So . . . where is Bury St Edmunds?
I get it all the time:
“Hi! Where are you from?”
“Cool, where about?”
“You probably haven’t of heard of it, it’s called Bury St Edmunds”
“OK, you know London?”
“Oh yeah, is it close to London?”
“Not really, but . . . ”
I’m sure you get the idea and if you come from a smaller place yourself, you’ve probably encountered this too. Well, that made me realise something, I spend so much time writing about other places, why not share some hometown pride and introduce the place I call home. Although I don’t live there anymore, I loved growing up there and thought it was only fair to the town that gave me so much to try and get it on your bucket list and tell you all about the things to do in Bury St Edmunds.
1. Greene King Brewery
Based in Westgate Street, Bury St Edmunds, Greene King is one of the biggest real ale brewers
in the UK (maybe even the biggest). They have been brewing in the town since they were established in 1799 and have gone on to own pubs across the country. But this is what you need to know – the brewery operates tours throughout the day, and having been three times, I highly recommend them. You will get to visit the brew house, learn about brewing cask ales, walk out on the roof of the brewery for some spectacular views and of course, taste plenty of the product. If you don’t have time for the full tour, you could always pop into the Greene King Beer Cafe where you can sample much of the range and get a bite to eat. Find out more about tours here: Greene King Brewery tours
2. The Theatre Royal
This wonderful National Trust theatre is said to be the only remaining working Regency playhouse in the country. Originally built in 1819, it has recently undergone extensive renovations to take it back closer to its original Georgian look and it hasn’t lost its charm in the process. Expect to be close to the acts in this intimate performance space that hosts a varied programme of shows and events throughout the year. Take a look at what’s on at the Theatre Royal here: Shows upcoming at the Theatre Royal
3. St Edmundsbury Cathedral, also known as The Cathedral Church of St James
So let’s start with a bit of history. Originally the church was known as St Denis’s Church, but in the 12th century, when Anselm was the Abbot of St Edmundsbury, he decided he wanted to make a pilgrimage along the St James’s way, more commonly known around the world as Santiago de Compostela to the shrine of Saint James the Great in Galicia. However, he was persuaded by his peers that it wasn’t a good idea and didn’t do it. But I guess he still felt he had a burning desire to do something a little Saint Jamesey, so he decided to rebuild the old church and rename it St James’s Church. I think a walk would have been the easier option and I also feel a little bad for Denis – losing his church after James already has so much glory is a shame, but that’s the way it all went down.
The church became a cathedral in 1914 and has since kept growing. The roof and the font are stand out features, and there is also a small display room with some local treasures. Interestingly, although you wouldn’t know by looking at it, the St Edmundsbury cathedral tower wasn’t completed until 2005 after funding was granted by the Millennium Commission.
4. St Mary’s Church
While the cathedral is bright and almost feels modern, just up the road is St Mary’s Church which feels like stepping back in time and is a wonderful contrast. The church is one of the largest parish churches in England, it claims to have the second longest aisle, and the largest West Window of any parish church in the country. I think that makes it worth a visit.
What . . . you want more? OK, how about if I also tell you there is royalty buried there? Will that do it for you? St Mary’s Church is the final burial place of Mary Tudor, sister of King Henry VIII. After the death of her first husband, the king of France, (30 years older than her, she allegedly danced him to death three months after their wedding) Mary was immediately promised by her brother Henry to the Duke of Savoy. Mr Eighth sent an ambassador to pick her up from France but on the way she managed to persuade the ambassador to marry her instead. He must have been a brave man as not many went against the famously fragile tempered King, but he seemed to get away with it (after paying a whopping fine to the cash-strapped King) and they lived in Suffolk until she died and was buried in the Abbey before being moved to the church.
The tomb itself is quite small and easy to miss (it took me about 10 minutes and I knew where it was!) so look carefully. In the words of the church’s information sign: “It really is a modest tomb for someone who was the daughter of a King, sister of a King, wife of a King and grandmother of a Queen”.
Poignantly, the colours of the Suffolk Regiment also hang in the church, recording battle honours over the centuries.
