Arriving in Lavenham is like rewinding several hundred years in time. Often hailed one of England’s best-kept medieval towns, this ludicrously pretty village is stacked with 300 listed buildings, many with warped, crooked, timbers and facades painted in chalk-box pastels.
Craft shops and quaint tearooms huddle along lanes, and the striking National Trust Guildhall, a testament to the wealth of the town’s woollen cloth merchants, presides over the Market Place. On the edge of town is the truly magnificent, late-Gothic St Peter and Paul Church, bankrolled by John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, back in the 15th century, which is more like a cathedral in its lofty proportions. And if Lavenham feels like a stage set, this has not gone unnoticed by filmmakers: De Vere house featured as Harry Potter’s birthplace.
Fitting into this medieval tableau neatly is The Swan at Lavenham, a gorgeous black-and-white timber-framed building that brings together three houses built in 1425 when the wool trade was flourishing. Again, entering the hotel is like being winged back in time, with sagging timbers and fires burning in open grates in lounges full of hidden nooks.
A maze of corridors unfurls to rooms that haven’t lost a jot of their original character: dressed in heritage fabrics and warm colours. The Gainsborough Bedrooms, some with four-posters, and the spacious Constable suites, with features like inglenook fireplaces, vaulted ceilings and mullioned windows, really ramp up the romance.
A far more recent addition to The Swan is the Weavers’ House Spa, real icing-on-the-cake stuff with its calm, peaceful, glass-fronted welcome area, a jetted tub in the courtyard garden, aromatic steam room and hot stone sauna. It’s small but perfectly formed, and overseen by Alex Hurt, a spa director with experience in some of the world’s best spas under her belt. Hence, perhaps, the five-bubble rating in the Good Spa Guide.
Alex understands that wellness should go beyond a quick back rub, meaning that spa-goers are welcomed with all-important little extras like smoothies and given herbal tea and blankets to snuggle up on the chaise longues in the relaxation area – perfect for a pre-treatment doze. Using British, aromatherapy-driven Temple Spa products, treatments reveal a touch of innovation: bespoke facials involving skin analysis and lymph drainage, lavender-infused ‘sleep well’ massages on water-filled Hydrotherm mattresses and ‘mind therapy massage’ with hypo meditation are among the many options delivered with a gentle, intuitive touch. Then there is the signature two-hour Weavers’ House Hug, a blissful top-to-toe treatment, involving deep-tissue and hot stone massage, a facial, and body rocking.
Nice to see, too, is that the spa menu has some healthy eating choices, from a take on afternoon tea with the likes of sweet potato brownies and vegan scones, to superfood salads and fresh juices.
Gastronomically speaking, the crowning glory is the Gallery Restaurant, built from 400 tons of English oak, where you can just picture wool traders throwing great banquets beneath the high-beamed ceilings. In the evening, candles are lit on white linen-draped tables, setting the scene for dishes prepared by head chef Justin Kett, who takes pride in regional and seasonal sourcing. Drinks in the snug Airmen’s Bar, crammed with WWII memorabilia, pique the appetite for dinner.
The menu, emphasising key ingredients and served with old-school finesse, features the likes of goat’s cheese panna cotta with beetroot and walnuts, cod with mussels, gnocchi and monk’s beard, and soufflé with cherry and pistachio. A pianist plays during Sunday lunch, as has long been the tradition.
The hotel is at its beautiful best in December, I’m told, when the trees are decorated, fires burn brightly and a festive market takes over the main square in Lavenham. I can well believe it. A stay here is special at any given time, but at Christmas the medieval magic of this stuck-in-time village must really come to the fore.
The Swan at Lavenham Hotel and Spa, High Street, Lavenham, Suffolk, CO10 9QA, England.
Tel: +44 (0)1787 247477
Lavenham is situated on the A1141, about 2 miles east of the A134, between Sudbury and Bury St. Edmunds. From the A14, exit at J44 and follow the signs to Sudbury A134, then follow signs to Lavenham A1141. The Swan is 30 minutes from Newmarket, 40 minutes from Cambridge, one hour from Stansted, 1 hour 20 minutes from Norwich or Southend and around 2 hours 10 minutes (76 miles) via the M11 from London or London Heathrow Airport.
The Swan is situated on the corner of the High Street and Water Street. The main car park is opposite the main hotel entrance, on High Street, off Hall Road.
The train from Norwich – Stowmarket – Bury St Edmunds with one change takes 1 hour 55 minutes, then about a 30-minute bus or taxi ride. From London Liverpool Street – Ipswich – Bury St Edmunds with one change it takes 1 hour 55 minutes. From London Liverpool Street – Sudbury with one change it is 90 minutes, then a shorter 15-minute drive.
Type of Hotel: 15th Century AA 4 Red Star Hotel & Spa
Number of Rooms: 45 rooms, including complimentary Wi-Fi
Price Band: Medium to High
Insider Tip: There is an entry/exit code for the hotel car park barrier – the code is changed weekly (usually on a Monday).
Fact Box: To book a stay and treatments in Weavers’ House Spa call +44 (0)1787 247477 or visit their website. Rooms start from £185 per night for two sharing including a full Suffolk breakfast; dinner from the à la carte menu is from £40 per person for three courses. Overnight guests have a complimentary two-hour session with use of the facilities in Weavers’ House Spa including the sauna, steam room, outdoor vitality pool and relaxation lounge. My Kinda Skin facial is £76 for 60 mins.
The hotel also has a civil wedding licence and can accommodate private dinners for 10 to 100 guests.
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10
Kerry Walker is an award-winning freelance travel writer, author and MA-qualified translator.
Photographs courtesy of The Swan at Lavenham