What the Dickens? Weekend in Bury St Edmunds

The fact that I was spending a weekend in Bury St Edmunds caused the teens much amusement. But why are you going to bury St Edmund? Why has he not been buried before? Ho, ho.

Medieval buildings lining shopping street dry St Edmunds
Abbeygate Street

Why you need to spend a weekend in Bury St Edmunds

First of all Bury St Edmunds, Bury to locals, is incredibly pretty. Think cute shopping streets and elegant public buildings. It has a one thousand year old Abbey and not many places can say that. Add to that the grave of a Queen of France, a Regency Theatre and beer. Charles Dickens liked Bury so much that he even set parts of the Pickwick Papers here.

Bury St Edmunds Abbey

Bury St Edmunds Abbey was huge. It was one of the largest and richest Benedictine monasteries in the country. In 903 the remains of the martyred Anglo Saxon King St Edmund were bought here and the shrine became a place of pilgrimage. In 1020 the Abbey was founded, all went well until 1539 when Henry VIII’s reformation led to the downfall of the Abbey. All that remains now is the outline of the whole site, two churches, two rather impressive gateways and the ruins of the Abbey church.

Flint ruins of Bury St Edmunds Abbey
Bury St Edmunds Abbey

The grounds of the Abbey are now called Abbey gardens, think lawns and displays of bedding plants (I had to imagine the floral display as I visited in January). Step away from the manicured lawns to explore the ruins. The pillars stretch high into the sky, the building must have been vast if this is what is left after nearly 500 years of decay.

St Edmundsbury Cathedral

St Edmundsbury Cathedral started life in the 10th century as St Denis’s church within the precincts of the Abbey. Then in the 12th century along came Abbot Anselm, who decided to make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. He failed in this mission, decided to knock down St Denis’s and build St James’s instead. After the dissolution, St James became the parish church of Bury St Edmunds. In 1914 it was decided to create a cathedral in Bury St Edmunds and St James’s became St Edmundsbury Cathedral.

Norman Abbey ruins with St Edmundsbury Cathedral in background
St Edmundsbury Cathedral seen from the Abbey ruins

Whilst I type this I am listening to Benjamin Britten’s Fanfare for St Edmundsbury which he wrote in 1959 for a Pageant of Magna Carta held in the Abbey Grounds. At around this time it was decided that the existing church needed extending to become altogether more cathedral like. More work was to follow when it was decided that a tower would look rather nice and mark the millennium nicely. When you stand at the altar and look down you are looking at eight centuries of building work. Make sure you look up at the ceilings, they are stunning.

Looking up to ornate ceiling of St Edmundsbury Cathedral
St Edmundsbury Cathedral

The Cloisters were added as part of the 1960s building work and feel as calm as any medieval set that I have wandered in. Take a wander down them to discover the cathedral cafe. Anselm also built what is now know as the Norman gateway which you can still see today next to the cathedral. They were used as the bell tower for the church, which it still does today.

Just behind the Norman gateway is a patch of green with a rather fine statue of St Edmund by Elizabeth Frink and a rather more modern wolf. Wolves are important to the St Edmund story. Vikings killed King Edmund by shooting with so many arrows the he resembled a hedgehog and then for good measure they cut his head off and threw it into the brambles. When his followers came to look for him they heard a strange noise in the brambles and discovered a wolf guarding the head. Head and body were reunited and miraculously grew back together. Edmund was already well on the way to becoming a saint.

Bronze statue of St Edmund by Elizabeth Frink
St Edmund
  • St Edmundsbury Cathedral
  • Open: Daily
  • Admission: Free
  • Daily Tours: May – September 11am guided tours are available, tickets cost £5 and are available from the Tourist Office next door to the Cathedral
  • Pilgrimage Tours: To celebrate 1,000 years of Abbey of St Edmunds tours taking in St Edmunds Way about half a mile away are available

St Mary’s Church

In the corner of the Abbey grounds is St Mary’s, also once a church that formed part of the Abbey. St Mary’s is not just any old church. It has the longest nave of any English parish church. It has a hammerbeam roof adorned with angels.

