WEAVING OUR WAY THROUGH EAST ANGLIA
By Michael Algar 1100 words
Within easy reach of London, some of East Anglia's landscapes will live forever in Constable
and Gainsborough paintings. But it is wealth from this area's cloth weaving industries that is
reflected in its historic communities of such appeal today.
From several self-drive themed itineraries available from the East of England Tourist Board,
we chose one recently that took us into some of England's most picturesque towns and villages.
Here, the grand dwellings originally built by prosperous cloth merchants are show places and
museums. Mills have been converted to hotels and restaurants. Cottages house crafts and antique
shops - so many that the BBC-tv Lovejoy series seen on PBS, which gives a lighthearted look at
East Anglia's antique trade, never seems to run out of new locales.
Our particular tour covered approximately 120 miles and could have been accomplished in a
day. Instead we allowed three days from Friday to Sunday, permitting us to see the area at its
best (and enjoy weekend-break hotel prices) while giving us time to browse and generally enjoy
the scenery. Flying into Stansted Airport in Essex, northeast of London, we began our tour only
15 minutes away in Braintree.
Throughout this region weavers continue to produce cloth, often using looms in place for
the past l00 years or longer. Such are the silk weavers, converting thread imported from China
into exquisite fabric which can sell for something like $1,000 a yard. Even at this price, orders are
steady from castles and stately homes throughout Europe, where patterned silk is used to cover
walls as well as windows. Buckingham Palace has Braintree silk lining salon walls; the Crown
Jewels in the Tower of London are displayed on Braintree velvet.
Silk weaving is a relative newcomer to East Anglia. Craftsmen arrived in the 1830s when
Samuel Courtauld, a descendant of Huguenot refugees, came from London to set up shop here.
Braintree was already a thriving market town at the end of the 12th century, shipping raw wool to
the Low Countries. Then everything changed in the late 1400s with the realization that weaving
cloth was more profitable than exporting the raw materials. When Flemish Protestant immigrants
fled oppression in the 17th century, they brought skills in weaving fine worsteds and baize,
creating a market for domestic cloths. As demands changed, weavers turned their hands to
imported wool, even horsehair and coconut matting.
Towns prospered and merchants built fine homes. They erected trade guildhalls and other
public buildings, and endowed churches of cathedral-like proportions. Because local stone was
scarce, timber was the chief domestic building material, and now many examples of these
medieval timber-framed houses - often plastered and colour-washed - survive today.
Halstead, 6 miles north of Braintree, is where Courtauld opened his Townsford Mill in
1827. Here his family went on to become pioneers in the weaving of rayon, first of the synthetic
fabrics. The mill, prettily sited beside a stream, is now an antique centre. About 5 miles to the
west, the village of Thaxted has a Cutlers Hall, a fine example of the trade guildhalls. During the
middle ages, Sudbury to the north was a wool town which now preserves its history through
many half-timbered houses and three gracious old churches. The 18th century English artist
Thomas Gainsborough was born here, in a house that has become an art centre. Although best
known as a portrait painter, he enjoyed working on landscapes of the surrounding countryside.
Lavenham is without doubt one of England's most picturesque towns. Among its
immaculately preserved houses, you will find the magnificent 16th century Guildhall of corpus
Christi, now a National Trust property containing a museum to 700 years of the East Anglian
wool trade. Less obvious is the old Wool Hall because it is incorporated in the 14th century Swan
Hotel, an excellent choice for an overnight stay. Slightly apart from the community, the local
church was built around the turn of the 16th century.
Turning east towards Hadleigh, another wool town with fine church and guildhall, we entered
Dedham Vale. This is Constable Country, a beautiful landscape of gentle hills and valleys, rivers
and streams still as inspiring as ever. You'll want to linger in Dedham, a picture-postcard village
of timbered houses and Georgian frontages, containing shops and businesses which serve this and
surrounding communities. St. Mary's Church dominates the village centre. It was featured in
Constable's works, and owes its beginnings to a wealthy wool merchant. Do take time out for a
short walk along the footpath to the River Sour for a view of Flatford Mill, another Constable
favourite which has changed little since the artist made it famous.
Continuing on through Dedham Vale, you will come to Colchester, Britain's oldest recorded
town. Far from the sea now, it was a major port in the Middle Ages, with wool as its main export
until 16th century Flemish weavers reversed the trade. They settled here in an attractive area
known as the Dutch Quarter, where narrow lanes are still lined with half-timbered houses built by
those first weavers who brought prosperity to Colchester. The Colchester Mill Hotel, housed in a
converted flour mill, is one of a number of several good hotels in town.
Final stop on our triangular tour was Coggeshall (pronounced "Coxhall") another principal
weaving centre. Paycockes, a National Trust property is open to the public. Noted for its fine
wood panelling and wood-carving, it illustrates a prosperous wool merchant's home at the
beginning of the 16th century. Another sign of past wealth is the church of St Peter and Vinculum,
rebuilt in the 15th century in the rich cathedral style of the wool towns, but incorporating material
from Roman remains.
Coggeshall deserves far more time than we were able to give it, and we suggest at least half
a day. This town is known for its antique shops and restorers who specialize in clocks and metal
work as well as rare books. The Coggeshall Antique Fair, held on Sundays, has some really
superior antiques and collectibles. The White Hart Hotel lives up to its five stars, while the Chapel
Inn on Market Hill, said to occupy the site of a former chapel, serves a great English Sunday
IF YOU GO: For more information on East Anglia
contact the East of England Tourist Board, Toppesfield Hall, Hadleigh, Suffolk IP7 5DN
England. Tel 01473 822922 or visit www. eetb.org.uk