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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.

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