The Ma­jor and the Colonel

Lind­say Want gets more than she bar­gained for on the Mar­ket Place in Laven­ham as she dis­cov­ers the ‘bazaar’ col­lec­tions lurk­ing within the won­der­fully re­stored walls of half-tim­bered Lit­tle Hall

EADT Suffolk - - Inside -

The fas­ci­nat­ing story of Lit­tle Hall in Laven­ham

“COME IN, come in – wel­come!” en­cour­ages the voice of the shop­keeper from deep in­side. Set amid a bright blaze of sun-scorched ochre, the door­way is dark, and there’s no real clue to what trea­sures might lie within. ‘Free en­try to shop’ re­as­sures a sign in the leaded win­dow. ‘House & Gar­den Open’ sug­gests an­other. “Noth­ing ven­tured, noth­ing gained,” comes an in­ter­nal whis­per and with­out fur­ther ado, the nec­es­sary steps are taken.

In­side, there’s that ‘Mr Benn’ mo­ment, as eyes fi­nally ac­cus­tom them­selves to the rel­a­tive lack of light, and sud­denly, as if by magic, the shop­keeper ap­pears. A brief ex­change and cross­ing of palms with a few coins later, the rich and var­ied tex­tiles of Laven­ham’s Lit­tle Hall, wo­ven by time and the trav­els, needs and as­pi­ra­tions of its for­mer res­i­dents, slowly start to un­furl.

A TRULY RICH TA­PES­TRY

Ar­chi­tec­turally, Lit­tle Hall is an amaz­ing hall house of Tu­dor and even ear­lier ori­gins. Set at the very heart of one of Eng­land’s most pros­per­ous me­dieval wool towns, just across from the mas­sively im­pres­sive Guild­hall of Cor­pus Christi, it’s about as English as it comes, and hardly the most ob­vi­ous can­di­date for the ti­tle of ‘Aladdin’s Cave’. But bur­row through its dimly lit half-tim­bered pas­sage­ways, in search of its most pre­cious jewel – a truly awe­some me­dieval crown­post roof – and as you wind your way past Per­sian pan­els and frag­ments of Kash­miri painted tiles, the idea cer­tainly doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched as some of its arte­facts.

In the old Tu­dor but­tery, an Egyp­tian cat has def­i­nitely creamed off the purrr­fect spot, re­gally tak­ing pride of place on a Queen Anne side ta­ble and sur­rounded by the leather­bound tomes of to­day’s lit­tle low-ceilinged li­brary. Up­stairs, a mas­sive col­lec­tion of huge Mediter­ranean trav­el­ling chests some­how look lost un­der the great pink slant­ing sails of ceil­ing on the up­per deck of the an­cient hall, all at sea on the waves of widest floor­boards. And out­side, near the lit­tle is­land of English knot gar­den, a clas­si­cal head looks on, where swathes of colour­ful ex­otic fruits drip down the Della Rob­bia replica ce­ramic re­lief all the way from Florence. With­out doubt, Lit­tle Hall’s trea­sures col­lected from far and wide are all placed to per­fec­tion, whether in the pri­vate cham­ber of the me­dieval ‘so­lar’ or in the ‘Well Room’, once a yard used for wool pro­cess­ing, they have some­how been

trans­ported half-way across the world to a place where they can, through some sort of magic, still feel to­tally at home.

SIGNS OF THE TIMES

Ah, home. Now that’s a word with real res­o­nance at a place like Lit­tle Hall – to the point in fact that it doesn’t seem quite right to call it a mu­seum. On the door to the back court­yard a col­lec­tion of old enamel num­bers pile high to peer above the pur­ple creeper in the hum­ble hope of keep­ing the mem­o­ries alive. To­day, with its sand-coloured beams and sunny flower bor­ders, it all seems like one bright oa­sis of rich her­itage and uni­fied beauty, but raw re­al­i­ties are only a fly­ing car­pet ride away back through time. Just

how did the orig­i­nal me­dieval build­ing and its 17th cen­tury north wing look, carved up into six sep­a­rate Vic­to­rian ten­e­ments? Was this beau­ti­ful place re­ally once all case­ment win­dows and crumbs of peb­ble-dash façade, home to more than two dozen peo­ple? Up in the ‘dor­mi­tory’, it’s al­most pos­si­ble to imag­ine the wartime evac­uees from Beth­nal Green bed­ding down for the night un­der those smoke-black­ened hall-house roof rafters. They left their names on the chest of draw­ers – and the priv­i­leged 1960s art stu­dents who en­joyed ‘the chance to get a feel­ing of gra­cious­ness in life’ here in what was likened to ‘a very minia­ture Ox­ford col­lege’, left be­hind their art­works too.

