Bury St Edmunds

Arriving into the grand Victorian station onboard a Great Anglia class 755 (read about that here), my first impressions of Bury St Edmunds were of a once important town that has found itself of diminishing importance in recent years. The station building was much too grand for its three services every two hours between Ipswich, Cambridge and Peterborough and the large gap between the east and westbound lines hinted at through lines once being present.

Bury St Edmunds’ grand Victorian station

In fact, at its peak, Bury St Edmunds was served by direct trains to and from London, Manchester, and Glasgow, as well as being the terminus of two additional branch lines, from Long Melford and Thetford, and home to a large goods yard and private British Sugar sidings. The direct London service actually managed to last until the December 2010 timetable change, however the red brick, Sancton Wood designed Victorian station now only serves destinations within East Anglia.

From the station it is about a ten-minute walk into the town centre, along the fairly main Northgate Street, a route which gets steadily more impressive as the historic architecture begins to appear. The Northgate Hotel is a stunning, ivy covered, Victoria townhouse, whilst opposite the end of Northgate Street is the Voujon India restaurant that… In the open area at the junction of Abbeygate Street and Angel Hill is the Pillar of Salt, Britain’s first internally illuminated street sign, constructed in 1935.

The Cathedral Church of St James and St Edmund

The Cathedral Church of St James and St Edmund, better known as St. Edmundsbury Cathedral, is unique in the Church of England as it is the only cathedral that is not situated in the same location as the ‘Bishop’s Seat’ of the diocese. The Diocese of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich, founded in 1914 from parts of the dioceses of Norwich and Ely, has St. Edmundsbury at it’s cathedral, whilst the ‘Bishop’s Seat’ can be found in the county town of Suffolk, Ipswich.

Originally one of three churches that were part of the abbey, St James’ was chosen as to be the cathedral church due to it having space to be extended to the east. The cathedral’s nave is from the 16th century, however construction work from 1959 onwards to turn the church into a cathedral have resulted in a modern tower, wings and altar, with the tower having only been finished in 2005!

The bright interior of the Cathedral

The inside of the cathedral is surprisingly bright, with the light stone and large windows combining to illuminate the interior, with the light glinting off of the impressive font at the rear of the cathedral. Originally designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1870, the font is constructed on a medieval shaft with the decoration added in 1960 as part of the efforts to ‘upgrade’ the cathedral.

Surrounding two sides of St. Edmundsbury cathedral, the Abbey Gate, Abbey Gardens and the ruins within them are all that now remains of the once powerful Benedictine monastery. Among the richest of the English monasteries, the abbey was a place of pilgrimage as it housed the grave of the Anglo-Saxon martyr and king, Saint Edmund. The ruins of the abbey church and most other buildings are merely rubble, but two very large medieval gatehouses survive, as well as two secondary medieval churches, St James’ (now the cathedral) and St. Mary’s, just along the road.

The remains of Bury St Edmunds abbey

By the time the remains of Saint Edmund reached Bury in the 10th century, the site of the abbey had already been religious for nearly 300 years. The surrounding lands were granted to the religious community in 1020 and the abbey church was rebuilt and Saint Edmund’s remains reinterred in 1095 in a great ceremony. The abbey church was more than 500ft long and at 246ft wide was the largest church in the country.

The two remaining gates that once protected the abbey were originally built in the 10th century and whilst the Norman Gate (between the cathedral and St. Mary’s) remains mostly unaltered, the Abbey Gate (opposite the Pillar of Salt) was rebuilt in the 14th century as the gateway to the Great Courtyard. Both of the gates are amazingly preserved and give an indication to the power and riches of the abbey.

The Abbey Gate opposite the Pillar of Salt

Heading along Angel Hill we passed The Angel Hotel, a grand Georgian building mentioned in Charles Dicken’s ‘The Pickwick Papers’, with a coaching inn standing on the site since the 15th century. Turning up Abbeygate Street towards the town centre we passed a number of historic buildings, with the very heart of the town centre retaining a charm that has disappeared from many towns. The town hosts a number of festivals throughout the year including a large Christmas fair which stretches across the town centre. 

One of the oldest buildings in the town is the 10th century Moyse’s Hall Museum which sits at the top of the market square. Supposedly containing a collection of fine art, costume and local history items, the main part of the museum was closed on our visit, with just a small exhibition on the ground floor open. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything online regarding the museum being closed, and whilst we hadn’t travelled to the town especially for the museum, it was certainly disappointing to find it closed with no notice.

Moyes’ Hall Museum

Heading back past the abbey and cathedral, the final stop of our visit to the town was the church of St. Mary’s, the other remaining church of the abbey complex. The third largest parish church in England, the church is the final resting place of Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII and is also home to the chapel of the Suffolk and Royal Anglian Regiments. With just 20-minutes before the church closed for the day, we had a very quick explore, enjoying the peace and splendour of the lesser-known church.

Whilst we didn’t get to visit them during our visit, Bury St Edmunds is also famous for its breweries, with the town being home to the Green King, Old Cannon and Bartrums brewery companies. Both Green King and Old Cannon offer tours of their breweries and are within walking distance of the town centre, whilst Bartrums lies further out of the town on the site of the former RAF Bury St Edmunds.

The inside of St. Mary’s Church

Bury St Edmunds was definitely worth a visit and there is still plenty to do if we decided to visit again, especially is Moyes’s Hall Museum was open. There’s the ‘headline’ items of the Abbey Gardens and Cathedral to explore, but also plenty of independent shops in the centre to investigate. I definitely think I’ll be visiting again in future and might even aim for a visit during one of the festivals.

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