As we discovered from our recent visit, there are a lot of things to do in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. The town is overflowing with history, independent shops and restaurants and beautiful architecture, making it it a great choice for a weekend or week-long break.
This year Bury St Edmunds celebrates the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of the Abbey of St Edmund by King Canute. Sadly all the celebration events have had to be postponed, most likely until 2021. Even so, it’s still a very interesting time to visit, with lots to see and do.
COVID-19: Some attractions may still be closed, or have restrictions in place, due to Coronavirus. We recommend visiting the relevent websites to to find out more before visiting. Please take care and be responsible during your stay.
Bury St Edmunds Abbey Ruins and Abbey Gardens
The first Patron Saint of England and King of East Anglia, Saint Edmund was enshrined in the abbey. His name was consequently given to the town built around it.
In medieval times the monastery was one of the largest, richest and most powerful in the country. People came from all over the UK to visit Edmund’s shrine. The abbey was sadly destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, however.
Many of the ruins still stand, although in differing states of repair. The grounds are large and there’s a lot to see, such as the Abbey Gate. This had to be rebuilt in a fortified form after the Great Riot of 1327, when townsfolk destroyed the gate in their anger at the riches and power the monastery held.
Other highlights include the High Altar. The Barons met in here 1214 and made an oath to force King John to accept the Charter of Liberties. This later became known as the Magna Carta.
The Abbey Gardens
As well as the abbey ruins, there are a number of beautiful spots to visit within the 14-acre gardens. The main Botanical Garden is a must see, but there’s also the sundial fountain, a walk along the River Lark, the Water Garden and the Pilgrim’s Herb Garden. The world’s first Internet bench is also here, which was gifted by Microsoft back in 2001.
More somber gardens include the Appleby Rose Garden. This was named after John Appleby, an American serviceman who served with the 487th Bomb Group in Lavenham. Many US servicemen and women have been stationed in Suffolk over the years and in their memory this garden also has a bench made from the wing of an American Flying Fortress Bomber. There’s also the garden of reflection, created to commemorate the lives of the 57 Jews murdered in Bury St Edmunds on Palm Sunday 1190, as well as all victims of genocide.
Could Edmund still be buried here?
During our tour of the abbey ruins and gardens we learnt that over the years Edmund’s shrine was plundered. However, thieves never found his body. His whereabouts are still a great mystery today. But a theory suggests he might be buried in the monks’ cemetery, which lies beneath the old tennis courts in the Abbey Gardens.
There has been talk of further research into this, such as a subsurface survey of the area. Perhaps this will lead to Bury St Edmunds getting its very own ‘Richard the III” story, but to date nothing has been confirmed.
St Mary’s Church
Built as part of the abbey complex, St Mary’s is one of the largest parish churches in England. It has the country’s largest west window, which was funded by local farmers after a good harvest. It’s also know for its hammer beam ‘angel’ roof , and has the second longest aisle.
Henry VIII’s favourite sister is buried here. After the dissolution of the monasteries, her body was moved from the abbey to a simple tomb next to the altar. Fun fact – you can actually see a lock of her hair preserved at the Moyse House Museum (see below).
St Edmundsbury Cathedral
St Edmundsbury Cathedral was built alongside the abbey and overlooks the beautiful gardens. One funny story we learnt that part of the cathedral used to lay below ground level. In old days, there are stories of canoes being ridden down the aisle!
It’s well worth visiting the cathedral (entry is free) to see its beautiful vaulted ceiling. If you’re feeling energetic, why not climb the 202 tower steps to get some amazing views over Bury?
If you’re interested in more than looking around, you can book on a cathedral tour. These take place Mon-Sat, between May and September.
Moyse’s Hall Museum
Another must-visit during any trip to Bury St Edmunds is Moyse’s Hall Museum. This is housed in one of the two 12th Century buildings still standing in the town. The other is the Norman Tower in the abbey ruins. I love this museum because it tells some interesting – and often macabre – stories from the town’s history.
St Edmund – the original Patron Saint of England
An area is of course dedicated to St Edmund, including the story of how he died. The tale goes that Edmund was captured in battle, tied to a tree and told to renounce his faith. He refused and so was filled full of arrows, decapitated and had his head thrown into the forest.
This is where things get a bit odd – his followers found his body, and began hunting for the head. They heard a voice cry “here, here” and found a wolf standing over the head protectively. Supposedly, when his head was placed back on his body they fused back together. All that was left was a thin, pink line at the join. This was the first of many miracles attributed to Edmund.
Suffolk’s Red Barn Murder
There’s also a section of the museum given over to the tale of the notorious Red Barn Murder from 1827. I won’t give away the whole story – you can read about it here if you want to know more. However, I will let you know that the court case’s report was bound in the murderer’s skin. This – and his scalp, with his ear clearly visible – is part of the display. Definitely not one for the squeamish!
Very much like Horrible Histories in museum form, this place is great if you love your history gruesome and quirky. Other displays cover topics like crime and punishment and witchcraft. Here I learnt that many people would mummify cats and put them into walls. This was because they believed it would protect their home from evil. One poor feline is on display here, while another can be found at Lavenham Guildhall.
Upstairs there’s a gallery dedicated to the 300 years of service by the Suffolk Regiment. Amongst other things, there’s also musician Frederic Gershom-Parkington’s collection of timepieces.