5. The Great Courtyard and West Front
As you stand next to the statue of St Edmund, in the middle of the courtyard, you will be surrounded by interesting architecture, most of which stems from The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds (more on that in a bit).
The courtyard is built up on three sides, the Cathedral to the North, Norman Tower to the west and confusingly the West Front to the East. I have already written about the cathedral above, so if you skipped it, you can go back now. The Norman Tower used to be the main gateway to the abbey and is still used to this day as the bell tower for the cathedral.
The West Front is a small part of the original abbey still standing, it was the main entrance to what must have been a spectacular complex. To the south the courtyard joins the St Mary’s Church graveyard with tombstones dating back hundreds of years.
Other interesting sights in the courtyard are the Norman Tower House, a stunning house next to the tower. Built in 1846, if you fancy owning it yourself, it was recently on the market with a guide price of ‘only’ £1,500,000. There is also the Martyr’s Memorial, a monument to the 17 Protestants who were burnt in the town at the command of Queen Mary the 1st, aka Bloody Mary. Not to be confused with Mary Tudor, who’s buried in the nearby St Mary’s church (as you already know unless you skipped that bit too!).
6. Abbey Gardens
The main entrance to the Abbey Gardens is through The Abbey Gate, on Angel Hill. For those of you whose history only goes back a meagre few centuries I would point out that the current Abbey Gate is the new version . . . built in the 1300s (rioting townspeople tore down the original one in 1327). The Abbey Gardens contain the ruins of The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds as well as wonderful landscape, flowers and entertainments. It is free to get into and is a great area to unleash the kids with a large playground and aviary.
The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was once one of the richest of the Benedictine monasteries in the country and (probably) the burial site of St Edmund the Martyr King, viciously killed by those pesky Vikings. Sadly, after King Henry VIII decided to go a bit anti-monks and create his own version of religion (more to do with replacing a boring old wife with a tantalising new model than any real conviction), the abbey, like many other in the UK thanks to the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, was torn down. Much of the building material was pilfered and reused about the town ( you can spot lumps of abbey stone in the walls in many town centre homes) and the ruins are all that remain. The abbey was also the site where a group of Barons came together to discuss forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta aimed at limiting the King’s power and establishing a fair law across the country (and which went on to be the basis of other countries’ constitutions, such as the USA and India). Ironic really, that it was a king who ordered the Abbey’s destruction just 100 years later.
7. Pillar of Salt
Dating to the 1930s, it is easy to pass this handsome, tall and white column without even realising what it is. Located on Angel Hill, close to the Abbey Gate, this sign is thought to be the first illuminated roadsign in the country. It is also on the country’s list of nationally important sites, being described as “individual and probably unique”.
8. A cocktail in the cellars of The Angel Hotel
As an ex-employee it’s probably a bit cheeky including this, but I have some great memories from working there and for centuries the Angel Hotel has been at the heart of Bury St Edmunds. They have entertained many famous guests through the years here including Angelina Jolie, Pierce Brosnan and even Charles Dickens was a guest there once (he was suitably impressed and decided to include its name in his novel The Pickwick Papers). Since Mr Dickens’ visit, The Angel has undergone many changes and its modern interior belies its old school frontage. In fact, much of it is a little like wandering around a modern art gallery (I’ll leave it for you to decide if you like the art or not). My favourite place in The Angel is downstairs in The Wingspan Bar, formerly known as The Vaults.
Located in (allegedly) secret undergound tunnels that date back to the 12th century, the comfortable and curious surrounds are a great place to relax with friends and enjoy a cocktail, or two . . . or four?
9. Shop fronts
It’s easy to understand why you’d be walking around with your eyes looking where you are going, but don’t. . . lift your head and look up. In contrast to the modern shop fronts, many of the buildings have wonderful facades above street level, be sure to take a closer look as you wander around the town. An added bonus is that if you walk around looking up, people tend to get out of your way (and you can keep an eye on the pigeon that had a dodgy meal and is looking to get rid of it).
