Harry Potter and Boots of Beer

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Lavenham, Suffolk, bills itself as England’s best preserved medieval town. As a bit of a history buff it is a place DonQui has wanted to visit for some time. Even though it is not far from his home paddock on the Suffolk coast, he has not managed it until now.

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In the heart of Suffolk, not too far from Bury St. Edmunds, Lavenham is not easy to find. There are no main roads and no rail lines. To get there DonQui has to wind his way along narrow country lanes with only just enough room for two cars coming in opposite directions to squeeze past each other. Perhaps this is why the place is so well preserved.

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If you like old timber-framed houses this is the place for you. Many of the wonky buildings have been standing since the 14th century. Walking around the compact streets DonQui feels as if he has stepped back in time — parked cars notwithstanding.

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Fans of Harry Potter may well recognise the De Vere house as Harry’s birthplace from the film The Deathly Hallows.

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Several other films have also used the backdrop of Lavenham’s medieval streets as a backdrop.

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Many of the houses have pink plaster. The colour is still known today as ’Suffolk pink’. Originally this colour was obtained by mixing pigs’ blood with the plaster. DonQui assumes that the modern versions are more likely made by chemical combinations to match the natural original.

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Most of the buildings can only be admired from the outside but the Guildhall can be visited. It has been restored inside along with some excellent exhibits of its origins in the Flanders wool trade.

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Later it became a house of correction where the ‘idle and disorderly’ (poor and homeless) were incarcerated in the misguided idea that hard work and cruel conditions would make them more productive members of society.

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These reproductions of original notices give DonQui an idea of the fate of those unfortunates. One woman was incarcerated for having brought two children with smallpox into the town.

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There is also a bit of relatively modern history to the place. RAF Lavenham was an active airfield during the second world war and was home to the USAAF’ s 487th Bombardment Group which flew 185 missions between May 1944 and April 1945 with the loss of 233 lives. The Airmen’s Bar in the Swan Hotel is dedicated to their memory.

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Original graffiti from British and American pilots adorns the walls along with modern additions from returning veterans and their offspring.

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DonQui particularly likes the ‘boot record’ from 1940 which lists the times it took various British servicemen to drink a ‘boot’ of beer. Ironically this is a German tradition in which a couple of litres of beer are drunk in one go from a glass in the shape of a boot. DonQui did this in his younger days when he was living in Germany. The trick is to keep the toe of the boot pointing down otherwise an air-bubble will cause the drinker to be drenched, much to the amusement of the on-lookers.

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DonQui takes his hat off to W.H. Culling of the RAF who drank the boot in an incredible 59 seconds on 5 July 1940 only to do it again eight days later in 40 seconds!

Lavenham has plenty of excellent watering holes. These include:

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The Great House. This is where DonQui stayed and he reviewed it fully in his previous post. As boutique hotel with only 5 rooms it must be reserved well in advance. If you cannot get a room there, DonQui recommends treating yourself to at least one meal in the wonderful French restaurant.

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The Swan. Home of the atmospheric Airmen’s Bar, the Swan also has rooms and two eating possibilities.

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The restaurant is excellent, offering modern British cuisine of nearly the same quality as The Great House although it does not have quite the same ambiance. Duchess proclaims her goat’s cheese pannacotta with beetroot granita as one of the most interesting dishes she has ever tasted.

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The Swan’s Brasserie is more casual but with a bunch of tables and plastic chairs set up in a hallway, DonQui is not tempted.

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Attached to the Swan is an excellent Spa with a full range of treatments and a hot tub.

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Number 10 gets good reviews on TripAdvisor. The old timbered building and interesting menu posted outside tempts DonQui. When he goes inside to potentially make a reservation his ears are assaulted with the sounds of manufactured pop music of the worst kind. When he asks if this sort of stuff is played through dinner he is informed that it is. With a gentle snort he turns on his hooves and looks elsewhere.

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The Lavenham Greyhound is a Greene King pub. DonQui goes in for an afternoon drink and enjoys it. He cannot vouch for the food but the menu has fairly typical good pub food options. The bowls of soup he sees being brought to another table look good.

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The Guildhall  has a very good café offering tea, coffee and baked goods. Their scones are baked on the premises and DonQui tucks into one along with clotted cream and a blackcurrant jam while Duchess takes hers with raspberry jam. The scones are truly excellent. It is well worth a stop.

