Suffolk’s Hidden Gems – “The Wool Towns”: Clare and Long Melford

Do you sometimes wonder how life would be if you’d been born in a different century?… Me too!!

In my “what if” moments of day-dreaming, sometimes I imagine what it would be like if I’d been born, let’s say, at the court of Louis XIV, with my windows facing the Versailles gardens and spending 2 hours every day only to get dressed in all those sophisticated crinoline dresses and the rest of the day plotting against my enemies and going to lavish dinners and sophomoric balls?… Hmm, not that bad, I would say.

Or what if I have been born in the Ancient Greece, living surrounded by all those manly Greek warriors looking like Brad Pitt in the film “Troy”?… Wait, maybe not – there is a chance I would have gotten one like Aesop (for those that don’t know, he was a Greek writer and philosopher, famous for being strikingly ugly) …

You got the idea, right? I am fascinated by history – whenever I hear the word “ancient” or “medieval” a bell rings somewhere in my brain and my curiosity becomes awake.

Here is why today we will travel to Suffolk, which has some of the best preserved historic towns and prettiest villages in England.

The Wool Towns is the name given to towns and villages, particularly in Suffolk and north Essex, that were the centre of the woven cloth industry in the Middle Ages.

By the 15th century, Suffolk was known for its wool industry which made it became one of the richest areas in England. The so called “clothiers” organized the financed the industry and used their wealth to build timber-farmed houses and ever-grander churches across Suffolk. But this success was short lived and by the 16th century the cloth industry has almost completely depleted (mainly caused by the introduction of the spinning wheel and the importation of newer fabrics from the continent).

However, the most beautiful legacy left from the “wool period” is the towns and villages across this part of England. It took centuries for them to recover from the industry’s crash and for years, no one could afford to rebuild or modernize the buildings, thus preserving the towns today in their medieval state.

Last summer I visited 4 beautiful wool towns in Suffolk: Clare, Long Melford, Lavenham and Kersey.

Suffolk’s smallest town, Clare, is a pretty little place, sitting on the river Stour, whose name comes from a Norman family called “de Clare”. Actually, the Clare College in Cambridge, has its roots in this town as it was founded by Elizabeth de Clare, daughter of the 9th Earl.

The place is peppered with find fine examples of timber-framed buildings, from the 14 to the 16th century, but also Georgian and Victorian houses. There are 133 listed buildings in Clare, over 40 of them from the 16th century or earlier.

The most well-known of the 4 churches, dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul, has a south porch originally from the 13th century, with later amendments in the 14th and 15th centuries and an oak door from 15th century, with both small and large opening.

Calis Street, just north of the parish church, was one of the collection points were the wool merchants gathered for safety to convey the goods to Ipswich, then by boat to Calais, France. The Clare Priory, founded in 1248 by Richard de Clare, is the first Augustinian house in England, and is still run by Augustinians.

The Swan pub, in the High Street – above the main doorway is a carved solid block of oak, possibly the oldest inn sign in England.

There is a country park which has the ruins of a 13th century Norman castle, ponds where swans are sliding graciously, and multiple walks. 

 

Long Melford. Its name is derived from the village layout (originally concentrated along a 2.5-mile stretch of a single road) and the Mill ford crossing the Chad Brook (a tributary of the river Stour).

The town is known for its church, one of the 310 churches in England dedicated to the Holy Trinity, which dates from the reign of Edward the Confessor, thou it was substantially rebuilt years later in late Perpendicular Gothic style and it is one of the richest “wool churches”.

The interior is lit by 74 beautiful tracery windows, many of which retain original medieval glass. These include the image of Elizabeth de Mowbray, Duchess of Norfolk, said to have provided the inspiration for John Tenniel’s illustration of the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Caroll’s book, “Alice‘s Adventures in Wonderland”. I have to confess I wasn’t able to locate the window in discussion, you may have more luck than I did. 😊

You may want to stretch your legs taking a leisure stroll along the main street, admiring the colorful houses, getting into the small independent shop or stopping at the historic pub called “The Swan” (is it just my impression or did you notice as well that all the villages have a pub named “The Swan” or “The Bell”?…)

There are also two fine Tudor mansions you could visit – Melford Hall, built in 1450, in the care of the National Trust nowadays, the ancestral seat of the Parker Baronets and Kentwell Hall, a moated redbrick mansion with extensive gardens and rare breed farm. The first one has a connection with Beatrix Potter (or “cousin Beatie”, how she was called), who was a cousin of the family and a frequent visitor to the hall, accompanied by her menagerie of small animals.

See you soon!

Share:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *