Now, to be honest, I'd never thought of Braintree as a daytrip destination; thus far, I have managed to resist the lure of its siren song. How wrong I was - we had a really interesting day. The only disappointment was that the coach trip did not involve the crate of brown ale and singsong my childhood memories led me to expect (it was my first Ipswich Society trip, needless to add).
We went first to the Warner Textile Archive, situated in one of the mill buildings they bought when they moved here from Spitalfields. The archive - which consisted of a random collection of cardboard boxes in Milton Keynes when the enthusiastic archivist began her work cataloguing and conserving it - contains objects the artists used for inspiration, like Uzbek jackets, Afghan embroidered hats and Ikat cloth, their sketches and detailed paper plans, as well as the fabric samples and wallpapers. There is also an exhibition about the history of the firm with drawers of delicious silks and a gallery showing the work of artists who have used the archive for inspiration, including their sketches of the textiles from the archive. We saw Queen Mary's bridesmaid's skirt and learnt that the Royal Family didn't pay for goods ordered from Royal Warrant holders(!), that you can't weave with completely gold thread, that the l4-year old boy silk weaving apprentices weren't allowed to use their hands for anything else as the silk snagged so easily and that the silk weavers were not allowed to be interrupted as the weaving of the 30000-stitches-to-the-inch patterns was so complex; they managed 10 inches a day.
We moved on to the Town Hall for a brief talk on its history and a welcome buffet lunch. The building was donated in 1927 by the other big mill owners in the town, Courtaulds, who also gave the school that is now used as the museum. Each of the main rooms is panelled in different woods (the burr walnut is especially impressive) which could explain why the cost rocketed from £10,000 to £40,000. There are some really dinky paintings purporting to depict episodes from the history of Braintree (the Battle of Maldon?) on copper panels in niches on the ceiling which look just like illustrations from contemporary children's history books.
After lunch, on this very hot day, the more redoubtable members went on a walk round the sights of Braintree (including the allegedly longest Georgian street in the country) which was led by Professor Chris Green who is a local resident, although widely known in Ipswich music circles. We wimps went to the cool, compact and comprehensive museum which had some good displays highlighting the importance of the big local businesses like Warners, Courtaulds and Crittall. I never knew as I walked down the Bund in Shanghai that the iconic 30s buildings I was looking at all had Crittall windows.
We had time for a wander round the old street pattern of the bustling town centre, following the market stalls as they meandered down alleys and passed timbered buildings before calling in at the Art Deco Picture Palace. This has been converted into a pub by placing the bar where the screen was and keeping the original features, including the amazing carpet. Their ice-cold lager was pretty splendid too.
Many thanks to Caroline Markham for organising such an interesting day and introducing me to a town I'd overlooked.