Hammerbeam roof with angel supports St Mary's Church Bury St Edmunds
St Mary’s Church roof

It has a tomb of John Baret, that depicts him as a skeletal body but looks up to ornate spangled ceiling, so that he has a good view for ever.

Medieval decorated church roof
John Baret’s view

It has the grave of the Queen of France. Mary Tudor was Henry VIII’s sister, she married the King of France, he died, she remarried the Duke of Suffolk and lived nearby.

  • St Mary’s Church, Honey Hill, Bury St Edmunds
  • Open: Daily 10am – 4pm (3pm in the winter)
  • Admission: Free

Theatre Royal

Several centuries younger than the Abbey of St Edmunds is the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. The theatre is the only working theatre owned by the National Trust and the only working Regency theatre left in the UK. You can either go and see a show or take a tour.

Theatre stalls seen from stage of Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal the last working Regency theatre in England
Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
  • Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal, Westgate Street, Bury St Edmunds
  • Open: Tours February – November on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11am
  • Admission: £7.50, National Trust members free

Bury St Edmunds and Beer

Beer has been brewed in Bury since the time that the body of St Edmund arrived. Nowadays Greene King are the town’s brewers. You can tour the Westgate Street brewery and then either eat and drink in the beer cafe next door or follow the Ale Trail round the town. Twenty two pubs form the trail ranging from the roomy Corn Exchange to the tiny Nutshell

Four bottles of Abbot Ale
Abbot Ale

Nutshell Pub

Why am I singling out just one of these pubs? The Nutshell as its name implies is minute. So minute that it is the smallest pub in Britain. You see that window? The pub is that long and about a couple of metres wide. Teeny tiny.

Nutshell Britains smallest pub
The Nutshell

Moyses Hall Museum

Terry Deary of Horrible Histories fame was so impressed by the gruesomeness of some of the objects in Moyses Hall Museum that he has curated some displays especially for the museum. On display is the scalp and ear of a notorious local murderer and a book cover with his flesh (I can not believe that I have just typed those words). The museum also has a gibbet cage and is the only one with a picture of the corpse rotting inside it. A brand new gibbet cage has been constructed for the curious to try out …. I volunteered my mother but she declined. Elsewhere there is fine medieval stain glass and an impressive collection of clocks but I suspect that the younger visitors will love the Terry Deary gruesome display.

17th century gibbet cage with modern reproduction
Anyone to try the gibbet cage?
  • Moyses Hall Museum, Cornhill
  • Open: Daily 10am – 5pm (Sunday noon – 4pm)
  • Admission: Adult £5, child £3 for a daily ticket or you can buy an annual one that gets you into West Stow Anglo Saxon village too for £12/£6.

Pillar of Salt

The Pillar of Salt is a signpost but what a signpost. It is a Grade II listed signpost. Even better it is thought to be the first internally illuminated road sign in the country. As a devotee of the I Spy Book of the Road, back in the 70’s this carried top marks. Seeing it even now makes me want to write to Big Chief I Spy and tell him that I have found it.

Large white signpost known as the Pillar of Salt Bury St Edmunds
Pillar of Salt
Bury St Edmunds Market

There has been a market on the Butter Market and Cornhill since the time when the Abbey was first built. Every every Wednesday and Saturday stalls set up selling fruit and vegetables, plants, baskets, sheepskins, books, clothes …. all manner of things. On the second Sunday of every month a Farmers’ Market takes place on The Traverse. My friend Sue visits a different Christmas market every year and says that the one at Bury St Edmunds was one of the best.

Market Day
Charles Dickens and Bury St Edmunds

Charles Dickens stayed in Bury St Edmunds and there is even a blue plaque on the Angel Hotel to prove it. He came first in 1835 when he was a journalist but as yet unpublished novelist. He must have been inspired by his stay as his first novel The Pickwick Papers has a scene where Mr Pickwick and his servant stay in Bury. Once Dickens had hit the big time he returned at least twice more this time giving readings at the Athenaeum. East Anglia features largely in David Copperfield and the Armando Iannucci film The Personal History of David Copperfield was filmed here.

