Laven­ham magic

Lind­say Want vis­its Laven­ham —the in­spi­ra­tion for scenes from the film Harry Pot­ter and the Deathly Hal­lows — and gets a les­son or two in its amaz­ing medieval wiz­ardry

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE - By Lind­say Want

The home of Harry Pot­ter has many mag­i­cal in­flu­ences. Lind­say gives us a Hog­wart’s style les­son on the medieval quirks and twists that made one of our favourite towns the ideal lo­ca­tion for Go­dric’s Hol­low.

It’s no won­der that film-mak­ers found in­spi­ra­tion for Harry Pot­ter’s birth­place at Go­dric’s Hol­low in the streets of Laven­ham. A visit to its his­toric heart is like wav­ing a magic wand and go­ing back in time.

Lined with half-tim­bered build­ings, packed tight to the point of al­most prop­ping each other up or push­ing each other over, there are more house colours here than Hog­wart’s Gryffindor, Huf­flepuff, Raven­claw and Slytherin put to­gether – and just as much ar­chi­tec­tural wiz­ardry.

Go for a wan­der and see the wonky win­dows, bulging brace beams and pink par­get­ting. Much of Laven­ham’s charm lies in the quirk­i­ness of every hall, house or hud­dle of cot­tages and it would be a pity to miss it. Per­haps fol­low­ing a few loosely ap­plied first year sub­jects from Hog­wart’s School of Witch­craft and Wiz­ardry can help bring the magic to life. . .


There are two ways of look­ing at Laven­ham. From a ro­man­tic 21st cen­tury per­spec­tive, we’re to­tally en­chanted by how it ap­par­ently preserves a sin­gle pe­riod of our pre­cious his­tory al­most per­fectly. At face-value, it looks like it has led a charmed life and we just can’t get enough of those tim­ber­rich, lean­ing lega­cies cre­ated by Suf­folk’s wealthy wool and cloth mer­chants some­time between the Black Death around 1350 and Henry VIII’s al­most equally un­pop­u­lar beard tax of 1535. But we rarely con­sider what it isn’t. Why it doesn’t look like other nearby towns which changed with the times, or what that might have meant for folk along the way. Charmed or cursed, Laven­ham’s story is not all roses round the door, Tu­dor or oth­er­wise. Home to the 1490s equiv­a­lent of Bill Gates, and Eng­land’s 14th wealth­i­est town in 1524, when it wel­comed El­iz­a­beth I in 1586, it was al­ready tak­ing a nose-dive. Per­haps to recog­nise the real beauty of Laven­ham, the roset­inted spec­ta­cles must come off to see that it wasn’t al­ways such a pretty pic­ture.


Mar­ket Place is a great spot to start. Lit­tle Hall – built in the 1390s and one of Laven­ham’s old­est sur­viv­ing build­ings – sits snug­gled in the cor­ner, blan­keted in warm, rich ochre. The area was called ‘The Fo­rum’ when the hall house was ‘mod­ernised’ in Tu­dor times, re­plac­ing the cloth at its mul­lion win­dows with new-fan­gled glaz­ing and adding a fancy, bright up­per floor as an im­pres­sive cloth mer­chant’s show­room. Ed­ward III had orig­i­nally en­cour­aged weav­ing in Eng­land rather than see Flan­ders folk profit from con­vert­ing fine English fleeces into ex­pen­sive cloth. A cen­tury or so later, ‘Laven­ham Blew’ broad­cloth be­came big busi­ness. Clever cap­i­tal­ists man­aged sup­ply chains, qual­ity con­trol and ex­port chan­nels, and its pop­u­lar­ity made the town richer than Lin­coln and York.

Loom­ing white, huge and Ha­grid-like along­side Lit­tle Hall, the Guild­hall of Cor­pus Christi is

Laven­ham’s mighty proud Tu­dor state­ment, a feast of fen­es­tra­tion and os­ten­ta­tiously carved oak from a time when tim­ber wasn’t cheap and leaded win­dows were a won­der. We’ll come back to re­visit its rai­son d’être, but even dur­ing its con­struc­tion in 152930, there were ri­ots against job losses afoot.

A wan­der down Pren­tice Street puts his­tory in per­spec­tive. Weavers’ houses and fine, jet­tied Wool­sta­plers Hall lead to the old An­chor ale­house by the stream – both ab­so­lute musts for fleece-wash­ers and cloth-fel­ters. Swing a right down Lower Road and then right again into Bolton Street to see an­other medieval hall house, blush­ing pink this time at Nos. 14-17. A left turn into Shilling Street opens up an­other hot topic.


Messers Pren­tice, Bolton and Shilling were all gold-rich cloth­iers, but at Old Grange an 18th cen­tury en­graver’s daugh­ter, Jane Tay­lor had a dif­fer­ent glint in her eye.