10. The Nutshell
This quirky little pub is the smallest pub in the UK. Well, many have tried to claim to be smaller, but most of them have beer gardens, which in my view, is cheating. Expect to be cramped and uncomfortable, but the beer is always good and the walls are like a mini museum, covered in pieces of stuff that locals have donated from their travels. Oh, touching the mummified cat that hangs above the bar is considered bad luck, I wouldn’t recommend it. Unless touching ancient dead cats is your thing, in which case, go ahead and give it a stroke.
The thriving Bury St Edmunds market is every Wednesday and Saturday, and takes over the town centre, creating a lively atmosphere as the streets fill with people traders try to out shout each other about how cheap their bananas are. It is home to stalls selling everything from locally grown fruit and veg, fresh fish, flowers, clothing, world foods and of course those stalls that all markets have that just seem to sell a whole variety of random crap.
12. Independent shops
If you love discovering hidden gems and smaller shops where you never quite know what you’re going to find, St John’s Street is perfect. The gently sloped shopping street leads downhill from the town with many small, independent retailers that cover a huge range of goodies from handmade jewellery, gourmet food, clothing and even a shop called Secrets, but shhh, the town doesn’t like to talk about that sexy little corner. If you visit the town by train this is the street which will give you a delightful introduction to Bury St Edmunds.
13. The Abbeygate Cinema
Of course there is the Cineworld in Bury St Edmunds, but if you’re a movie lover staying for a couple of days then I’d definitely recommend seeing a movie at the Abbeygate. The cinema shows a wonderful mix of movies, from arthouse pictures to major blockbusters. However, what makes it really stand out is the screening rooms come complete with sofas and are licensed. That means you can grab that glass of wine at the bar, take it into the movie and snuggle with a loved one on a couch while enjoying the movie (unfortunately they do not supply blankets). Oh, and one other thing, it also has a great restaurant serving possibly the best burgers in town. See what films are on at The Abbeygate Cinema: What’s on at The Abbeygate
14. Moyse’s Hall
The exact origins of this building are rather sketchy, it may have been a tavern, it may have been the place that a lady’s foot burst into flames and fell rotting from her body, thanks to The Devil. It was definitely a prison of sorts, but it is now a museum. True to its eclectic roots, the collections inside range from clocks and militaria to items of torture (my personal favourites as a fascinated child) and lots about the infamous local Red Barn Murder that had much of country gossiping in the 1800s. I recommend this article for more information if that bit about rotting flesh piqued your attention and the video below is pretty good too. – The History of Moyse’s Hall
15. Arc Shopping Centre
As well as having wonderful independent stores, if shopping is your thing, the arc shopping centre has all the high street covered. A modern development, it is worth checking out if just for the futuristic architecture of Debenhams, which looks a bit like it’s ready to take off and fly away at any moment. I’m also going to throw in that if you need to spend a penny (not in the shopping way) then the arc is home to award winning public toilets, super clean, spacious and free!
16. The Apex
Located within the arc shopping centre, The Apex is a modern concert hall and event space which, while not big on capacity, is big on acoustics. Many of the acts that play there have actually commented that it has the best acoustics in the UK, maybe even Europe. Find out more about that and what’s on and coming up at The Apex on their website: The Apex
17. The Bury Christmas Market
There’s nothing like sipping a mulled wine to stave off the winter chill while strolling through market stalls in the build up to Christmas. Well, once a year the town gets taken over by Christmas festivities for locals and visitors to sip mulled wine until their hearts’ content. The Bury Christmas Market is regularly touted as one of the best in the UK, stretching from the top of the town all the way down, and into the Abbey Gardens with loads of market stalls, street food vendors, live stage performances and more. The event usually takes place towards the end of November, and if you plan on staying locally, you’d better book your accommodation early.
