Many will know of Hadleigh’s prominence as a wool town in medieval times, but few may realise that this bustling little place was once home to an avant-garde art school, attended by Lucian Freud. There’s so much more to Hadleigh than meets the eye…
The small but very beautiful and bustling market town of Hadleigh is a convenient base for exploring the aesthetic delights of Constable Country, and an increasingly popular holiday destination in its own right, owing to a rich history and profusion of mostly privately owned shops and eateries.
The town is positioned on the crossing of the River Brett, which flows from the north edge of town – parallel with the approximately one-mile-long High Street – under historic Toppesfield Bridge and eventually joins the River Stour at Higham.
The watersplash in the village of Kersey – located to the north west of Hadleigh – is a tributary of the Brett – and one of the area’s most picture-postcard-pretty scenes should you be carrying your camera.
Hadleigh’s history is a long and fascinating one, so much so that the Council for British Archaeology placed Hadleigh among 51 towns “so precious that ultimate responsibility for them should be a national concern”.
Archaeological finds from the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age have been unearthed in the area, as have the remains of a 1st century Roman villa and other Roman artefacts and there is evidence of a 5th century pagan Saxon occupation in the area around George Street.
Hadleigh later came to prominence as one of Viking King Guthrum’s royal towns and it is thought that the Danish leader – who died in 890 – was buried in what is now St Mary’s churchyard.
By 991 the Manor of Hadleigh had been bequeathed by another Viking ruler to the Priory Church of Canterbury Cathedral, maintaining its status as an “ecclesiastical peculiar” under direct control of the Archbishop of Canterbury (as opposed to the Bishop of the local Diocese) until the mid 1800s.
Hadleigh was granted its Market Charter in 1252 and in the next few centuries became one of Suffolk’s most prosperous towns owing to a thriving trade in wool and cloth. In 1524 Hadleigh was ranked as 24th wealthiest provincial town, although the cloth industry would fall into serious decline by the end of the 16th century.
The trade in cloth was to thank for the many magnificent dwellings built by wealthy merchants during this period – you need only wander along the High Street, Angel Street, George Street or Benton Street to see examples.
The town’s most striking and important buildings are in the churchyard area. Look out for the flint and freestone Parish Church of St Mary, which has a tower dating back to the 13th century but was actually largely rebuilt during the 15th century and is home to the oldest bell in Suffolk on the eastern side of its spire.
In the same area stands the 52-foot Deanery Tower with its unusual brickwork, which was built in 1495 by one of the most notable rectors of Hadleigh, Archdeacon William Pykenham. The tower was intended as the gatehouse for a new Rectory, although this was never completed due to Pykenham’s death in 1497.
Adjoining this is the Deanery House and in the same setting you will find the very handsome Guildhall/Town Hall complex. The latter is made up of two timber framed medieval buildings – the Market Hall and Guildhall (the restoration of which was completed in 1990) and the Victorian Town Hall with its grand ballroom. There are also the remains of a medieval detached kitchen in the garden at the rear of the Guildhall.
In addition to the purposes for which each building was created, the various parts have been put to many other uses over the centuries including a grammar school, almshouses, the parish workhouse, a wool hall, the town gaol, assembly rooms, a corset factory and an elementary school.
Friends of Hadleigh Guildhall, a charity established in 1994 to promote the complex of buildings, are continually improving facilities for visitors. During the summer months they serve traditional cream teas in the garden and conduct guided tours of the buildings, parts of which can be hired as a venue for civil wedding ceremonies.
Did you know?
- Internationally renowned Suffolk born artist Maggi Hambling was brought up in Hadleigh, where her father worked for Barclays Bank.
- World record breaking flyer Oswald Gayford was born in Hadleigh. Gayford’s most famous achievement was a two day flight to South Africa in February 1933.
- Gainsborough, Constable and Turner have all painted St Mary’s Church in Hadleigh.
- Distinguished artists Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett Haines ran an avant-garde art school called Benton End on the edge of Hadleigh, students of which included Lucian Freud.
- Rowland Taylor, onetime rector of Hadleigh, was burned at the stake on Aldham Common in 1555 during the reign of Catholic Queen Mary Tudor for refusing to allow Mass to be celebrated in St Mary’s.
- In 1833 a series of meetings took place in Hadleigh’s Deanery Tower, which led to the eventual formation of the Oxford Movement. This refers to the activities and ideas of an initially small group of people in the University of Oxford who argued against the increasing secularisation of the Church of England, and sought to recall it to its heritage of apostolic order, and to the catholic doctrines of the early church fathers.