Detail of Lavenham Door

The Medieval town is often imagined as picturesque, with quaint buildings, huddling together, built on a human scale. In fact, most Medieval towns were actually planned, centred round a market place, and would have had a much greater sense of spaciousness and order than we perceive today. Population growth over the centuries has resulted in the crowded streetscapes we can now see today.

To have a market, the town needed a charter, a local lord’s patronage, and a council. Most were marked out into burgage plots, long strips of land with narrow frontages onto the main streets. Since then, buildings have been enlarged, rebuilt, or squeezed in behind. Usually, only the medieval layout remains the same.

East Anglia is unusual in that many towns still possess Medieval street plans and some late Medieval or early Tudor buildings. These date from the boom years of the wool industry. Subsequently, the towns’ decline meant greater preservation than elsewhere. Towns like Long Melford, Saffron Walden and Bury St Edmunds are well known for their delightful streetscapes. But, perhaps the most celebrated example is Lavenham, and these images suggest why.

About the online exhibition

'How We Built Britain' is a major collaboration with the BBC


Images in the exhibition are from RIBApix, a growing database dedicated to providing you with exceptional and unique images from the RIBA British Architectural Library's collections.

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