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The ancient Crooked House in Lavenham, between Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury, and the owners who go to amazing lengths to protect it

Wander through the stunning medieval streets of Lavenham and you cannot fail to notice The Crooked House.

With a top storey leaning sideways at such a crazy angle you wonder how it has stood for more than 600 years, it can claim to be one of the most photographed houses in the country.

But pass by in the early morning and you could find yourself doing a double take at another arresting sight … two men in dressing gowns descending the front steps and dashing across the road.

Lavenham's Crooked House. Photo: James Davidson
Lavenham's Crooked House. Photo: James Davidson

So devoted are its current custodians to protecting the ancient building they are prepared to take extraordinary measures. That includes not steaming up the bathroom where a 15th century painting can still be seen on a ceiling beam … so they pop across to the spa opposite for a shower.

The latest chapter in the long life of The Crooked House is a love story of two people and a very special house. … a magical tale of romance with a strong sense that fate took a hand and this was meant to be.

Alex and Oil Khalil-Martin moved in three years ago less than 12 months after meeting online, and right from the start their aim was not just to live in the house but to share it,

Oli (left) and Alex host a black tie dinner at The Crooked House. Photo: James Davidson
Oli (left) and Alex host a black tie dinner at The Crooked House. Photo: James Davidson

They invite people in for tours, supper clubs and black tie dinners, all focusing on the history and remarkable story of the home believed to have inspired the nursery rhyme There was a Crooked Man.

“I first came here in December 2018,” says Alex. “It was one of those very wet wintry days and I wanted a weekend away. One of my friends said come to Lavenham, it’s a wonderful village.

“While I was there I stumbled across the Crooked House - it was a tearoom at the time. “I thought, what a magical house, I would love to live here someday.

A glimpse inside The Crooked House. Photo: James Davidson
A glimpse inside The Crooked House. Photo: James Davidson

“At the time I lived and worked in London and when I told my mum, she said don’t be silly.” So life went on but in the back of his mind the image of his dream home lingered. Just two years later, in January 2020, The Crooked House was put up for sale.

He spotted it online and wanted to give up everything for it but reality prevailed and he thought: “Give it 30 years and I’ll get it next time.”

Then the world was turned upside down by Covid. “We went into lockdown and everything changed. I moved back to my parents’ in Worcestershire. I was thinking the world’s stopped, so I logged on to delete my dating apps … and there was Oli.”

Alex (left) and Oli Khalil-Martin in their Tudor costumes. Photo James Davidson
Alex (left) and Oli Khalil-Martin in their Tudor costumes. Photo James Davidson

They could so easily have missed each other, but fate had stepped in to bring them together. Oli says: “I was in London in lockdown, and I thought well, maybe now is a good time to date. From then on Aex and I were video chatting every day for about six weeks”.

When they met in person they quickly realised they were destined to be together. “When we could meet outside we had a socially-distant date at my parents’ house, and walking in the Malvern Hills,” Alex recalls.

They began discussing hopes for the future. “I said when we retire we will move to the Crooked House. Then our offices said, we’re not going to do five days a week in the office ever again. The house was still for sale.” Suddenly the dream of buying it seemed possible.

The Crooked House stands out amongst its neighbours in Lavenham. Photo: James Davidson
The Crooked House stands out amongst its neighbours in Lavenham. Photo: James Davidson

“We’d known each other about three months and wanted to put in an offer for the house,” said Oli. But someone else had the same idea and beat them to it.

”It went under offer. But then it fell through.” He quickly booked a surprise trip to Lavenham with Alex. Soon afterwards their offer was accepted. “We’ll never forget those words, when our life began and the fairytale came true.”

In early 2021 they moved in, and in December that year they were married just over the road at Lavenham’s Swan Hotel with the wedding reception held in their new home.

Overhead beams in the dining hall which was once a weavers’ workshop. Photo: James Davidson
Overhead beams in the dining hall which was once a weavers’ workshop. Photo: James Davidson

Entirely impractical for most people The Crooked House was the perfect home for the couple who were soon styling themselves The Crooked Men.

Though it had only one bedroom - upstairs the floor slopes so dramatically their furniture is on wooden blocks to stop it sliding into a heap against the wall - there was ample space to entertain and let their creativity flourish.

Their bed is 300 years old - they are not sure how long it has been in the house but one of the first things they did was buy a new mattress because the base is just bare boards.

The medieval letterbox depicts a man being swallowed by a giant fish. Photo: The Crooked House
The medieval letterbox depicts a man being swallowed by a giant fish. Photo: The Crooked House

They have been told the house dates from 1395, which is when the wool trade that made Lavenham rich was getting started.

It is one end of a medieval hall house that would have been built for a wealthy wool merchant and is now split into three homes.

“Our bit would have been the kitchen and the pantry. Upstairs was the weavers’ workshop,” Alex explains. “Next door would have been the great hall, a double height room, and the next house along would have been the wool merchant’s private lodgings.

“The back of our house is a ‘modern’ extension - only about 500 years old instead of more than 600.”

One explanation for the top floor twisting sideways is that the house was built in a hurry by a merchant keen to show off his wealth, and the timber frame warped because it didn’t dry out properly. They believe it would have been askew about 50 years after it was built.

After moving in they set about redecorating, but inside there was nothing major that needed doing.

Outside though, the back wall is covered in concrete render. “This was put on in the 1960s, in the hope that it would protect the building. Unfortunately, it is doing the opposite and trapping in moisture, which is rotting the house’s ancient oak frame,” said Alex.

