Going Underground Bury St Edmunds by Martyn Taylor
You would think that the historic town of Bury St Edmunds with the ruins of one of the largest Benedictine abbeys in this country would be honeycombed with tunnels relating to it. Well, as far is known there are none, just mere speculative suppositions put forward over the years by well-meaning people. For tunnels in most cases read interconnecting cellars, there being a surfeit of the latter in the historic core of the town, a grid laid out by Abbot Baldwin in 1065 thus making it the oldest purposely laid out Norman town in the country. In fact, by the time the Domesday Book was completed by 1086, 342 houses were built on land that had previously been under the plough, proper urban expansion that. If you wish you can still follow the streets the many pilgrims trod on their way to the shrine of St Edmund.
St Edmund martyred by the Danes aka Vikings in 869AD would be enshrined in the east end of the magnificent Abbey Church visited by thousands of pilgrims over the 500-year existence of the Abbey. Yet when that fateful day came in 1539 when Henry’s commissioners opened his bejewelled shrine he was no longer there, possibly spirited away by faithful monks and buried as a recent theory purported under nearby tennis courts now gone. Well if Richard III could be buried under a car park who is to say different! We await St Edmund the first patron saint of England until usurped by St George in the mid-14th century to be found somewhere, someday!
To enable the abbey to have been built lime mortar was required for that purpose, the most essential ingredient, chalk. Initially most of that would have been open-cast mining. Having said that the town sits on a rich seam of chalk, those intrepid tunnellers of yesteryear from the 15th century up to the beginning of the 20th century were responsible for three large areas of chalk mines. To the east, at the bottom of Mount Road and to the west close to the rear of what is now the Bannatyne Health Club and Spa. However, the town’s central chalk mines, better known as Jacqueline Close that caused so much sorrow and heartache, are the most infamous. Thirty houses of which only two remain were built over chalk mines, unfortunately though there was knowledge of them warnings were ignored and twenty-eight homes eventually blighted and demolished!
As with all new developments in the town an archaeological dig is obligatory but on one such building site in 1972 near Westgarth Gardens on former allotments it was not deemed necessary after all the site was well outside the Medieval Grid, wrong! The site consisting of chalet bungalows and houses was well underway when its secrets revealed themselves, an Anglo-Saxon cemetery of 69 graves from the 7thC! Inside one particular grave was a beautiful pale green glass bucket, eventually sold at auction many years later for the incredible sum of £116,650. Such is the fabulous history of this town. Other surprises were the discovery of large pieces of garden ornamentation and a well-crafted medieval well when a care home was being built off Cotton Lane. Wells very much to the fore in the town, it is said where-ever you dig you will find one!
So, in conclusion I hope I have whetted your appetite in understanding just a small part of what Going Underground Bury St Edmunds is all about. On your travels you won’t find medieval Benedictine monks traversing the mythical tunnels, but you may encounter some modern-day ones on a pilgrimage to St Edmunds Roman Catholic Church or the Anglican Cathedral of St James and St Edmund. You may even wish to visit the magnificent St Marys parish church and see the rather plain tomb of Mary Tudor, Queen of France younger sister of Henry VIII and whilst there see the burial place of Abbot John Reeve the last abbot of the Abbey of St Edmund. You will also find ‘looted’ Abbey Ashlar limestone all over the town in walls and cellars so keep your eyes open!
Martyn Taylor's book Going Underground Bury St Edmunds is available for purchase now.