48 Hours in…Bury St Edmunds

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There’s a foodie scene, serious cocktail bars – oh, and a thousand years of history


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Bury St Edmunds
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Initial Stroll

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he good news? Bury is a dreamy, underrated town for a weekend break – although, with its towering cathedral, shouldn’t it really be a city? (A half-hearted campaign tried and failed to make the case back in 1999, in fact).

City or not, getting your bearings is super-easy. Whether you arrive by train or car, head first for the piazza alongside Angel Hill, where Suffolk’s only cathedral can be found (not to mention the Angel Hotel, see below). The feel is French provincial town, all medieval streets, Georgian elegance and cars parked in squares.

There’s a thousand years of history here, so dip your big toe in gently via the dominant St Edmundsbury, and delve further amongst the scattered ruins of the 11th century Abbey of St Edmund, once one of the most important monasteries in medieval Europe.

Set in picturesque riverside Abbey Gardens, on a blue-sky day there’s something Mediterranean about the obelisks and ancient remains dotted about, so just stroll, and soak it up; the adjoining churchyard, with its overgrown meadow, also makes a pleasant detour.

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Now head to Churchgate Street and the old town, with its sweeping terraces . Take a right into Brideswell Lane and walk its length to gawp at Greene King HQ (the UK’s largest British-owned brewery) as well as the landmark Regency Theatre.

Get your Beans

Guat's Up
The best coffee in town: Guat’s Up. Photo: PR
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ur favourite coffee stop is Guat’s Up (Guildhall Street), a wonderful indie owned by local Butterworth and Sons roasters, with a tiny courtyard out back. Also good? On St John Street, Vinyl Hunter, and for a caffeine hit in the main square Really Rather Good is reliable, although service can be slow. Also rated is coldbrew specialists Frank & Earnest (Britannia House Brunel Business Court).

Eating

Maison Bleue, carrots served four ways. Photo: SE
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ith our friends Clare and Ben having relocated from London, we’ve visited Bury three times over the last nine months – and enjoyed top scran on each occasion. 1921 Angel Hill is a cosy multi-roomed gaff, its dishes described in minute detail on the menu. This is either helpful or confusing (depending, perhaps, on how inebriated you are); but dishes like Mersea crab with wasabi, pickled mooli and avocado, or halibut with smoked eel gratin and parsley gnocchi are executed with finesse.

Ten minutes’ walk away is Justin Sharp’s lauded Pea Porridge (28 Cannon St), specialists in local seasonal fare: top marks for grilled mackerel with zingy salsa verde, slow-braised rabbit and butter-soft rose veal loin chop from the bertha oven.

On our last visit we were impressed by the two-course set lunch (£19.50) at Maison Bleue (30 Churchgate St), sometimes regarded as the town’s finest restaurant (and certainly most formal). With amuse bouches and extras, it turned out to be more like four courses, the highlights a dish of heritage carrots served four ways, tomato with raw prawn, and turmeric-marinated hake.

More casual is Francela, a newish grill on Angel Hill: share plates of colourful mezze, the sucuk (dry, spicy sausage) a particular winner – we ordered another plate straight away. Clare and Ben also rate The LP (Woolhall St), by day a wood-fired pizza joint, by night a lively bar.

A note on… Weeping Willow

Weeping Willow
So striking: the dining room. Photo: PR
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his 16th century pub owned by florist Paula Pryke and her architect husband is about a ten-minute drive. An unassuming exterior on equally unassuming village street gives way to a serious wow factor within: cosy pub rooms, with mismatched furniture and cartoonishly garish décor (electric blue sofas juxtaposed with cerise walls), lead to a lofty Scandinavian-style glass-and-wood restaurant with high banquettes.

Food is excellent and well-priced, from a simple bowl of crayfish lifted by lime and citrus labne, to a pink trout fillet with kimchi greens, earthy sweet potato puree and mackerel beignet (Bury Road, Barrow IP29, More info.).

Now… how about a pub crawl?

The Nutshell: Covered in memorabilia. Photo: SE
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ury’s a town well-served by hostelries – as you’d expect from a history of brewing, malting and trade. Our favourites? The Mason’s Arms (14 Whiting St), in the oldest quarter, perhaps the most characterful pub in town, with cosy rooms and courtyard garden; The Beerhouse (1 Tayfen Rd), on a corner near the station, with the best craft beer in town, minimal décor and outdoor terrace (try its sister pub the One Bull too); and the Old Cannon, a microbrewery opposite Pea Porridge.

Also recommended? The Nutshell (17 The Traverse), the UK’s smallest pub, covered in memorabilia and in situ for 150 years; the Dog & Partridge, right up by the brewery with a courtyard overlooking its chimney; and award-winning Oakes Barn (St Andrews St), a community-spirited free house.