What was particularly interesting about our visit was discovering the work that goes into sourcing the artefacts on display. We were lucky enough to spend some time with the museum’s exhibition officer Alex, whose passion for history was contagious.
He kindly showed us around, telling us not only the stories related to the items, but behind their collection. Getting just one item can involve a lot of work! It can include everything from completing grant requests forms and fundraising through to historical research and logistical planning. Hard work, but rewarding when you see visitors walking around he said.
Take a brewery tour
Visit the home of Abbot Ale, Greene King IPA, Old Specked Hen and Cuddles County at the King Visitor Centre. Next to the brewery, this museum follow the history of brewing in and around Bury from the earliest times. This includes the story of the Greene and King families who came together in 1887 to create Greene King.
19-year-old Benjamin Greene created the company in 1799. Visitors can book to go on a tour of the company’s historic working brewhouse, which as well as giving guests a chance to taste all the beers in its special cafe (as well as take a free bottle home) you can get some great views from the brewhouse roof.
Each tour lasts around 1 hour 40 mins and costs £16 on weekdays or £18 on evenings and weekends.
Explore the town
Bury St Edmunds is a beautiful town and the best way to see it in all its beauty is by foot. The town centre is full of pretty old buildings, each with a story to tell. I highly recommend starting off your visit at the tourist information centre by the cathedral on Angel Hill, where you can pick up a free visitor guide and map. This way you won’t miss some of the great sites of the town.
While walking around keep your eyes open for the blue plaques that adorn many walls, and also the little shields that denote a property had fire insurance. The town was known for its fires because so many buildings were made of wood, and the firemen would always go to those houses with insurance first!
It’s also worth checking out the town’s three corn exchange – the last to be built is now a Wetherspoons pub; and possibly one of the prettiest in the UK.
Take a Bury St Edmunds walking tour
As regular readers will know, we’re big fans of walking tours at Ladies What Travel. We always try to book one at the start of any trip somewhere new, and some of our favourites to date have been the Tallinn, Berlin, Reykjavik and The Women of London walking tours.
Walking tours are a great way to learn more about the town or city you’re visiting and I’m so glad we took one at the start of our visit to Bury St Edmunds, as we learnt so much. We met our tour guide, John at the Information Centre beside the Abbey Gate. This is also where we started our tour.
A long-term Bury resident, John knew his stuff, and really brought the town’s history to life in a fun and engaging way. Actually, much of the information I’ve shared with you about Bury so far are things I learnt from him!
Walking around the town he pointed out so many cool little things that we may have otherwise missed, such as the wooden beam in the window of one shop that actually has King Henry VIII and one of his wives carved into it.
He also showed us the only Lloyds Bank sign in the UK not to include its famous black horse. Lloyds was actually started here in Bury, and this sign includes an oak – the name of the founder, two pineapples; which symbolise wealth and a beehive to symbolise trade and prosperity. That’s a pub quiz question right there, wouldn’t you agree?
He also shared lots of fun quirky stories, such as that of Mary’s marriage mart. As we mentioned earlier, Henry VIII’s favourite sister was Mary Tudor. She used to come to the market and matchmake locals looking for love. He also told us about The Nutshell, which claims to be the smallest pub in England – it may no longer be, as this has been contested by several other tiny pubs.
The Nutshell is 15 by 7 ft in size – cosy for sure! But it’s not just known for its diminutive size. This victorian building has a quirky interior – the walls are covered in historical artefacts and, of course, it has its own mummified cat for protection.
I’m not quite sure how well that’s working for them though. John mentioned that there’s been several sightings of a pale looking child in Victorian garb at the upstairs window…
Restaurants in Bury St Edmunds
You’re spoilt for choice when eating out in Bury St Edmunds. As well as several popular restaurant chains like Carluccio’s, Prezzo and Wagamama, there’s a great selection of independent restaurants offering everything from Italian and Japanese through to French and American, as well as a great selection of cafes and bars.
We weren’t able to try them all, but I can recommend Lottie’s. This cutesie cafe is on the corner of Angel’s Hill, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Abbey Gate. So pretty, Lottie’s is an Insta-lover’s dream thanks to its flower wall, but it’s not just a pretty face – it offers the most delicious bagels, waffles, ice cream and afternoon tea, and also has a great gluten free selection.
Hotels in Bury St Edmunds
The Angel hotel
Bury St Edmunds has a number of boutique and historic hotels you could stay in, including the prestigious Angel Hotel, which overlooks the Abbey Gate and gardens. Its most famous guest has to be Charles Dickens, who frequented room 15. This is still a guest bedroom to this day, but has changed number. If you want to stay in Dickens’ room, then make sure you request room number 215.
The Swan at Lavenham
We, however, chose to base ourselves in the beautiful, historic village of Lavenham, just out of the town. Well worth a visit in it’s own right (there’s enough to fill a day trip for sure!), we stayed in the beautiful Swan at Lavenham – a 15th century inn that oozes with comfort and history.
We highly recommend it, but to find out more read our full review.
Things to do in Bury
So there you have it, our guide to a visit to Bury St Edmunds. It’s a really great town to visit, with a surprising amount of things to do. I’d love to have stayed longer to see more of what the town had to offer, but I think I’ll definitely be back.
Not only have I still got more of Bury to see – the wider region of Suffolk is overflowing with history and attractions that pique my interest and I’m already working on a regional guide of what to see and do in the area, so keep your eyes peeled!