Saturday, May 24th 2014
An obscure East Anglian king, all of whose “biographies” seem to be more or less works of fiction, Edmund was killed in 869 (or 870) in battle (or as a prisoner after it) with the Great Heathen Army of Danish Vikings who invaded Anglo-Saxon England. According to some stories, the Danes tried to coerce Edmund into abjuring his Christian faith and, when he refused, killed him. The accounts of exactly how this happened are vague and contradictory but were enough, in the eyes of the Church, to gain him the titles of saint and martyr. Some years after his death, Edmund’s body was supposedly moved to the town which, hitherto known as Beodericsworth, was renamed St Edmunds Bury and, eventually, Bury St Edmunds, as we know it today.
Bury St Edmunds is an ancient market town and boasts an enviable set of historical remains and listed buildings, enough to attract Tigger and me to visit it. What follows is, as usual, some pictures and notes on what we saw, not an attempt to describe the town in its entirety, and with no guarantee that we did not miss something important.
Tigger had already bought the train tickets (the earlier you buy, the cheaper they are) and so we took a bus to King’s Cross Station and breakfasted in the Pret A Manger there.
According to the information we had, the way to travel to Bury St Edmunds is in three hops. First, you catch a train to Cambridge, then you change there to a train for Ely and, finally, at Ely catch a train to Bury St Edmunds. Experience along the way suggested that there are in fact easier ways to do it but today we had to take this route.
We duly changed trains at Ely but as we had already visited this over-hyped town (see Once is enough: Ely), did not tarry there.
We at last arrived at Bury St Emunds’ station, built ten years into the reign of Queen Victoria (1847) and possessed of two rather handsome towers. The wide gap between the up and down platforms is explained by the removal of the central rail tracks that once carried non-stopping trains through the station. Such fast services no longer exist.
From the station we set out on foot towards the town centre. I must say that at this point I was not impressed with Bury St Edmunds. I found this part of the town rather uninteresting and depressing though, to be fair, the weather did not help. Throughout it was mainly dull and damp with the occasional sunny interval.
We found ourselves walking down St John’s Street, a long thoroughfare whose name in explained by the presence of the church whose spire you can see in the above photo, St John the Evangelist. We made our way towards it, hoping to find something interesting amid that dullness of the street.
If you wonder why an unbeliever is drawn to churches the answer is because they are often beautiful and contain objects of artistic and historical interest. Understandably, churches are often locked up tight when we reach them but this one was open.
Built in 1841 and remodelled in 1875, this Victorian church is Grade II listed. The interior is pretty much as you would expect but well worth a look and a few photos.
There was stained glass, including this triptych over the main altar and the pair shown below.
What I know about churches and denominations could be written on the back of a postage stamp but I got the impression that St John’s is fairly “high church”. Rightly or wrongly, I base that on some of the furnishings that I saw, such as…
…a set of Stations of the Cross (by Iain McKillop) and…
…a rather Greek Orthodox-looking icon.
I liked this rather fine eagle lectern. This is a traditional design and such lecterns, intended for reading from the Bible, are to be found in many churches. They are, of course, imbued with all sorts of symbolism but I suspect this is merely to explain away someone’s original and unusual design concept for a lectern that has no obvious relation to Christian mythology.
I was less enamoured of this figure, another popular one in churches. It shows the archangel St Michael slaying the Devil in the form of a dragon. It seems strange how a religion that boasts of being loving and forgiving is so hung up on violence, death and torture, and takes such pleasure in gruesome and sadistic imagery. Then again, religion has always been (and remains still) one of the main excuses for the practice of violence and cruelty to others.
Further down the road, we came upon the Quaker Meeting House. These understated, but sometimes elegant, buildings stand in contrast to the elaborately styled and and decorated churches of mainline Christianity. This one, now Grade II listed, was built in 1750 and is reputed to be the oldest Quaker Meeting House in Suffolk still in use.
St John’s Street is quite long and leads eventually to the centre of town. The above photo could be from some quiet village but there is a hint of more populous activity if you can make out the tent-like roofs of market stalls in the background.
Bury St Edmunds has been a market town since ancient times. When the Abbey ruled the area, it controlled the markets and no doubt exacted money from them. Later they operated under royal charter from successive monarchs.
