Buildings At The Heart Of England

Nikolaus Pevsner is the perfect guide on a journey through the architectural jewels of Suffolk

Architecture Culture & Anarchy History
The wealth of Suffolk past: The 16th-century Melford Hall (photo: Dave Catchpole, via Flickr)

The scholarship and scope of the revisions of Yale’s Buildings of England series, updating the volumes compiled by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, seem to improve with each new volume. Over the last few years I have noted some especially impressive surveys of the architecture of various counties, notably Herefordshire, with its hidden depths of Norman churches, and Cambridgeshire, with its superb descriptions of one of the richest concentrations of fine buildings anywhere in the country. But now a real treasure has arrived. Pevsner’s original single volume covering Suffolk, architecturally speaking one of the greatest counties in England, has now been published as a revision in two volumes covering East and West. They are the fruits of around seven years’ work by James Bettley, whose revision of Essex, published in 2007, set a gold standard for quality in these guides that even he seems to have surpassed.

Each volume has its own flavour, for there are two Suffolks that divide not just geographically down the line of the road from Norwich to Ipswich but that divide in terms of their character. The West is almost entirely agricultural, though, as Dr Bettley points out, it is an area that still bears many traces of an industrial past, from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, where wool and subsequently other forms of cloth sustained the population. The great wool churches of Lavenham, Long Melford and Clare, with their rich and varied decorations and monuments, their fine roofs and stonework, are evidence of the stunning wealth of the area during the 15th and 16th centuries. Yet we are also told that some of the fine medieval commercial buildings of Lavenham were falling down by the beginning of the last century as the industrial revolution changed the geographical focus of the English economy, and what had become a predominantly farming area had been ravaged by an agricultural depression. Fortunately, the new Edwardian desire to preserve a past that was fast disappearing because of social and industrial change intervened, and just before the Great War the dismantling of such buildings was stopped. Now, thanks not least to the National Trust, Lavenham is a showcase of medieval building and a comprehensible representation of the past that otherwise might not have existed. It is just a pity that the local council allowed, 50 years ago, the building of a terrace of sheltered houses in the most repellent vernacular of the time — the embodiment of cheap and nasty — and which now stand adjacent to the gorgeous church. One hopes these monstrosities will fall down soon, and be replaced by something built in materials more appropriate to the context and more pleasing for their inhabitants to live in.

The wonders of Long Melford, where a cathedral-sized medieval church crowns a mile-long street of fine Georgian and Victorian buildings that reflect a mixed commercial and industrial heritage, and which has two 16th-century palaces for good measure, are catalogued as never before. But the great achievement of Dr Bettley’s revision is to describe Bury St Edmunds, the relics of whose abbatial splendours are still well-preserved, and which seems a definitive English town in its network of Georgian and Victorian streets. But Bury’s new attraction — it was finished barely a decade ago — is the tower on the cathedral. Bury only became a diocese in 1914, and the great church of St James by the Abbey was elevated to cathedral status. It wanted a tower, and eventually Stephen Dykes Bower was selected to build one. The design borrows from Bodley and Giles Gilbert Scott, and is of a piece with the medieval nave that it complements; but the most remarkable feature of all is the material. The quarry at Barnack near Peterborough, of which so many of the finest buildings of the Middle Ages in the Eastern Counties were made, was exhausted — in terms of modern methods of extraction — in the 1540s. It was reopened and, using modern equipment, the stone for this tower was extracted. The result is breathtaking. I recall driving into Bury one summer evening shortly after the scaffolding was removed and seeing the tower ahead of me. I almost crashed the car, overcome as I was by a sight no one had seen in England for the best part of 500 years: a brand-new Barnack stone building.

East Suffolk has no fewer jewels — indeed, just think of the great churches at Southwold and Blythburgh, Framlingham church and castle and the great houses at Heveningham and Somerleyton — but it has a different character. It is of course largely agricultural, but it is defined and shaped by its coastline: Southwold, Aldeburgh and Orford for recreation, but Lowestoft as a declining fishing port, Felixstowe as a far-from-declining commercial port, and Ipswich as a thriving commercial centre all offer a very different variety of buildings from those seen in the West. Ipswich continues to undergo huge developments, but has a medieval heart and a remarkable selection of ancient churches; Dr Bettley lists a dozen, half of which are redundant but preserved by various trusts. Ipswich is a showcase of the prosperity of contemporary East Anglia, with interesting modern buildings on its riverside. Happily, the coming of the new no longer means the destruction of the old.

Indeed, he writes in his introduction not just of the way in which Suffolk has benefited from a determination to restore old buildings that stretched back now more than 100 years, but observes that “the impact of the 20th century on Suffolk was less than in many other counties”, for which one can only rejoice. Many villages still feel untouched by the 20th century, the main change being that the cottages are lived in not by farmworkers but by professionals, and are in better condition (as are parish churches) than ever before. This is the true glory of Suffolk, which as those of us who know it are aware is one of the more glorious places on earth. Its beauties survive not because they are preserved in a museum, but because they are used and cared for. Among the redundant churches of Ipswich are a conference centre and tourist bureau; buildings that have been shops for 500 years are still shops, and children still live in the county’s ancient houses, behind pink-washed walls and parge-work. Dr Bettley’s books explain why, though it is geographically on the periphery, Suffolk is still the heart of England.