Whether she penned ‘Twin­kle, Twin­kle Lit­tle Star’ here or in Colch­ester re­mains a mys­tery, but some say she found in­spi­ra­tion in the heraldic stars of the De

Veres – Earls of Ox­ford, lords of Laven­ham manor and a fam­ily of astro­nom­i­cal wealth and power. Hey Did­dle Did­dle’s cat, dog, cow and fid­dle al­legedly have ori­gins in the De Vere’s rich her­aldry too. A right turn into Wa­ter Lane leads to star of the show it­self, Harry’s birth­place at Go­dric’s Hol­low, aka De Vere House. You’ll find the fam­ily em­blem twin­kling to the left above the door – or all over the church, if you fly up there later.


Com­puter-gen­er­ated im­agery trans­formed this dou­ble-doored won­der into the Pot­ter abode for the big screen, but that wasn’t the first time in its his­tory that it had been pulled apart and was re­ally go­ing places. It was a mere lodge to the De Veres, with carved hunts­men guard­ing the beams and early herringbon­e brick­work. Henry VII pos­si­bly popped by in 1498. But by 1929 an auc­tion at Earl’s Court saw its east wing and front façade wait­ing at Southamp­ton docks to start a new life in Cal­i­for­nia at Ran­dolph Hearst’s San Simeon cas­tle. A me­dia out­cry and House of Lords de­bate saved it. Wool Hall in Wa­ter Street had a much nar­rower es­cape. In 1911 it took a bi­cy­cle-rid­ing, pe­ti­tion-wav­ing vicar to save it as it was carted off to the Duchess of As­cot’s es­tate. Princess Louise re­lented and the jig­saw pieces were put back in their right­ful place. Be­lieved to be the Guild of Our Lady, it’s now part of the Swan Ho­tel and in­side, the num­bers on those beams can still be seen to this day.


So why Wa­ter Street? With the stream di­verted this way to help the cloth-mak­ers – don’t miss the 1340 row of weavers’ cot­tages op­po­site De Vere House – the street soon be­came an open sewer. Colour­fast Laven­ham Blew was ‘dyed in

the wool’, but the dye­ing and fix­ing process in­cluded stinky stuff like stale urine and woad, a cab­bage im­ported from Toulouse.

In about 1500, De Vere stepped nobly in to save the day – and the nos­trils of Wa­ter Street res­i­dents – by send­ing the wa­ter un­der­ground us­ing brick cul­verts. The two carved hunts­men on De Vere House may have guarded one of the foot­bridges. When El­iz­a­beth I stayed in Mo­let House at the top of fash­ion­able Barn Street, how­ever, all dye­ing must have tem­po­rar­ily halted due to her five-mile-ra­dius rule about overnight­ing near such ac­tiv­i­ties. Don’t miss The Old Gram­mar School (right) on the way up – it’s hardly Hog­warts, but was good enough for the painter John Con­sta­ble and has a cu­ri­ous pair of carved legs and but­tocks, rather rudely in­ter­rupted by an in­con­gru­ous Ge­or­gian en­trance door.


Laven­ham’s Harry Pot­ter film sees Harry’s Go­dric’s Hol­low home torn apart by evil, but deal­ing it a deathly blow at the same time.

Back on Mar­ket Place, the great Guild­hall was a pur­pose­built meet­ing house cre­ated by a reli­gious guild of Laven­ham’s wealth­i­est mer­chants, whose un­der­ly­ing in­ten­tion was to de­liver its mem­bers from evil. Pro­vid­ing an in­sur­ance pol­icy for the soul, it or­gan­ised prayers and good deeds to en­sure its fra­ter­nity swifter routes to heaven.

Green oak en­gi­neer­ing at its finest, it has re­mained im­pres­sively up­right for five cen­turies, un­like the High Street’s ‘Crooked House’.

Less than 20 years af­ter its con­struc­tion, reli­gious guilds were sup­pressed and the hall went about serv­ing and de­fend­ing the town as a prison, pub, store, town hall, House of Cor­rec­tion, poor­house, almshouses, Red Cross restau­rant and mu­seum. Its story re­flects Laven­ham’s true story and, like Lit­tle Hall and so many oth­ers, it was only saved from phys­i­cal down­fall by peo­ple with vi­sion and wealth enough to wave a magic wand.

On the cor­ner of the Guild­hall, per­haps no one will ever know if the carved fig­ure is De Vere him­self or Her­cules, but he stands be­neath an equally mighty ‘dragon’ beam and seems to be smil­ing.

Now what was the Hog­wart’s motto? Ah yes, ‘Draco Dormiens Nun­quam Ti­t­il­lan­dus’ – Never Tickle a Sleep­ing Dragon. N

BE­LOW: The door­way to De Vere House in Laven­ham, is Harry Pot­ter’s birth­place, Go­dric’s Hol­low, in the film

LEFT: Lit­tle Hall, Laven­ham

ABOVE: De Vere House whose owner stepped in to save the day when cer­tain ‘dark arts’ were at play

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