I like to see a business with a matching clock, especially when, as here, the clock is still in working order. There has been a jewellery business operating here under various names, possibly since the 18th century. The Thurlow Champness family took it over some time in the 20th century and presumably rebadged the already existing clock. I don’t know when this was originally installed or who made it. In early modern times, clocks such as these had an important timekeeping role to play in the towns where they were sited because the owners, usually clockmakers, took care to regulate them, often using a time signal from Greenwich. The Thurlow Champness family no longer runs the business although their name endures on the shop front.
Round the corner in Abbeygate Street, we found another jeweller’s shop though, sadly, this one seems to have come to the end of its life. We were intrigued by the shop front woodwork that incorporates a “gate” in front of the door. This is presumably part of a more complete set of shuttering that would be used to close off and protect the shop when closed. The building in which Collis & Son is located, now numbered 19 and 20, was built as a dwelling house and single shop in the late 18th century. I don’t know when the property was divided into two parts, but the shop front of number 20 was rebuilt sometime in the late 19th century. It is a beautiful example of a Victorian jeweller’s shop and I am glad it is protected by being listed.
It now started to rain and so it seemed a good idea to break for lunch. The strategy worked: when we re-emerged the rain had stopped and we could continue our explorations in the dry.
Walking down Abbeygate Street to a road called Angel Hill, one finds the 14th century Abbey Gate, still defiantly facing the town square which now largely consists of a car park. In its day, the Abbey was one of the wealthiest and most powerful Benedictine monasteries in England. Its reign came to an end, however, with the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539. Today only ruins remain. The site had been used for religious purposes since ancient times but came into its own in the 10th century when the remains of King Edmund were brought here and a shrine established under the care of Benedictine monks. The shrine became a place of pilgrimage and grew in wealth and importance.
Relations between the Abbey and the town did not always run smoothly, though, and in 1327 occurred the Great Riot when the townspeople, resentful of the power of the Abbey, stormed it and kidnapped the abbot. At the same time, they destroyed the gatehouse which was rebuilt in 1347.
A century or so later, Abbot Anselm caused to be built what is known as the Norman Tower, which was intended both as a new gateway to the Abbey grounds and as a bell tower for the adjacent Church of St James (later the Cathedral). Together, the gatehouse and the tower are the most notable remains of the Abbey and give a strong impression of how great and powerful it must have been in its heyday.
In a corner of the square we spotted this semi-circular staircase and gate and went to investigate. Our inquisitiveness was rewarded by what we found.
We found a beautiful house, built in 1702 but refronted in the middle of the 19th century. It provided a dwelling for a succession of well-to-do owners until 1943 when it was acquired by the National Trust. In 1986, it became the Mayor’s Parlour and is still used as offices by the Council, I believe.
In the garden is a stand housing a bell. The form of the mechanism suggests that this can be rung from inside the building though I have no idea what its purpose might be or when and by whom it was installed.
On the wall is a clock, signed “G & W Cope, Nott’m”. The Cope name, associated with jewellery and clock making, is spread through the Nottingham area. I have found references to at least three clock-making making Copes, though there may well be more. Those that I know of are Thomas Cope, G & W Cope and G & F Cope. The best known is the latter company, formed by brothers George and Francis in 1834, whose history until its absorption by Smiths of Derby you will find here. Thomas remains obscure and so, almost, do ‘G’ and ‘W’ (presumably George and William), apart from an intriguing mention of their activities with regard to the replacement of the movement of the church clock of St Mary’s, Ilkeston, in 1864. Clocks by them occasionally turn up on the antiques market.
In the square nearby stands this rather large signpost. At first sight it somewhat resembles the older design of signpost found all over the country but then you notice its unusual size and lighting scheme. Known as the “Pillar of Salt”, it was set up in 1935 and was designed by the Town Council architect, Basil Oliver. The Council wished to have an impressive sign for this important location and special permission had to be sought for it as it breached the standards set by Ministry of Transport regulations of 1933. Happily, permission was granted and the sign remains as a unique piece of road furniture.
Dominating the square and providing a good view of the car park is the Angel hotel. This listed building, complete with carriage entrance, was rebuilt in the late 18th century upon older foundations and still incorporates a 13th century undercroft. A blue plaque on the wall informs us that Charles Dickens came here. This, of course, is almost a non-fact since every town claims to have been visited by the much-travelled and much self-advertised author of Oliver Twist.
