On our way to Ely from Woodbridge we stopped off at Lavenham to see the medieval Guildhall and discovered that many other buildings in the town date from the same period. In fact Lavenham claims to be the finest medieval town in England having 320 buildings of historical significance. The Guildhall is under the care of the National Trust nowadays but the rest of the town is in private hands. From the fourteenth century Lavenham’s prosperity was due to its specialised production of woad-dyed broadcloth known as Lavenham Blues but by 1525 this trade was in decline and the villages fortunes declined with it. Up until that time Lavenham had been the 14th wealthiest town in Britain and the new unemployment brought with it mass demonstrations. Sound familiar?
These showcase villages and towns worry me a bit. Obviously these buildings have to be preserved and so on but as in my earlier post “The Weight of History” it seems to me that these places are doomed to be locked into that history like some sort of medieval theme park. And yet of course, this is the new industry, tourism. We had a coffee in the Swan Hotel and Spa which is an extensive 15th century building that now boasts: “luxurious surroundings, oak beamed interiors, open fires and cosy nooks, this romantic spa hotel brings together a deep sense of history and occasion with the very best in contemporary styling”. We are being sold a sort of fake sense of history nicely cleaned up for modern consumption. Despite that I have put a new Lavenham gallery up for you to decide for yourselves.
The day then began to descend into a classic British holiday day with quite heavy rain as we made our way on to Kentwell Hall which is run by the Historic Houses Association. They describe the house as follows: “Moated brick Tudor manor house built on wool trade wealth in 16th century and interior remodelled by Hopper in 1825. Recently and imaginatively restored, the house now reflects the life and work of a Tudor house from Great Kitchen to Herb and Potager Gardens”. As it happened, the house was hosting a “re-creation” event with all sorts of Tudor activities set up around the house and gardens. Unfortunately, it was by now raining quite steadily as we walked under umbrellas up the main drive and gazed at the various denizens cowering in their rain sodden tents and marquees.
Once inside the house, however, the various volunteers were gamely entering into the spirit of the event, none more so than the cooks and scullery maids in the kitchens where the preparation of a full blown meal was underway on the various original cooking ranges and fires. I would have to say that this was actually much more interesting than wandering through the usual “state” rooms loaded up with furnishings, pictures and ornaments, especially as, if you talked to any of the “Tudors”, as they were described, they tried as manfully and womanfully as possible to stay in character.
I am not sure whether I really like this kind of theatre approach to history but I suppose that it was still school holidays and all of this was regarded as very much family entertainment and education. If this was the Tesco of version of country house history then I probably should stay with the Waitrose version as represented by the National Trust. So that is me nailed for my social prejudices.