Something stronger

Stillery: powerful negroni alert. Photo: SE
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trio of ace speakeasy-style cocktail bars are scattered round town. Most visually appealing is the Wingspan, a subterranean bar under the Angel hotel, originally a Norman undercroft used by the abbey for financial transactions.

Now a low-lit and cavernous hangout, with bar created from half a Boeing 737 engine, the only slight downer (fixed instantly) was a negroni served incorrectly in a martini glass.

Unlike, say, at the nearby Stillery (3 Short Brackland), our number one tip for a unique drink in Bury. Taking a hint from dive bars in London and NYC, it’s accessed through an unmarked door up a fire escape to an eclectic room whose owner gets 10/10 for friendly. And the aged negroni, made with their own distilled gin, gets 10/10 too, with its smoky notes from the toasted oak chips.

Prefer to sip a Manhattan on a sunny terrace? Try swish new boutique hotel The Northgate. If daylight is too harsh for such alcoholic pursuits, the crepuscular cocktail bar is dimly-lit for all-important speakeasy vibes.

Shop till you…

The ace Smoking Monkey Antiques. Photo: SE
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f your arrival is on a Saturday, head up Abbeygate Street to the sprawling market around Butter Market and Corn Hill, where you’ll find everything from local asparagus to clothing and plants.

Swerve the chains for boutiques and indie stores along Hatter Street and cobbled St John’s Street (our top tip is the ace Smoking Monkey Antiques).

Culture vultures

The sole-surviving Regency theatre in the country. Photo: Theatre Royal
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he modern Apex dominates Charter Square, an arts venue and contemporary art gallery; also nearby is Moyse’s Hall Museum. And don’t miss the Theatre Royal (Westgate St) the sole-surviving Regency theatre in the country.

Every year in May, there’s ten days of music, theatre, film and exhibitions across town with the Bury Festival.

Get out

18th century Ickworth House and gardens. Photo: SE
A couple of miles away is imposing late 18th century Ickworth House and gardens. The vast parkland boasts lakes, bucolic views, striking rotunda, and café in the Italianate Gardens. Wyken Vineyards has an acclaimed restaurant and weekly Saturday farmers’ market. Also nearby are wool towns Clare, Long Melford and world-famous medieval village Lavenham.

This is box title

Sleeping

15th century Angel Hotel. Photo: SE
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ew hotels dominate a town like the Angel Hotel, an imposing Georgian pile that lines one side of the piazza on Angel Hill; a coaching inn has, in fact, stood here since the 15th century. Attractively covered in ivy, it has 77 bedrooms – this is no tiddler – as well as boutique-styled bars, restaurant and pavement terrace (a morning suntrap). And if you need historical back-up, Charles Dickens shacked up here while giving readings in the nearby Athenaeum – and even mentioned it in The Pickwick Papers.

Our spacious contemporary (and yay! dog-friendly) room overlooked the abbey. The centrepiece of the bathroom was an elegant copper bath – spa-style toiletries are provided – and the rain shower proved extremely invigorating.

King-size bed? Tick, and super comfy to boot: lying on the crisp linen, morning light pouring in through the windows, cathedral bells ringing, proved a genuine highlight. And, best of all, the food is on point. The restaurant occupies the raised ground floor, magnificent Georgian sashes along one side. At the helm is award-winning local chef James Carn.

King Size bed? Tick. Photo: PR
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f our dishes, most outstanding was a starter of soy-glazed octopus, its butter-soft tentacles rubbing up against avocado, peanuts and red cabbage kimchi (a moussy chicken liver parfait’s umami levels, meanwhile, were upped by a dollop of bacon jam). Mains included tender Iberican pork presa (a shoulder cut from free-range acorn-munching pigs), marbled and beautifully crimson.

As with many dishes, the accompaniments had Middle Eastern notes – pomegranates, hummus, kibbeh (a minced pork patty) and yoghurt. Even rosy lamb loin was served with spicy harissa and the aromatic spice and seed mix dukkah, as well as roasted carrot and grilled baby onion.

Only our dessert, a chocolate pot, failed to keep up the 100% hit rate, its mix of textures just lacking the flavour-punch of the earlier courses.

Despite the awesome food, we were surprised by how quiet the dining room was; and yet it was an entirely different story next morning at breakfast, with every table taken by a lively tour group of visor-clad Americans, all extremely excited by the Royal Wedding that day. An angel of many faces, indeed.

The Angel Hotel, 3 Angel Hill, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, IP33 1LT (01284 714007) Rooms on a weekend night from £120 a double including breakfast. More info here.

For more info about Bury St Edmunds visit the website here. Like foodie Suffolk pubs? Read out review of the Fox & Goose in Fressingfield here. Main image: Abbey Gardens and Ruins, Bury St Edmunds by Tom-Soper

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