“We will be removing the render and replacing it with traditional lime plaster, which will help protect and preserve The Crooked House for the future.

“All our activity here is helping support this restoration and the ongoing preservation of this ancient place.”

That has meant getting used to a different way of living. With a house like this you have to lean into it and live a bit more like they would have done in the past,” says Alex.

Heating is kept to a minimum to avoid damaging the timber frame. In winter, it can get a little, shall we say, chilly. Although the house has gas central heating the radiators only ever get lukewarm,

In the main downstairs room there is ‘one very old, inefficient radiator’.

”We just wear a lot of jumpers, and we sit on the sofa in the evenings covered in a lot of blankets,” they say.

It might get to 15 degrees if they’re lucky, and sometimes things freeze in the kitchen, but as Oli points out, it’s lovely in a hot summer.

Alex says: “Because we live in a very natural way it’s much more in tune with the seasons. Also it’s a very sustainable way of living. We adapt.

“When we go into a modern house now it feels stuffy and a bit stale. There is always plenty of fresh air in here.”

And if it gets really cold they can always dress the part. In the depths of winter the Tudor costumes they had made for their events can come in very handy.

“They are very warm, wool and lined with silk, and sometimes we put them on in the winter," he said.

“Our costumes were made by an amazing lady from Dorset who does a lot of work at Kentwell Hall for their re-creations. We could choose the period, and we chose wool merchants’ costumes from 1578.”

The jewellery that goes with the outfits features pearls which would have been the most expensive jewels you could buy then - getting them from the bottom of the sea was more difficult than mining other gems.

They don’t have a television.

“It just wouldn’t look right - and we don’t have time to watch it anyway,” Alex says.

A door made to look like a bookcase - apparently filled with leather-bound volumes - leads to their bathroom. “We thought this magical house needed a hidden door, so we made one.

“A local carpenter made the ‘shelves’ and the book spines include ‘There was a Crooked Man & Other Nursery Rhymes’, along with other fun references to The Crooked House’s history.”

In the bathroom medieval paintings of two creatures can be seen on a beam that they believe might have come from another house in Lavenham.

One is a recognisable camel, which they say is evidence of how far away Lavenham merchants were trading. The other is less distinct, possibly a dragon or a boar.

“There is a bath, but we don’t have a shower. And we don’t use the bath because of the steam.”

Luckily, they are just a few steps away from the Weavers House Spa at Lavenham Swan. “We have an arrangement with them - we are happy to go across to the spa for a shower.

“Sometimes if we're in a rush we go across in our dressing gowns. But Lavenham is quiet in the mornings, and everyone knows we’re a bit eccentric.”

Oli has kept his job in the financial services industry working partly from home. Alex, who used to work in PR and marketing, is now full time at the house.

Upstairs the biggest room is the dining hall where they host supper clubs and black tie dinners.

“I saw the room and thought it would be brilliant for a long table,” Alex recalls.

“We can get 20 people around the table, which was a wedding present from my parents - it extends to five metres long. We candlelight it all so it really does feel like you are back in time. All our events are about telling the story of the house.

“We have had such wonderful support from everyone in the village. What we do here complements the other businesses - people who come to our events stay in the hotels, for instance.”

Oli says: “This is what we really wanted from the start - to have a life of creativity and be part of a community. There are people still in Lavenham who used to live here. People tell us the stories of the house.”

They are not only sharing The Crooked House with visitors … It seems some previous occupants are reluctant to leave.

“We have several ghosts,” says Alex. “Including Mrs Carter who lived here from the 1960s to the ‘80s. She was a wonderful lady by the sound of it.

“In a book on Lavenham written in the 1970s she is quoted as saying ‘when I came through the door I knew I had to live here’. We feel the same.

“We have some Tudor men who walk around, we haven’t seen them but quite a few tearoom customers did. There is also a previous owner’s ghost cat.

“Then there is a woman and child in the bedroom. I didn’t really believe in ghosts before we came here. I woke up one night and she was by the bed, but it wasn’t frightening, it was a warm comforting experience.”

Some might find the steady stream of people gazing at their house and taking photos disturbing, but Oli and Alex are more than happy to go along with it.

“We have a medieval letterbox which is just a hole in the wall. If we see someone particularly admiring the house we have these little scrolls which we drew and had printed, and we’ll push one through the letterbox for them.

“Most of the people who come to our events are from Suffolk and the surrounding counties, but we have had people come from America and Australia for our dinners.”

Oli does the cooking, and Alex enjoys dressing the table.

“The food is not a medieval or Tudor re-creation, not everyone would want to eat real Tudor food,” says Oli. “Often the courses go through the ages - I take inspiration from the period and put it together into a modern dish.”

Their theatrical house tours, which run through the summer, cover 600 years of Crooked House history in the space of an hour and involve several changes of costume for the hosts.

Oli plays the piano, and Alex sings, and they often perform during the events. They are also sometimes joined by a Tudor piper.

“You don’t buy a house like this and lock the door, you buy it to share it. The house owns us - we are its custodians, a small part of the chain, Alex says.

Tickets will soon be released for their Crooked Christmas Black Tie Dinners. They usually sell-out within 24 hours, and appear first on the free newsletter on their website.

For more information, to sign up for the newsletter, and find out about house tours go online to https://www.crookedhouselavenham.com