Next to the hotel, and later incorporated into it, stands the house known simply as number 8, Angel Hill. It was built in 1814 on earlier foundations (a common enough story around here) but what interested me was the stone plaque between two windows on the ground floor. Its wording is simple: “Louis Philippe, King of France, Born 1773, Died 1850”. While the plaque makes no explicit claims, the implication is that Louis Philippe visited Bury St Edmunds at some point, and presumably came to this house. However, doubt has been expressed that Louis Philippe ever set foot in Bury St Edmunds (see this article in the East Anglian Times), let alone visited this house. Town and historians will have to argue this one out.
We passed through the Abbey gate and found ourselves in the Abbey precinct, now laid out as gardens, though with a few buildings that seem to have been set into the ruins. Very picturesque.
On the lawn is a sculpture by Elisabeth Frink (1930-1993) of the man who started all this, though without realizing it, namely King Edmund. We cannot know what Edmund looked like and the artist must call upon imagination but I think the obviously modern and “arty” design contrasts oddly with the ancient ruins that form its environment.
From the gardens there is a good view of the Cathedral. Known both as the Cathedral Church of St James and as St Edmundsbury Cathedral, this building has a long history. In 1065, Abbot Baldwin started to build a church dedicated to St Denys. In the 12th century, Abbot Anselm rebuilt that church and dedicated it to St James. The church was extended and rebuilt several times from the 16th to 19th centuries and it served as the parish church of the parish of St Edmundsbury until, in 1914, its status was raised to that of a Cathedral. We did not visit it this time but may do so on a future trip to Bury St Edmunds.
In the garden is a drinking fountain dated 1870. It is slightly unusual in that it incorporates a sun dial. This reference to the passing of time is relevant to the quotation in Latin engraved on an adjacent face of the column:
This comes from lines 7 and 8 of Ode VII by Horace which read:
[Immortalia ne speres] monet annus et almum
Quae rapit hora diem
[Lest you hope for immortal things] the year warns you and the hour
That hurries away the kindly day.
Though I am not keen on the idea of keeping birds in cages, I was intrigued by the grey parrot in one of the cages. Whereas the birds in other cages were flying about, feeding, grooming and squabbling, the parrot sat quietly on a branch in the front of the cage, calmly watching the passers-by as though interested in them. He regarded me with a cool, unblinking eye, without fear or embarrassment, as though he expected me to state my case. Whether I was in the presence of a wise old bird or simply a vacant mind, I shall never know!
Bury St Edmunds is a brewery town and the Greene King brewery maintains a huge presence here. The photo above shows just one corner of the massive brewery estate. The sign indicates what is today the brewery museum and adjacent to it is a row of what were perhaps once houses for employees. On the left, at roof level, you can see a section of a pipe. This crosses several streets but is now broken and I can only guess that its purpose was once to transport beer from one part of the brewery to another.
As we turned towards the station and took a few last photos, we passed the Corn Exchange. This imposing building dates from 1861-2 when it was founded so that grain merchants could have a suitable place in which to transact their business. This structure is more than a centre for trade, however, and its classical styling and grand proportions announce the civic pride of a town that is affluent and economically buoyant.
My past photo of the trip was of this monument, which was a little difficult to access because of the market stalls all around it. It was obviously a war memorial but to which war? The most common are those to the First and Second World Wars but this one commemorates those who gave their lives in a conflict that, significant enough in its own day, is often overlooked in ours. Perhaps I should simply reproduce the simple statement engraved on the monument itself:
WAS ERECTED BY SUFFOLK PEOPLE AS A MEMORIAL
TO SUFFOLK SOLDIERS WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN THE
SOUTH AFRICAN WAR
The Latin motto – vulneratus non victus – has been translated in many more or less high-sounding ways but means, literally, “wounded but not conquered”. It makes me wonder how many more men, women, children, nations and generations must be damaged, whether conquered or not, before humanity learns that war is an insane enterprise that not only causes endless suffering but also gives rise to far more problems than it ever solves.
Tigger likes Bury St Edmunds and is looking forward to returning one day soon. I was less taken with the place but am unsure how much that was owing to the town itself and how much to my mood, exacerbated by the weather. We will return one of these days and I will then consider it anew and perhaps reach a more favourable opinion.