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The Crooked House in Lavenham is open to the public

The Crooked House in Lavenham Photo: the Crooked House
The Crooked House in Lavenham Photo: the Crooked House

Alex and Oli Khalil-Martin are the latest owners of The Crooked House in Lavenham. The self-styled ‘Crooked Men’ share their historic home with visitors from far and wide, giving them a glimpse into Crooked Life, now and then

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile,

He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile;

He bought a crooked cat which caught a crooked mouse,

And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

A dark, chilly December afternoon, back in 2018. Alex Khalil-Martin is walking a mile or two around Lavenham, enjoying a weekend in Suffolk, away from the hurly-burly of London, when he fancies a warming cup of tea. He comes upon The Crooked House, a charming tea room on the high street, steps inside... and falls in love.

The many-beamed, medieval merchant's house, with its twisted timbers, brick hearths, wonky upper storey and pointy gable, is his fantasy. The tea and cake are delicious, but his mind is elsewhere. He imagines living there, swapping his city existence for life the heart of Lavenham. He leaves, dreaming of one day owning the Crooked House.

Great British Life: Crooked Men... Alex and Oli in Tudor costume. Photo: the Crooked HouseCrooked Men... Alex and Oli in Tudor costume. Photo: the Crooked House

Two years go by; then, Alex is excited to discover The Crooked House is up for sale. Could it be his? He would give up everything just to own it and live the rest of his life in Lavenham. But, reality kicks in. He's busy; there's his job in marketing and advertising, his friends, contacts... oh well, maybe he'll get another chance, in another couple of decades.

Then Covid-19 strikes and nobody's going anywhere. The world goes online; Alex meets Oli, who works in the world of investment... and falls in love again. They chat about their hopes and dreams for a life together. Alex tells Oli about The Crooked House. It's his dream to live there and what better home for these two self-styled 'Crooked Men'? Small, one-bedroom, oozing historic charm and character, with lots of room and potential for a creative enterprise, especially as working remotely is becoming an accepted way of life. And... it's still for sale.

Not for much longer, though; The Cooked House is sold. But the sale falls through! Alex and Oli make a spur-of-the moment trip to Lavenham; their offer is accepted (I suspect more than a crooked sixpence, even allowing for inflation, but it would be rude to ask). The Crooked House – their dream, their forever home – is theirs.

Alex and Oli moved into the Crooked House in early 2021. Like their romance (they married just 18 months after meeting) it's all been a bit of a whirlwind. Their ambition from the start has been to share the eccentric 600-year-old building with others; they subscribe to the belief held by many lucky enough to own remarkable old properties, that they are simply two people in a long chain of custodians. Something that's stood for so long – albeit 'on the huh' – will be around for many years to come. It's the keeper of so much history that's worth sharing.

Great British Life: Inside The Crooked House with its 'Elizabethan' recreation. Photo: The Crooked HouseInside The Crooked House with its 'Elizabethan' recreation. Photo: The Crooked House

The couple wasted no time in restoring the house, doing much of the work themselves. When I knock on the wooden door (there's a cast iron knocker depicting a Crooked Cat catching a Crooked Mouse), I'm not quite sure what to expect. Inside, it's a revelation. Despite its size, The Crooked House isn't dainty or quaint, it's grand.

It was built in 1395 for one of Lavenham’s first successful wool merchants, making it one of the oldest properties in the village. Lavenham was already on its way to becoming prosperous; by Tudor times, wool – particularly popular Lavenham Blue cloth – had made it the 14th wealthiest town in England, the legacy of which are a magnificent church, splendid Guildhall and numerous timber-framed houses. Wool merchants with plenty of money were able to afford the large oak beams needed for grand buildings in prime positions.

The Crooked House is, in fact, part of a house which originally included its neighbour to the right and the house beyond. Enter The Crooked House and you're standing in what was originally the kitchen and buttery with a huge fireplace. Upstairs was a weavers’ workshop. Next door was the property's double-height great hall, and next to that the merchant’s private lodgings, comprising a parlour downstairs and solar (private sleeping quarters) upstairs.

The Crooked House wasn't always crooked, of course. In the medieval building boom, timber wasn't always seasoned and as the frame of The Crooked House dried over time, it twisted and contorted. But that time, Lavenham’s wool industry was in decline, merchants left and there was no money to rebuild, so the house remained crooked and was divided up, leaving us with a quirk of history and a modern icon.

