Bury St. Edmunds: East Anglia's historic picturesque town

by alicia

In the past, pilgrims visited Bury St. Edmunds for its powerful abbey renowned all over medieval Europe. Today, Bury is one Suffolk's finest friendliest market towns

When planning your winter breaks,  try to fit in a visit to East Anglia and discover Bury St. Edmunds. This historic town has culture and class.

This is where King Edmund, a devout Christian was captured, shot and buried when he refused to renounce his faith at the Battle of Thetford. Old writers used to call the town St. Edmund’s Bury, today locals call it Bury.

Bury might have a thousand years of history but the town certainly does not live in the past. Residents have the choice of traditional little shops lining the historic streets  as well as a new shopping centre with all the national high street shops.

Bury celebrates spring  with a community annual event, The Bury St Edmunds Festival – a great programme of contemporary and classical music, jazz, theatre, film and comedy held in various  venues and with a bevy of national and international artists. Many of these are held in the open air; the historic Abbey Gardens  becomes especially  vibrant and alive at this time. The 2011 festival will run from 20 to 29 of May . www.buryfestival.com

Discovering the town

The best way to take in the historic buildings, ruins, culture, quirky streets and street life is to walk.
Head towards the cathedral at Angel Hill and go into the Abbey Gardens; entrance is free through the impressive Abbey Great Gate, once the secular entrance for servants working at the abbey.

Abbey Gate leads into the most amazing floral bed displays set in well kept lawns. Thanks to the 6 full time gardeners, the Abbey Gardens regularly win national prizes but they aren’t allowed to dig more than 300 mm in these historic ruins.

The central area has 64 island beds and no less than 20,000 beddings planted every spring for the summer displays and another 20,000 in the autumn for the winter displays.

You next get to the ruins. Information plaques dotted around the extensive ruins help visitors understand the construction of the outer wall, and the abbey itself.
The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, founded around 1020 was one of the richest Benedictine monasteries. On the tallest pillar is a plaque  which commemorates the meeting place where the English barons agreed to force the King to sign the Magna Carta in 1214.

As you continue walking  towards the cathedral, you get to  more gardening areas.

Besides the Rose Garden, there is the  Sensory Garden built in 1990, with many scented herbs and plants  designed for the visually impaired. Take time out and sit on one of the benches just to take in the fragrances before you get to the the Pilgrims Herb Garden, with its  traditional native and medicinal plants.

Then there is  the magnificent St. Edmundsbury Cathedral first started in the 12th century. The people of Bury are proud of their impressive gothic cathedral especially after the 140 foot millennium tower was completed in 2005.

 On leaving the Abbey Precinct, turn left and head towards St. Mary’s church also  part of the Benedictine Abbey. St Mary's was enlarged in the fifteenth century and is said to be one of the largest parish churches in England with a nave of 213 feet long. Among the many tombs in the church is that of Mary Tudor, sister of Henry V111 and Queen of France.

Where to eat and drink

There are lots of chain restaurants, cafés and pubs to choose from in Bury, especially in the town centre. If you have time, it’s worth checking out these favourites.

King Brewery, right in the heart of the city (Abbot House Westgate Street; 01284-714297). This is a must do for beer lovers. Here, you get real close to the big copper brewery kettles and learn all about hops, malts and special house yeast. A tour of brew house costs £8 during the day and £10 in the evenings.
Continue the experience and have a bite in the Old Cannon: this pub is  literally in the brewery. Their beer orientated menu includes battered fish and the famous Gunner’s Daughter sausages; all mains are less than £11.

Right in the heart of the town centre is the Nutshell. Only 15 feet by 7 feet; this is Britain’s smallest pub (confirmed by the Guinness Book of Records). Not much elbow room here yet in 1984, they managed 104 people and a dog. The timber framed grade II listed building is presently owned by Green King Brewer. This might not be the place to go for a heart to heart but worth visiting. (01284 764 867)

The restaurant Bang Bangs at 19 Hatter Street is definitively a ‘different’ type of restaurant – a quirky one. First there is the décor; leopard prints on the wall and chandeliers might put you off but bear in mind that the owners wanted to create a bordello type setting for the burlesque nights once a month.
Then there is the food; an extensive menu of bangers, mash and 9 different types of gravy. I had wild boar sausages (dainty, so two sausages) stilton mash and mushroom gravy for £8.95. (01284 703343)

A little more up market is Maison Bleu at 30/31 Churchgate Street. The French waiters, elegant décor, excellent cuisine yet relaxed atmosphere make this one of the best restaurants in Bury. No wonder they won the East of England’s Restaurant of the year 2009/2010 by the Good Food Guide. The daily set menu at lunchtime which includes a starter and main course is good value at around £ 17.00.
(01284 760623; www.maisonbleue.co.uk.)

Where to stay

I recommend staying in the town centre for your first visit to Bury. The historic and prestigious 4 star Angel Hotel situated right opposite the Abbey Gardens is within walking distance of the town as well as the historic sites. Many kings, queens, actors and writers  stayed at the Angel over the years; Charles Dickens stayed there twice -- in 1859 and again in 1861. Angel rooms, double / twin are from  £100 and prestige angel rooms are  priced at £160.

You might want to combine your visit to Bury with a spa weekend; Clarice House is a comfortable 5 star Jacobean style mansion with a 20m indoor pool with  spa facilities. A double room with bed and breakfast is from £70 per person per night.