English History Thrives in East Anglia

Article excerpt

Byline: Corinna Lothar

LAVENHAM, England - The sun is just rising behind the trees on the crest of the hill as the horses canter down, breath steaming in the chill air. At the bottom, they turn and gallop up the hill, manes flying.

This is Newmarket in Suffolk County, East Anglia. The horses are the pride of England, elegant racers, beautiful to behold in the morning light.

We have come from all over the United States, a small group of journalists invited to experience some of the delights of East Anglia, Suffolk County in particular, one of the less-frequented regions of England.

Described as "a bump on the eastern edge of the British Isles," East Anglia has changed little through the ages; it is rich in history and lists among its native sons Oliver Cromwell, Horatio Nelson and Cardinal Wolsey.

It is a land of fens (lowlands) and broads (shallow lakes). The Dutch came to teach the locals how to drain the seemingly ever-present water. This is the landscape of dikes and ditches into which Dorothy L. Sayers placed her aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, in "The Nine Taylors."

The name is derived from the land of the East Angles and consists of the counties of Norfolk (North Folk), Suffolk (South Folk), Essex (East Saxons) and Cambridgeshire. The region is rich in Norman architecture - soaring cathedrals, castles and keeps (towers) - splendid Jacobean and Elizabethan mansions, thatched cottages, windmills and pretty villages.

Suffolk has an ancient forest and a beautiful coastline with defenses constructed for protection against the Spanish Armada centuries ago. It is a region of seaside piers and promenades, small sailing centers built in Saxon times to repel the invading vikings, and magnificent gardens. The gently hilly countryside, immortalized in the paintings of native son John Constable, is ideal for bicycling and hiking.

East Anglia begins with Cambridge and Colchester, Britain's oldest recorded town, where a visitor still can see the remains of the temple built for the conquering Roman Emperor Claudius, destroyed in A.D. 60 by Queen Boudicea of the ancient Iceni tribe. The Romans rebuilt Colchester in stone and added a theater and centrally heated bathrooms (a boon even then on damp, wintry nights).

During the Middle Ages, the backbone of industry in the area was wool and weaving. Many Dutch and Flemish weavers settled here and created an industry that became world famous.

Lavenham, the center of the weaving industry, is considered one of the best-preserved Tudor villages in Britain. The town was known for its blue wool cloth, called "broadcloth" because it was 68 inches wide and 28 yards long. (The color came from woad, the same plant used by the ancient Picts to die themselves blue.) Expressions such as "dyed in the wool" and being on "tenterhooks" (a tenter piece was used to stretch cloth, and tenterhooks held the cloth) relate to medieval cloth-making.

Lavenham has remained intact, with most of its gorgeous half-timbered houses dating from between 1450 and 1500. There's no neon, no billboards to shock the senses, no visible electric wires or other accouterments of modern times. The exquisite little town looks much as it did 600 years ago, a little bigger, but not much. Many of the streets take their names from the clothiers who built their large houses here. One of the houses, rented in 1786 for 6 pounds a year by engraver Isaac Taylor, was the house where Taylor's daughter Jane wrote "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

Three guilds were formed in the town to regulate the cloth trade. The Guild of Corpus Christi clothiers who built the Guildhall in the 1520s on the south side of the market square (unfortunately no longer used for weekly markets). It has been used as a town hall, a prison, a workhouse and a wool store as well as the center of the weaving trade. Today it is a community center. …