, please!
Lavenham's Little Hall
Trish Clark is the author of the Good Night and God Bless series of guidebooks to convent and monastery accommodation in Europe. Her latest book, Guide to the Camino, St Jean to Santiago de Compostela will be released in January. She is the Travel with a Spiritual Twist Editor for Wandering Educators. You can find her at www.goodnightandgodbless.com