Where horses and history vie for attention
LAVENHAM, ENGLAND — Pop quiz: Which flavor of Lifesavers do English horses go absolutely wild about?
A) Butter rum
C) Wild cherry
D) Are you crazy? Horses don't eat candy.
Ah, no. Actually, the correct answer is B. Equines will also graciously accept Altoids or Tic-Tacs as substitutes, although the latter are a little hard for them to wrap their lips around.
That fun fact comes courtesy of the Newmarket Horseracing Museum in East Anglia. The Altoids and Tic-Tacs were the result of an on-site experiment.
The part of eastern England that includes Newmarket, a premier horse-racing town, may not be as well-traveled as London or the Lake District, but it offers many of the attractions tourists expect from the English countryside.
Old architecture? The old wool town of Lavenham is full of beautiful examples of half-timbered construction. If manor houses are more to your taste, Kentwell Hall has elaborate gardens and re-creations of Tudor life.
Or there's Hedingham Castle in Essex, a Norman keep so well-preserved that the A&E channel filmed "Ivanhoe" there. Royalty? Newmarket has hosted kings since the 1600s.
Famous writers? Well, this is England, after all. The girls who wrote "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," lived in Lavenham, and there's a skinny, cockeyed building that lays claim to being the "Little Crooked House" from the nursery rhyme. Dickens stayed in Bury St. Edmunds and set part of the "Pickwick Papers" there.
Pubs and beautiful gardens? Bury St. Edmunds boasts both Great Britain's smallest pub, The Nutshell, and the honor of being the only town to win the Nations in Bloom contest two years running.
But these sites have a quirky personality that saves them from becoming too "twee." Many of them were, frankly, built on failure.
Lavenham's architecture is so well preserved because the town fell into an economic decline after the wool trade collapsed in the 1600s, and no one could afford to renovate. Hedingham Castle is still standing because its owners surrendered without a fight when King John besieged it. Bury St. Edmunds gets its name from a poor guy who was killed in battle during the 600s.
And Newmarket guides take gleeful pride in the fact that the kings they love best are the ones the history books look down on.
The combination of the picaresque and the picturesque the towns are undeniably pretty along with the lack of crowds, makes for a pleasant, relaxed vacation. Here, horses outnumber night clubs by a wide margin. In fact, Newmarket's population is about 7,000 humans and 3,000 horses. A quick stroll around informs visitors just who has priority.
There's a public swimming pool for the race horses, as well as sidewalks and stoplights just for equestrians. Newmarket commuters have to work around the stables' exercise schedules.
This is less of an issue than it would be in, say, Boston, as a large portion of the town either owns, works with, or is mad about horses. Folks here name their children after famous race horses, and gentlemen used to pay more for a portrait of their horse than one of their wife.
The town's most memorable feature is the Downs, long, rolling grasslands where the stable lads of both sexes take their charges for exercise. If you want to watch champion horses like the Sheik of Dubai's put through their paces, don't linger over breakfast. There were only a few horses around when our group arrived about 9 a.m.
There's plenty of horseflesh left for those who like to sleep in. The mares and newborn foals at the National Horse Farm, the only public one in England, are happy to have their noses patted.
Small, private stables, such as the one owned by sisters Poppy and Julia Feilden, offer the best chance to peek inside the world of horse racing. Both are former jockeys (Julia used to race against Princess Anne) and now offer tours of their hometown when they're not training their charges.
For those tourists who didn't cry while reading "National Velvet" and "Black Beauty," there's history, both ancient and recent. This part of East Anglia, a province northeast of London the size of Wales, has been host to royalty since Queen Boudicca led the Iceni (horse traders, of course) against the Romans.
Charles I frequented the place before Cromwell had him beheaded. And his son, Charles II, spent almost more time carousing in Newmarket than he did governing in London. (It was at Newmarket's Bushell Inn where Charles II, who was fond of a good cut of meat, knighted his steak. He reportedly drew his carving knife and announced, "I name you Sir Loin.")
Restoration is, of course, one of England's premier spectator sports (after rugby and cricket) and the Swan the hostelry where we stayed has converted the town's old wool hall and several residences into a lovely hotel, complete with exposed beams and original wall paintings from the 1400s.
One gets a sense of how cramped life was for the townspeople, since their homes now make up just a couple of good-sized bedrooms by today's standards. (Fortunately, the Swan doesn't expect visitors to adhere to a 15th-century style of living: The rooms, gardens, and dining are all luxurious.)
Another piece of history that was recently rescued from life as a bike shop is the Sudbury home of the painter Gainsborough. During the past 20 years, the museum has gathered a collection of the portraitist's work, as well as exhibiting current artists.
But perhaps the most impressive piece of restoration work in the area is Kentwell Hall, a labor of love for Patrick and Judith Phillips, who have spent the past 30 years returning the 16th-century manor house and gardens to their full beauty.
From the dovecote to the rainbow garden to the working bakery and stillroom, the Phillipses have tried to re- create every aspect of Tudor life. The imposing red-brick mansion (surrounded by a moat, of course) has just about every feature an American visitor could wish for in an Elizabethan manor, and a few he or she probably never knew existed.
While a first-time visitor to England probably wouldn't want to miss London, the Lake District, or any of the other justly famous sites, for seasoned travelers looking for a new part of the country to explore, this pocket of East Anglia offers quiet charm and abundant beauty. Contact the Swan Hotel, High Street, Lavenham, Suffolk, at 011-44-870-400-8116, or phone 800-225-5843 from the US.