Although no one lives here to­day, and the build­ing re­sides with the Suf­folk Build­ing Preser­va­tion Trust for safe-keep­ing, Lit­tle Hall un­de­ni­ably has a homely feel about it still. To ex­plore its ram­bling pas­sage­ways and dis­cover its fas­ci­nat­ing trove of trea­sures is like step­ping into some­one’s per­sonal vi­sion and love of the world. There’s a real spirit and pres­ence about the place. So, who was the ge­nie, or ge­nius, who worked all the magic here?

TWO OF A KIND

“Ac­tu­ally there were two twin broth­ers, Colonel and Ma­jor Gayer-An­der­son,” re­lates a knowl­edge­able smil­ing face. “In the 1920s, to­wards the end of their dis­tin­guished mil­i­tary ca­reers and ser­vice abroad, they needed a base in Eng­land to re­treat to. They were artists, his­to­ri­ans and avid col­lec­tors. That’s what at­tracted them to Laven­ham. Both were very in­ter­ested in recre­at­ing tim­ber-framed build­ings, although the Ma­jor was mainly based in Cairo.” There’s a hush in the smartly set out din­ing room, be­neath the cu­ri­ous col­lec­tion of Euro­pean stained glass and the mighty beams of a rich Tu­dor cloth­iers’ show­room. In the time of old cob­bler Bil­lie Bye you’d have al­most heard a hob­nail drop.

“The Colonel was a great crafts­man,” con­tin­ues the sto­ry­teller, point­ing to a fine oak dresser by the door­way. Then al­most as an af­ter-thought: “The ma­jor be­came a renowned Egyp­tol­o­gist, you know. Even in the first of­fi­cial party to en­ter Tu­tankhamun’s tomb in 1923.”

And so the threads of Lit­tle Hall’s rich ta­pes­tries re­veal their true colours as they weave across the con­ti­nents be­tween the time-hon­oured trad­ing cen­tres of Cairo and Laven­ham. The plot thick­ens. One twin turns

out to be Egyp­tian art dealer to Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle, not to men­tion Kitch­ener, the Crown Prince of Swe­den and Lawrence of Ara­bia. The other, an amaz­ing mas­ter crafts­man who, af­ter a fi­nal tour of duty in In­dia, did much of the ren­o­va­tion work in Laven­ham, as well as cast­ing a fine bronze replica of his brother’s fa­mous found cat, which sits like it owns the place in the li­brary.

Across the miles, the Ma­jor re­stored the an­cient ‘House of the Cre­tan Lady’ in Cairo as his home, while the Colonel worked on Lit­tle Hall. Both are now ‘mu­se­ums’ which cel­e­brate their lives and their vi­sion.

As he re­turned to Lit­tle Hall to see out his fi­nal years, the ma­jor de­lighted in the ti­tle of ‘Pasha’, be­stowed upon him in 1942 by King Farouk. Mean­while plans were mooted with Regi­nald Brill for Lit­tle Hall and its sur­round­ings to in­spire fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of artists, and the Colonel helped to form the Laven­ham Preser­va­tion Com­mit­tee in 1944, which raised funds nec­es­sary for the Na­tional Trust to take on the mighty Guild­hall. Cel­e­brat­ing the beauty of the past, yet al­ways look­ing to in­spire the fu­ture. There’s plenty to dwell on in Laven­ham’s homely Lit­tle Hall, and a very spe­cial sort of spirit that’s well, pure magic.

Lit­tle Hall on Mar­ket Hill Laven­ham

Mem­o­ries of the ten­e­ments

The bronze cat

Vol­un­teers at Lit­tle Hall, Laven­ham

Stained glass in the cor­ri­dor

The dor­mi­tory’s great me­dieval crown post

The knot gar­den

Art stu­dents’ mem­o­ries of Lit­tle Hall and Laven­ham

In the gar­den, Della Ro­bia ceram­ics

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