Great British Life: Oli and Alex outside The Crooked House. Photo: the Crooked HouseOli and Alex outside The Crooked House. Photo: the Crooked House

Alex and Oli live in one of the country's most photographed houses. I wonder if they mind people pitching up with cameras and phones, or groups of tourists on guided tours pausing on their doorstep. Not a bit. 'We love it,' says Alex. 'We're proud to live here and it was always our intention to share it. It's such a fascinating house and its story should be told.'

Alex and Oli have reimagined The Crooked House as a Tudor residence, referencing Elizabeth I's 1578 royal progress of East Anglia when she passed through Lavenham, but not locking it in any one time. Within its historical context they've created a modern living space. 'Tapestries' line the walls, big wall hangings of pastoral scenes like a Renaissance-style photographic backdrop. There are art treasures collected from every part of the world, some of them for sale since part of their enterprise is dealing in art and antiques. Alex's own abstract work is on display, while a modern repro portrait of Elizabeth I hangs above the fireplace. Neon 'flames' flicker in the huge open hearth. It's stylish, comfortable and has a sophisticated club vibe.

Great British Life: Guests at a Crooked Club dinner. Photo: James Davidson PhotographyGuests at a Crooked Club dinner. Photo: James Davidson Photography

This, it turns out, is intentional; Alex and Oli plan an events-driven future for The Crooked House. History tours, guided by the Crooked Men, will evoke medieval and Tudor life. 'Crooked Life' experiences include a tour of the house, followed by a tour of Lavenham and afternoon tea. 'Crooked Club’ black tie dinners are home-cooked and hosted by the Crooked Men, who like nothing more than to welcome their guests in authentic Tudor costumes, which they've had specially designed and made in black wool, a status symbol of that era.

The dinners are held in the room upstairs, where weavers once produced Lavenham Blue. Eighteen guests share company and food around a big dining table. This is the wonky part of the house, of course, and Alex points out the modern timber floor, suspended over the original sloping version, that ensures people and furniture stay on the level. They've already hosted a few events which have proved a hit with people from Suffolk and further afield.

Oli, who learnt the art of hospitality helping out at the frequent dinner parties his parents hosted, does most of the cooking. He uses local, seasonal ingredients that evoke the flavours and aromas of food from Tudor times, although his dishes are modern interpretations more suitable to 21st century tastes. They are, he says, very lucky to have local suppliers like Lavenham Butchers and Giffords Hall vineyard on their doorstep.

Great British Life: The setting for Crooked Club dinners. Photo: James Davidson PhotographyThe setting for Crooked Club dinners. Photo: James Davidson Photography

Up a twisting staircase is the one bedroom of the house, complete with four-poster bed and a fireplace where Alex and Oli have placed a cat; not a real one, of course, but a black, furry facsimile feline to ward off witches and other evil spirits. After all, in 600 years The Crooked House has accumulated its fare share of restless souls and Alex and Oli live with seven ghosts, the most famous of which is Mrs Carter.

Mrs Carter first lived in The Crooked House in the 1960s. Her father was an Anglican priest in St Petersburg under the last Tsar. When the Revolution came he was arrested and the young Katherine Carter and her mother fled to England. In her later years, Mrs Carter moved to Lavenham, bought The Crooked House and, apparently, has never left. Residents and visitors have reported smelling Russian incense and hearing tapping on the front window. It was where Mrs Carter used to sit, watching the tourists go by...

Alex and Oli have achieved a lot at The Crooked House in a short amount of time, but they're brimming with ideas and energy. They're both still working at their jobs, although Alex is now freelance, which means they need to spend one or two days a week in London. They're always happy to return to Lavenham at the end of the day.

There's still plenty of work to do on restoring the house. One important task is to refurbish the rear of the property, where a concrete render applied about 60 years ago has trapped moisture, damaging the original fabric of the walls. It will be costly to remedy, which is where income from The Crooked House events comes in. It will all be ploughed back into looking after this wonderful, wonky, much loved home.

Great British Life: Alex (upstairs) and Oli (on the doorstep) at The Crooked House. Photo: the Crooked HouseAlex (upstairs) and Oli (on the doorstep) at The Crooked House. Photo: the Crooked House

Rhyme and reason

Does the Crooked Man rhyme belong to Lavenham's Crooked House? Possibly, although another explanation says the crooked man was 17th century Scottish General Sir Alexander Leslie, who signed a covenant securing religious and political freedom for Scotland. The poem refers to the English and Scots at last coming to an agreement, and had to live with each other due to their common border, the 'crooked stile'. The great recoinage around 1696 meant sixpence coins were made of very thin silver and were easily bent. But Lavenham can surely claim it for the 21st century...

For more information and to book Crooked House tours and black tie dinners this autumn and into 2024 visit crookedhouselavenham.com



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