The Old Spanish Capital

Well that was Toledo’s status until the upstart village of Madrid down the road began to take on airs and pretensions. It was the Visigothic capital of Spain and remained so until the Arab conquest. As a result it is packed full of old stuff and, as readers will already know, DonQui is particularly fond of old stuff.

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Toledo may not be a bustling hive of modern activity so those seeking exciting nightlife and cutting edge fashion should probably go elsewhere. DonQui, however, is in his element trotting up and down the narrow, winding, cobbled, medieval streets. Around every corner there is another church, monastery, convent, synagogue or some other edifice which had been around since the time when most Anglo-Saxons were living in mud huts.

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Best of all is the Museum of Visigothic Culture set in the old Church of San Roman which had been a church, then a mosque and then a church again. The walls are covered with 13th century paintings which remind DonQui that at one time all medieval churches were painted like this.

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The Visigoths have not left much from their 300 year reign but DonQui is obsessed enough to get quite excited by the smattering of inscribed columns, coins and other artefacts. The explanations are in Spanish only but the setting is worth the trip alone and the normal €1 entry is waived.

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Not so at the main cathedral where entry is €8. DonQui hesitates for a moment. The helpful lady explains that this includes an audio-guide which produces a barely disguised look of disgust as DonQui cannot abide audio-guides. DonQui digs deep into his pockets, produces the required cash and trots inside. It is, of course, quite magnificent and the cathedral is held up as the epitome of the Spanish Gothic style (which has nothing to do with the Visigoths). In layout and decoration it is very much like the cathedral in Seville — designed to be an awe inspiring demonstration of church and state.

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The battle scenes carved on the backs of the wooden choir chairs are a not so subtle reminder of the connection between temporal and spiritual power. Depicting the reconquest of Spain by the Christians they show towns being besieged, Muslim defenders falling from the battlements and their leaders kneeling in capitulation.

DonQui actually much prefers his military to ecclesiastic history so he is delighted to learn that the old Alcazar — the great citadel — has been transformed into a most excellent military museum covering the entirety of Spanish military history from the Roman conquest through to modern Afghanistan.

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Very well laid out over several floors with good explanations in both Spanish and English it keeps DonQui enthralled for a good couple of hours.

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There is even a whole exhibition devoted to the history of toy soldiers with some magnificent dioramas and displays. Those who know DonQui well will understand how much he enjoyed this.

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There is not much going on in the evenings. With dinner starting no earlier than 9pm, and most locals arriving after that, there are worse ways to pass an evening than sipping on a drink or two and sampling the tapas — the latter coming in larger than normal portions. El Trebol and El Embrujo are DonQui’s favourites.

stones tributeOne evening as he makes his way back from dinner DonQui comes across a local Rolling Stones tribute band playing in the cathedral square. The setting is incongruous and the band not very good but DonQui finds it delightfully entertaining none the less.

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DonQui is in Toledo for 3 days. Much of his enjoyment in a new place comes from simply wandering around the streets and seeing what he can find. He never takes guided tours, preferring to sacrifice efficiency for exploration and quiet contemplation.

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He is quite surprised, therefore to see that the tourist board seems to have set up a number of signs to help him find his way around.

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These lead eventually to a statue of Miguel de Cervantes — author of the story about DonQui Oaty’s namesake. This is La Mancha after all.

Practicalities

For those less obsessed with old stuff than DonQui a day or two would probably suffice.

Toledo is easily reached by the fast efficient train from Madrid Atocha station which takes 33 minutes when the Spanish railway workers are not on strike. Every time DonQui has been in Spain there has been a strike but fortunately on the days he travelled his journeys were not disrupted. A car would be worse than useless as Toledo is a medieval city far more suited to Donkeys than automobiles.

DonQui secured a wonderful apartment in the heart of the old city through Airbnb. This is now his first port of call when looking for a place to stay as for less than the price of a hotel room he can have more space, greater privacy and the advice of a local to recommend good places to eat and drink.

As in most parts of Spain there are plenty of cafés and restaurants but the number of places to sit outside and watch the world go by are unusually limited. Most stick to traditional opening hours with lunch between 2-4pm and dinner after 9pm.

DonQui found it quite difficult to find a place to sit down for a drink in the late afternoon or early evening. Breakfast options were even more problematic with no bakeries close by nor any cafés offering anything suitable. DonQui had to make do with bread he bought the night before. His was grateful that his apartment was suitably equipped for making coffee.