Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Day Out in Bury St. Edmunds

Thursday, September 1, 2011
Bury St. Edmunds

Having awoken at 6. 30 again, I joined Cynthia for the 8 am Mass at St. Paul's Cathedral. Michael said the Mass in one of the small chapels where a clutch of folks formed an intimate congregation. When I emerged in the full-blown light of a gorgeous sunny day, my heart sang--it was the perfect day for a day trip. Hurrying through breakfast, I took the Tube to Wembley North where I met my friend Bash who had volunteered to drive me out of town on an excursion to any venue of my choice. After much debate, Michael had suggested Bury St. Edmunds and that was where we zipped off by 10. 30 am.

Bury St. Edmunds lies in the county of Suffolk not too far from Cambridge. Although the drive took almost two hours, the time flew as we chitchatted and caught up. Entering the delightfully large market square that is dominated by a medieval tower gate on one side and an ivy-clad stone hotel on the other, we parked our car and set out to explore the beautiful town.

Mentioned frequently in the novels of Charles Dickens (especially The Pickwick Papers), 'Bury' as it is known for short, is associated with the medieval English king Saint Edmund who was martyred in 869 AD and whose remains were buried in the town --from where it derives its name. We entered the Tourist Information Office first for maps and recommendations for places to see and armed with the necessary information, crossed the street to enter the Tower Gateway into the lovely Abbey Gardens.

Strolling Through the Abbey Gardens:
It was hard to believe that it was the first of September as the gardens were in full glorious summer bloom with begonia and fuchsia providing vivid color in geometrically laid-out flower beds sprinkled among manicured lawns. Punctuated by the grey flint stone ruins of the Abbey that was destroyed during Henry VIIIs Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1534, the gardens made a popular picnic spot and scores of people enjoyed sprawling on the lawns on a day that invited one to do just that. Crossing into the churchyard with its spectacular rose gardens and perennial flower beds, we arrived at the entrance of the Cathedral and spent almost an hour exploring the interior.

Exploring the Cathedral:
Although the Cathedral dates from medieval times, the last structure that completed it--a square Gothic tower--was erected only in 2005 and is stunning for its interior paint work. The colors used to paint the ceiling are vivid and wonderful and blend superbly with the much older hammered beam ceiling that features the busts of saints. The altar of this cathedral is notable for the fact that was the assembly point for the barons who had decided to draw up a Charter of Liberties to present to King John--which became the famous Magna Carta of 1215. We encircled the Cathedral and knowing that there was much to see, then made our way into the cloisters that surround another very private garden that was used exclusively by the monks. We munched on the sandwiches I had carried on picnic benches thoughtfully provided and continued to enjoy the sun.

The Church of St. Mary:
Later, we explored the adjoining Church of St. Mary that is of similar vintage and also sports a superb hammered beam ceiling--this one ending in the busts of fabulously carved angels. This church is renowned for being the burial place of Henry VIII's favorite sister (and his youngest sibling), Mary (after whom he named the Tudor ship The Mary Rose). I read the history of her life on the plaque and the episode in HBO's The Tudors came startlingly back to me as I recalled that, at 18, she was bethrowed by Henry to the 54 year old Louis, King of France, although Henry well knew that she was in love with one of his courtiers, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Mary agreed to marry Louis provided that Henry would permit her to marry Charles after Louis passed away (I suppose, in that day and age, 54 was a grand old age and she did not expect him to live long). HBO's version has Mary murder Louis by suffocation (although the plaque did not say so). Henry sent Charles to bring the widowed queen back to England but en route, Charles secretly married Mary, much to Henry's anger. Both Charles and Mary were banished from the court and lived in disgrace for years (as it was unthinkable for a member of the royal family to marry without the king's consent). A few years later, Henry forgave them both, restored his relationship with them and they returned to court. However, a few years later, when Mary died, neither her brother Henry (who was busy with the coronation revelry for one of his six wives) nor her husband Charles (who was already wooing his next wife!) attended her funeral and burial in the Abbey Church. She was buried very simply under a stone slab with no mortuary sculpture or decoration of any kind--certainly as the plaque puts it, a most unseemly burial for the daughter of a king, a sister of a king, a wife of a king and a grandmother of queen (her grand-daughter was the poor ill-fated Lady Jane Grey who ruled England for exactly nine days before being beheaded together with her two young sons for no other reason than she was a threat).

Knowing how much I adore Tudor and Elizabethan history, one would not be surprized that I was particularly taken by this church and spent a long while at Mary's tomb (which occupies a nondescript corner of the altar). There is also a stained glass window that was installed by Queen Victoria who was fascinated by Mary's life--she is not to be confused with Mary Tudor, first-born daughter of Henry VIII by Katherine of Aragon (known as Bloody Mary) nor her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots.Nor was she ever cannonized and the Church of St. Mary in which she lies buried is not named after her. Overall, I found this church simply lovely for its rich associations with a particularly fascinating period in British History.

Sampling Suffolk's Oldest Brewery:
Walking further down the quaint narrow streets of the town, we arrived at the Green King brewery, one of the country's oldest. In the gift shop, we sampled two of the beers produced by the brewery--Old Country Hen and Old Golden Hen, both rather good especially on a warm day. We toured the museum displays and, although we had not arrived in time for a tour of the brewery, received a neat introduction to its working.

A Tour of the Theater Royal:
Right across the street was the Theater Royal, the oldest Regency theater (circa 1810-1820, this was built in 1819 and therefore just escapes the Georgian era) in the country. Today it is maintained by The National Trust and although it is a working theater whose new season actually begins today (September 1), we were given a tour of the exquisite interior by an assistant who proved to be a superb tour guide and had all his facts at his finger tips. The theater was recently restored at a cost of 6 million pounds and the refurbishment is evident. Seats in bright pink match the walls while a Classical painted frieze on the stage front and sides of the boxes form the only decoration. This theater has none of the Victorian grandeur of the London ones but it was charming and one of the nicest things we saw all day.

Back at the market square (where a street market is held every Wednesday and Saturday), we wended our way through the maze of narrow lanes that always comprise medieval market towns to browse in a few stores before we nipped inside The Nutshell, the country's tiniest pub. Indeed, no more than five men can occupy the place at a time and when Bash stood with his arms outstretched, he touched both sides of the pub. It is aptly named and is a tourist curiosity.Other places of note in Bury are the Mosye Hall where a Norman crypt that we entered forms a modern day gift store for a small museum that is located further inside the building.

We had done Bury justice and having spent almost five hours in the town decided to stop at the Scandinavian Tea Shop for a pot of tea and coffee walnut cake. Then, it was time to get back into the car for the long drive back to London. We got caught up for an hour in awful accident-related traffic near Wembley but we did arrive at Red Sky, a newly-opened shisha lounge at which Bash wanted me to meet two of his friends, a scholarly Bangladeshi named Mohammed and an Indian student who is college-bound soon to the University of Birmingham named Urvi. I spent a good hour with them over a chocolate milk shake and chicken kebab rolls before we got in the car again, stopping off only at Kensington to pick up tickets for an excursion to what Bash called "Bucks Palace" and then we were driving to Amen Court through Central London's theater district that was garishly illuminated.

Back at Amen Court, Bash stayed for a quick cup of coffee with Cynthia and Micahel before disappearing into the night. Cynthia and I enjoyed some herbal tea before we too called it a day. My unexpected excursion to Bury St. Edmunds turned out to be a really interesting one and I was so glad that Bash did the driving and allowed me a chance to take in its long and varied history.

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