Bonus tip: The town also holds quite a few other markets and fayres throughout the year, including the Whitsun Fayre and a massive food event, normally in August. Find out about and upcoming events in Bury St Edmunds here: Bury St Edmunds Fayres and Festivals
18. Guided Walk by a Blue Badge Guide
So you don’t want to go to the effort of discovering it all for yourself? Smart. Luckily, Bury St Edmunds Blue Badge Tour Guides have got your back. There are many benefits to doing a guided tour, they’ll take you to unknown little spots and tell stories and tales of the town throughout the history. I’ll hold my hand up and admit I haven’t done one myself, but I have often walked past and earwigged in, and they know their stuff! Find out more and book a guided tour of Bury St Edmunds here: Visit Bury St Edmunds
19. Eat & Drink
One thing you won’t be when visiting the town is hungry or thirsty. With loads of coffee shops, pubs and restaurants you’ll be spoilt for choice. Personally, I like to support independents, so while you can find pretty much all chains in the town, here are a few lesser-known stars in the town:
Independent Restaurants, Pubs and Bars in Bury St Edmunds
1921 – Recently a winner of Suffolk Magazine’s Best Restaurant award, 1921 follows an unconventional approach with relaxed service and the stunning food reigning supreme.
Pea Porridge – With a cosy, homely, laid back ambience the hands-on owners, Justin Sharp (head chef-proprietor) and his wife Jurga (front-of-house), like to keep things lively, fresh and exciting. Pea Porridge is a regular in the Michelin guide.
The One Bull – Their aim? “To serve good food and drink at sensible prices in a relaxed, friendly and clean environment.” Mission accomplished!
The Beerhouse – I’ve never had a bad pint here. They boast 7 hand pumps dedicated to traditional cask ale from interesting local and national brewers with 3 hand pumps for cask ciders as well as a craft beer wall featuring 6 ever changing keg beers.
Old Cannon Brewery – As you walk in you will be struck by their unique, stainless steel brewing vessels that are a stunning feature of the bar where they have been brewing since 1999. The Gunner’s Daughter is a highly recommended pint.
The Snug – Expect top cocktails that in a drinks menu that encapsulates easy drinking and daring delights.
Edmundos – This large bar is packed with quirky decor, comfy chairs and original features that date back to when it was first a pub, waaaay back in 1791. Expect great cocktail and lovely dishes – sharing is encouraged!
Guat’s Up – Guat’s Up! Is a colourful independent cafe in the heart of Bury St. Edmunds offering Butterworth and Sons speciality coffee, roasted here in Bury St. Edmunds, loose leaf teas and fresh pastries and bagels daily.
Gastrono-me – The team here pride themselves in creating simple dishes inspired by their childhoods and from their travels.
Ummm – did I mention there’s a brewery? That does tours? With tasting?
Getting to Bury St Edmunds
The town is located just off the A14 between Cambridge and Ipswich and takes about one hour and fifteen minutes to get to Bury St Edmunds from London by car. Other options include National Express buses, the the Bury bus station located in the middle of town, and train.
The railway station is a little further out, located about 1km north of the town centre. Sadly there aren’t many direct trains to Bury St Edmunds, most of the time you will have to change at Ipswich, Stowmarket or Cambridge train station, you can check train times here: The Trainline
Places to stay in Bury St Edmunds
One thing that Bury struggles with is decent, affordable accommodation. Even with the recent opening of a Premier Inn, it has done little to bring down the average room rates. That said, depending on when you visit, deals can be found. Here is a list of a few places to stay in Bury St Edmunds that I would happily recommend. Note – The links will take you to the booking.com page to check availability. If you book via the link here I make a small commission to help keep the site going but don’t worry, it doesn’t affect the price.
The Old Cannon Brewery – An independent B&B with pub and micro brewery. Smart rooms, located about a 5-minute walk from the town centre.
The Angel Hotel – Iconic hotel of Bury St Edmunds located right on Angel Hill. The Angel boasts a guest list that includes many A-list stars, Royalty, but most importantly, my grandparents.
The Fox – They only have 6 rooms but they are stunning, especially the suite. The fittings were painstakingly sourced from local suppliers by the previous owners before they sold the business. It’s operated by Old English Inns and perfectly located next to the Abbey Gardens.
The Bushell – Refurbished to a nice standard, offers great value.
The Dog & Partridge – Situated next door to the brewery, I haven’t seen the rooms but the pub is nice.
The Northgate – A new opening in the town, a super swanky looking place that I have never been to. High end.
So what grabbed your attention and makes you want to visit my home? Let me know in the comment and why not give me a reason to visit your hometown?
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