For those of us living in Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds, 30 miles to the east, seems like an uninteresting market town that became an unattractive agroindustrial centre. The truth is, however, that (leaving aside its spell as Roman Durovigutum) Cambridge is not as ancient as Bury, which was a Saxon royal borough. An abbey was founded in about 633 and re-established in 945 to house the remains of St Edmund, the king of East Anglia who was killed by the Danes in 869 (or possibly 870). He either died in battle or was captured and then killed after refusing to renounce his Christian faith – legend has it that he was decapitated and that his followers were guided to his head by a wolf calling ‘Hic, hic, hic’ (Here, here, here, in Latin). It’s not clear to me (ie to Wikipedia) when he was actually canonised, but a cult soon developed over his remains, with pilgrims, including kings, coming from far and wide. King Cnut (Canute) built a stone church in 1020, and the abbey was rebuilt again after 1095, by which time it was the most famous and well-funded in England. Edmund was effectively the patron saint of England until he was replaced by Edward the Confessor (around 1200) and then St George in 1348 – it’s odd that he’s so generally forgotten now.
In 1214 the abbey was the natural place for a group of barons to meet in the guise of pilgrims, to draw up a set of demands to put to King John; they swore at the altar to force him to sign what of course became known as the Magna Carta. However the abbey, like so many others, was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539, and has now almost totally vanished – a few eroded teeth of stonework stand in what are now the lovely Abbey Gardens, immediately east of the town centre, and part of the west front (aptly described as like petrified porridge) was converted in Georgian times into something like multi-storey hobbit houses. These are adjacent to the current cathedral, which was a parish church (founded in 1503) until a new diocese was created in 1914. It had already been expanded in the 1860s, and then in the 1960s and ‘70s a new choir and crossing were built, as well as the porch. In 1998 an appeal for £10 million was launched to complete the cathedral with cloisters and a lantern tower, and funding was obtained from the National Lottery – this was controversial, because many people thought the money could be better used for social projects, and because it’s all been built in a pretty unadventurous Gothic style which doesn’t really set the pulse racing. Slightly oddly, the diocese (and the local authority area) are called St Edmundsbury rather than Bury St Edmunds (Bury being a variant of Borough).
When I last visited – my first post-lockdown excursion – the cathedral and the gardens were just about all that was open to visitors, other than shops and cafés, but usually you can visit the Moyse’s Hall Museum, in what is claimed to be one of Britain’s few remaining Norman houses, dating from around 1180 (in fact the Norman period ended in 1154 with the accession of the Plantagenet King Henry II). It’s a good museum of local history, and also houses the relatively famous clock collection that was housed first in the National Trust’s Angel Corner (built in 1702, at 8 Angel Hill and now housing council offices) and then in the Manor House on Honey Hill (built in 1738, and sold off in 2007 to be a private house). [It turns out that Moyse’s Hall re-opened the day after I was there – there was absolutely no information then.]
The National Trust also owns the Theatre Royal (built in 1819), which is still a working theatre, and Ickworth (built in 1794-1830), a stately home 3 miles west of town that I haven’t visited for many years but certainly would have gone back to if it hadn’t been still in lockdown – it’s not too huge a bike ride from Cambridge, especially if you take the train home from Bury St Edmunds.
The other thing that I would regard as worth visiting is the Greene King brewery, just south of the centre – although GK are not the most popular across the region, because of the way they swallow up small breweries, promising to preserve their local ales and then ruining them, and because of the way they treat their pub tenants. The Greene King Beer Café has reopened, but brewery tours have not yet restarted. Unfortunately, Britain’s smallest pub, the Nutshell, has not yet reopened either – precisely because it’s too small for safe social distancing, with space for about half a dozen customers, seating and standing, and drinking is not allowed outside.
However, I did quite the look of the Old Cannon Brewery (with restaurant and rooms), just north of the centre, although its post-Covid restrictions made it too much of a pain to check out at the time.
A couple of weeks after my last visit to BSE I was cycling in the countryside about 15 miles south of the town, from Long Melford to Hadleigh via Lavenham (which is lovely and very well known) and Kersey (which is also lovely, but I’d never heard of it before). This part of Suffolk was very wealthy in the later Middle Ages, thanks to the local wool industry which provided clothing to much of Europe at the time. This paid for many churches to be rebuilt with high roofs and huge windows, creating a specific local style of buildings flooded with light. There are lots of lovely half-timbered houses, and again the National Trust owns some key properties, notably Melford Hall and Lavenham Guildhall (both currently closed).
Bury St Edmunds has the reputation of having lots of literary connections, but even the town’s tourism website doesn’t come up with many good examples, although Dickens and Shakespeare mention the place. I’m quietly pleased with my guess that King’s Crypt, in Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle, is actually Bury St Edmunds. On the other hand I was indignant to read a review of Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers, saying that it was set in the ‘fictional everytown of Edmundsbury’ – it’s not fictional, and it’s not an everytown.