Atheneum and St Edmundsbury Cathedral seen from Angel Hotel Bury St Edmunds
Charles Dickens didn’t have far to walk to the Athenaeum

Where to Stay in Bury St Edmunds

On both occasions that I have visited I stayed at the Angel right opposite the Abbey. It is an old coaching inn and for me part of the thrill is that you drive through old arch that the coaches would have used to park your car. Our room overlooked the Abbey, if you’d like to sleep in the same room as Charles Dickens ask for 215, no Abbey view but history.

Angel Hotel Bury St Edmunds
Angel Hotel, Bury St Edmunds

Where to eat in Bury St Edmunds

You are spoilt for choice about where to eat in Bury St Edmunds, there are all those pubs for a start. Here are the places that we ate at during our recent stay.

Beer Café

Neither my mother nor I are big beer drinkers and not at all at lunch time, despite that we had a very tasty lunch washed down with water. We chose the cafe because it is attached to the brewery and was opposite the theatre where we found ourselves at lunch time. Had we wanted beer we could have opted for a beer flight …. three one thirds of a pint of three different brews.

Two beer pumps with sign advertising a beer flight
Beer flight any one?
Angel Hotel

Even if you are not staying in the Angel Hotel I urge to visit at least once during your visit. The afternoon tea in front of a roaring fire looked especially tasty. For the evening there is a bar and the restaurant. We ate dinner here at a table over looking the floodlit cathedral. The food was every bit as delicious as the view.

St Edmundsbury Cathedral floodlit seen from dining room table with wine glass
Table with a view
No 5 Angel Hill, Wine and Coffee House

For morning coffee we opted for No 5 because we liked the notion of an establishment that would serve coffee, cake and wine. We can vouch for the coffee and the cake which were excellent.

How to get to Bury St Edmunds

I drove to Bury St Edmunds with the journey from Surrey taking a couple of hours, Bury St Edmunds is on the A14. If you are letting the train take the strain, either catch a train from Kings Cross to Cambridge and change or from Liverpool Street to Stowmarket and change, both journeys take just under two hours.

Days Out from Bury St Edmunds

Ickworth House

Three miles outside Bury St Edmunds in the Italianate Ickworth House, home to the Earls of Bristol and now owned by the National Trust. Over the Earls of Bristol have produced some eccentric family members but they spent their money with style and there is much to see as well as magnificent grounds to run in.

  • Ickworth, Horringer, IP29 5QE
  • NB the post code will not take you to the car park, once you get close start to follow the brown Ickworth signs
  • Open: gardens daily 10.30am – 5pm, house Nov – March 11am – 3pm, Summer 11am – 4pm
  • Admission: Adults £15.22, children £5, National Trust members free
West Stow Anglo Saxon Village

We have driven past West Stow times without count on self made diversions to avoid traffic jams in Elevedon on the way to Norwich. Always in a hurry to get somewhere we have never stopped until now! Big mistake we should have visited decades ago. West Stow is the site of an Anglo Saxon village that has been recreated using original techniques as deduced from the archeological evidence. You get a real sense of what village life would have been like. I posted some pictures of my visit onto Instagram and was rewarded by a message from my cousin telling me that she used to be an Anglo Saxon at West Stow!

  • West Stow Anglo Saxon Village, Icklingham Road, West Stow IP28 6HG
  • Open: Daily 10am – 5pm
  • Admission: Day ticket adults £6, children £3 or you can buy an annual tickets which will get you into both West Stow and Moyses museum as often as you want for a year adults £12
Wooden Anglo Saxon house
West Stow Anglo Saxon Village

Bury St Edmunds is a perfect spot for a weekend or as a base for visiting more of East Anglia. If you are heading further east take a look at my post all about Norwich or how about seal watching on the Norfolk coast or maybe a spot of crabbing?

Weekend in Bury St Edmunds 1,000 year old Abbey, beer, Charles Dickens and a gruesome museum #weekendbreak #culturaltravel #suffolk
DISCLAIMER:  We were guests of Bury St Edmunds and Beyond for our most recent visit, all opinions my passion for East Anglia and Cathedrals are my own.
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