A few months ago this irresistibly pretty house in Lavenham, Suffolk, featured on the cover of Country Life. We caught up with Alex and Oli Khalil-Martin, the couple who own and live there, to find out what it's like living in one of the country's — and indeed the world's — most photographed homes.
Wandering through the streets of Lavenham, with its colourful timbered houses leaning drunkenly at impossible angles, feels like stepping into one of the magical lands at the top of the Faraway Tree or the pages of Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose.
Among the higgledy-piggledy pink- and yellow-washed houses, the eye is drawn to the most marvellously wonky and charming of them all. On the crest of the hill on the High Street stands — or perhaps ‘staggers’ would be more appropriate — the pumpkin-hued Crooked House. To the observer, it appears to be propped up by its neighbours, although it has stood here, sturdy and secure, since 1395.
During the past 600-odd years, The Crooked House — which recently appeared on the front cover of Country Life magazine (on January 12, 2022) — has gone through many iterations. Built as a merchant’s house, it originally contained a weavers’ workshop when Lavenham was at the centre of the medieval wool trade. In recent years, it has served as an art gallery, an estate agent’s office and a tea room.
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It was in that last incarnation, four years ago, that Alex Martin, then in his early thirties and living and working in London, first saw the house when he came to Lavenham on a weekend away. ‘The moment I stepped inside, I thought, I want to live here one day — which, of course, sounded completely mad,’ he recalls.
For years, Alex nurtured dreams of retiring to The Crooked House. Then, in 2020, it came onto the market. Soon after, the first lockdown arrived — and, suddenly, young professionals no longer needed to be tied to a desk in town. In a village so magical it has appeared in the ‘Harry Potter’ films and inspired nursery rhymes, it is delightfully apt that not one, but two fairytale romances ensued.
During the dreary days of the first lockdown, Alex met his future husband, Oli Khalil, online. ‘We FaceTimed every night,’ he recalls. ‘Quite early on, I said to Oli, “Look — this is the most amazing house, I want to live here,” and sent him the Rightmove link.’
“With a house like this, you’re looking after it for the time you have it, not owning it… we’ll be ghosts here one day!”
Once restrictions eased to enable the pair to meet face to face, ‘we knew very quickly we would be together forever,’ Oli divulges. Happily, his feelings for The Crooked House were as strong as those of his future husband. During the third lockdown, when waiting for the sale to go through, they would ‘drive here, sit outside, then drive home — because we were so desperately in love with it,’ Oli recalls.
As we sit drinking coffee in the tapestry-hung Elizabethan chamber, which takes up most of the ground floor of The Crooked House, the Khalil-Martins radiate empathy, energy and enthusiasm as they talk about their home. ‘For most people, it would be deeply impractical,’ Oli explains. ‘A commercial property with two large entertaining spaces and one bedroom — but it’s perfect for us.’
‘A one-bedroom house where we can give dinner for 20!’ Alex exclaims. ‘We both love entertaining. It’s a house you want to share.’ They started with their wedding celebrations last December, with dinner for 18 the night before and a stand-up reception after the ceremony for 80, also in The Crooked House — ‘it’s a very flexible space,’ they stress — followed by a ceilidh in the village hall.
Upstairs is the original weavers’ workshop, a breathtaking room with a vaulted ceiling soaring to 15ft, where the couple will be hosting a series of supper clubs — these began with a dinner to celebrate the Tudor New Year on March 25. House tours, talks and recitals are planned (Oli plays the piano and double bass; Alex is a classically trained singer).
Although the couple still work in town and Alex has kept his flat there, the great shift to working from home means that they can wake up in their beloved Crooked House four or five mornings a week. ‘You think of all the people who’ve lived here for the past 600 years and feel really quite connected to them,’ says Alex. ‘And the house sort of breathes,’ adds Oli. ‘You see air moving around all the time. It’s incredibly strong — a structural engineer who came to look at the ceiling said it’s four times stronger than any commercial building today — and yet, because it is an organic structure, only twigs and hay inside the walls, it feels alive.’
With more than 300 listed buildings nearby, there was no shortage of lime plasterers or specialist builders to help with renovations (the distinctive bright orange is made by a local firm, Ingilby Paints). However, it was really a case of ‘freshening it and furnishing, letting the simplicity of the building speak — it’s perfect as it is,’ stresses Alex, who has a sideline in interior design and antiques. Some of the items in the downstairs chamber are for sale or he can source similar pieces.
Inhabiting such an old house means ‘you have to live slightly differently, although that is part of the charm,’ Oli explains. ‘Keep your shoes on and don’t touch the walls,’ counsels Alex. ‘There are splinters everywhere, but you do get used to it.’ He points out two scorched ‘witch marks’ on the walls, from the deplorable period of history captured by the film Witchfinder General. Key scenes were shot in the main square in Lavenham, and the village was the scene of an execution for witchcraft in the 1600s. Outside, a carved medieval letterbox of the ‘jaws of Hell’, depicting a man tumbling into a giant fish, has caused Alex and Oli much mirth when they overhear people encountering it on the National Trust walking tour of the village.
The couple had to rethink their plans for putting a shower in the bathroom, because the steam could have damaged a 15th-century painting on the ceiling. (They later reveal that they pop over the road every morning to shower at the spa in The Swan hotel.) Open fires have also been foregone, for safety’s sake. ‘When we had the chimneys swept, about 30 years’ worth of birds’ nests came down,’ reveals Oli. ‘They said if someone had lit a match, it would have burnt the village down.’ Instead, they’ve capped the chimneys and light candles in the fireplaces.
As they show me around, Alex points out little models of crooked mice ‘for people to find’, a reference to the nursery rhyme There Was a Crooked Man, which was inspired by the house. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star was composed, he continues, by Jane Taylor, who lived nearby in Shilling Street.
Because the house has been a shop, an office and a tea room, many villagers have a connection with the place. Their neighbour Lizzie once lived there and ran it as an art gallery. ‘When she came to meet us, she brought homemade cookies for us — and for the ghosts!’ admits Alex. ‘There are a lot of ghosts; when Oli’s away, I sleep with all the lights on.’
The Khalil-Martins want to do a ‘proper historical dig’ into the building’s past. In the meantime, they are enjoying the ‘joyous’ process of building their business around The Crooked House. Oli, who works in asset management, but loves to cook and has trained at Leiths, is planning the menus for the supper clubs and a seamstress involved with the historical recreations at nearby Kentwell Hall is making them Tudor costumes.
‘With a house like this, you’re looking after it for the time you have it, not owning it,’ Oli feels. ‘There’s such a long line of people that have lived here and you are part of that chain.’ They plan to be here for a long time, moving their bed downstairs ‘when we’re in our nineties,’ Alex laughs. ‘I mean, we’re not leaving. We’re going to be ghosts here one day!’
Oli concurs: ‘We’ll do our bit to keep it in good order, then come back and haunt it…’
For more information, visit www.crookedhouselavenham.com
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