A Day out With Elspeth in Bury St Edmunds

Bury Angel Hill

I could make this a tour, commenting that it’s the silos of the Sugar factory that herald you today, not the abbey towers, and making a sarky comment about the grand station with no trains and no facilities; how both routes into town from it involve dicing with death when you cross the ring road, and how this gives way to a Saxon grid of interesting streets, some residential, some with independent shops, focussing on an open market place and then the wonderful Angel Hill and Abbey area –

…but I don’t feel like giving that sort of tour today. And I try to write something that you wouldn’t get elsewhere.

Today, I want to tell you that Bury is posh. It became so quite stealthily and quickly. I still smell the cabbages on the market and hear the Londony or Suffolk tones of their sellers. I’m not oblivious to the ugliness of the back of the 1960s shopping development where the bus stops, and which would make you wonder what was supposed to be appealing about this town. I don’t plan on liking the silvery arc shopping area, that might have been OK in Birmingham, but not here, thanks. So it’s not all posh.

But it is getting smarter. The couple of little indie bookshops disappeared after Canadian chain Ottakar’s took over half of the former Suffolk Hotel, and then Waterstone’s took over them and opened another branch at Arc. Now that vacancy is taken by  a local chain of smart women’s clothes whose other homes – Holt, Woodbridge, Burnham Market – hint at what Bury is supposed to have in common and what the arrival means.

The cinema in the same street is also the best way to epitome the alterations of Bury as I’ve known it. The two screener, carved out of the 1920s cinema it shared with the bingo hall, had long been a mainstream chain that felt very 1980/90s. Its faded slightly passé feel gave the mid 2000s attempt at an arts cinema some charm. Then Picturehouses bought it in 2010. And now it’s London priced with sofas but has done nothing to regain the original features, as they’d said they would. The bar’s an expensive snack menu. And despite having a multiplex in walking distance, it’s not that arty in its programming.

The pubs – mostly curiously having animal names – are done up to look gastro, but are not so within always. I’d loved the Dog and Partridge, but friendly as staff always are, it’s now got a football screen and a typically pubby not very enticing menu. I’m not sure about a pub that calls its food “Cannon Fodder” – even if it is the Cannon – and who brew onsite, but don’t offer afternoon tea. And the food I had wasn’t as filling or nice as the price.

What’s telling about the real Bury is when I’m I fancy a coffee out or a meal, and I struggle with both and end up at chains by default. I don’t have favourites here, perhaps just habits.

Also, when I wish to shop for something and find the range here is poor.

The best part of Bury is the Abbey and I’m sure it will feature in the naughty guides separately as one of my favourite ecclesiastical buildings ever. The gardens are safe, pretty, quiet place for all to be, with sensory garden for the blind, bowls and children’s things, gardens and ruins leading to a river walk. The wide space outside – Angel Hill – is a special one.

The Theatre Royal is interesting programming in a Regency theatre – which can be a little snug if you’re in a box. The Apex’s leaflets didn’t come home with me and I didn’t find the pleasure in roaming the building that I do at most arts centres.

Bury’s somewhere that I’m tempted to live, until I’ve been there a few hours. And I recall what I’m used to, and think of what is actually here. Charming, historic, attractive, pleasant – yes. But my main town or home? I don’t think so.

If you’d like to read some earlier thoughts on BSE (yes it is the same as the cow’s disease), go to



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