Wanderer at Large: Essex & Suffolk – Bury St Edmunds

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, the area north-east of London that includes the counties of Essex and Suffolk.

Gardens in the monastic ruins of Bury St Edmunds

Bury St Edmunds

The market town of Bury St Edmunds, is, descriptively enough, the burial place of St Edmund! (although the ‘Bury’ actually derives from ‘burgh’, meaning fortified town).

It has a long history dating back to at least the early Anglo-Saxon period. Sigebert, king of the East Angles, first founded a monastery here about 633. In the 10th century, it became the burial place of King Edmund, who was slain by the Vikings. Edmund became the first patron saint of England (the Plantagenets replaced him later with St. George), and the town grew around this new site of pilgrimage.

So here, its ‘religious buildings r us’. A Benedictine abbey was built in the 11th century, but destroyed in Henry VIII’s 16th century Dissolution of the Monasteries. The romantic ruins now set in an open space with gardens can still be visited.  In 1214, the barons of England met in the Abbey Church and swore to force King John to accept the Magna Carta. St Mary’s Church is the third largest parish church in England. It is the burial place of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor. Bury St Edmunds Cathedral is an unusual Gothic revival church only completed in 21st century.

In the 15th century, Dutch immigrants bought weaving skills to the town and it became very rich. However, a subsequent rivalry with Dutch cloth makers caused a crash in the weaving market. The inhabitants could not afford to build new houses so many of the houes in the town remain medieval-looking.

Around 1640, many local families departed from Bury St Edmunds bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony as part of the wave of English emigration to America.

The town also has a darker history: it was the setting for the Bury St Edmunds witch trials between 1599 and 1694. The Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins had 63 people executed for witchcraft here in 1645. Vincent Price played the eponymous ‘villain’ in the movie of 1968 which was filmed locally.

Beer aficionados may enjoy a visit to the Greene King brewery, and the ‘Nutshell’, in the Butter Market, which is one of the world’s smallest pubs.

One of the most pleasant towns in the UK to explore by foot.

Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. More recommendation will appear next week.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com

*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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