“ Abbey Gardens Park And Ruins in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. „
One weekend, a friend and I took advantage of a Groupon deal to have a break in historic Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk. The town grew around its abbey built in the middle ages and was a popular destination for pilgrims. It was named after the then patron saint of England, St Edmund who had a shrine here, before that dragon-slaying upstart, St George, took his place. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the sixteenth century, the abbey physically dissolved until now only a few ruins are left. If you go to the Abbey Gardens whilst you are here, you can see what remains.
The gardens were botanical in Georgian times but became free public gardens since 1912. They are open daily from 7.30am (9am Sundays) until dusk. They border the cathedral on one side and have a number of entrances, of which the Abbey Gate is the most imposing. Originally Norman, it was part of the wall surrounding the abbey before being destroyed and re-built in the 14th Century. We first entered on Mustow Street and were greeted with beautifully manicured lawns interspersed with the odd abbey ruin. You can amble freely around the ruins and there are a number of plans and markers showing which part of the abbey had formerly stood here, as well as a model of what the Abbey most likely looked like. We were lucky that it was a beautiful day, which also makes wandering through gardens so much more appealing.
We saw a children's playground but we didn't investigate further on the grounds we were probably a tad old. It seemed very popular judging from the shrieks we could hear. I believe there is also crazy golf, tennis, bowling and a kiosk here but we didn't see them, so I assume they are beyond the play area. There is also a small river that runs alongside with some photogenic ducks.
For us the highlight was the central area. This is the part nearest the Abbey Gate and is a beautifully done flower garden. Even though we were here quite late in the year, we were impressed by the vibrancy and range colours that had been used in the flowerbeds. It is apparently planted in a 'Victorian Bedding Style', and the beds are laid out well as a pattern with thousands of beautiful flowers. Apparently the variety and colour scheme used changes each year.
Whilst not the largest park or gardens you will ever visit the gardens are still beautiful and come highly recommended if you are here at the right time of year. It is a very tranquil area and well maintained, located right in the heart of the town.
Having lived in Bury St Edmunds for most of my life I would have had to bury my head a fair depth in the sand to not learn anything about the history that the town is steeped in. The most notable piece of history that still exists in the town in my opinion would be the Abbey Gardens with a varied history with uses ranging from having been a monastery to now being a public garden and park. I will give a brief history here in this review however will not include the full history as I haven't the time to write a book or half a life time to accumulate the necessary research. I will try to pay more attention covering what is left here today for people to see and do should they decide to pay a visit.
A Brief History:-
The abbey of which the more recent ruins are still visible today dates back to the year 633 (it was just a wooden settlement in these days) is now getting on towards housing a good 1400 years of history. Are you already starting to see why I don't want to get too involved in the history side of things?
Most of the history I can seem to find that is worthy of a mention and won't bore you too much seems to start around the year 855 which ties the Abbey nicely into the town is when Edmund was announced as King of East Anglia. It was during an attack by the Danes St Edmund retreated to the abbey and was killed here. The Abbey was renamed in memory of him and apparently this is where the town it stands in gets its name "Bury" St Edmunds as it is said that St Edmund was laid to rest at the abbey.
As St Edmund died a Martyr by refusing to give up his faith it is said that pilgrims travelled here for nearly 50 years to pay homage, and St Edmund was the first patron saint of England before St George. In the 12th century due to the popularity of the cathedral the residing Benedictine monks started to add to what was already here with masonry works rather than wood. It was around this time during the 13th century that the history of all of Britain not just the local town and area was changed here as well. The Magna Carta was signed giving a lot of basic rights to the people, with the most notable being one that is still largely used today - the right to contest unlawful imprisonment.
However the monks were not always well thought of by the towns' people and the Abbey Gate was destroyed during riots in the 1300's and was rebuilt during the 1500's. It is this gate that still stands today and remains the main entrance to the rest of the Abbey ruins, it is somewhat of an icon for the local area making it onto many postcards, and being the subject of many artists and photographers works.
During the 15th century and the early part of the 16th century the Abbey carried on expanding until Henry VIII came into power as the King Of England. Although he reigned from 1509 it wasn't until 1539 that the Abbey of St Edmund was stripped of anything of value including the lead roofs of the buildings (almost sounds familiar by today's standards doesn't it?) and the exposed beams started to deteriorate and fall into ruin. However it was not Henry the VIII that was completely responsible for the ruining of the Abbey. The towns' people were quick to start removing the stone to build their own houses with, even going to the lengths of using explosives to remove stubborn parts. So in theory most of the abbey probably does still exist within a certain distance of the town just not in its original form, more likely as a part of a house you are likely to walk past on your way to view the ruins.
It was in the 19th century that works began on turning the Abbey into a botanical garden around what was left of the ruined Abbey, and not until the 20th century that it was opened to the public. So it was probably 1300 years before the commoners of Bury St Edmunds would have been lawfully allowed to enter the gardens.
So that's about as much of the history as I want to get into for the sake of this review. I just wanted to include enough information to let you know why there are ruins here in the first place, and the basics of how they come about. If this taster of our local history interested you there is plenty more to read about, with a list of names and history facts far longer than both of my arms put together that would keep you entertained and researching for quite some time.
So What Is Here Now?
Well the main feature here is obviously the left over ruins from the Abbey Gardens of which a large amount have plaques informing you which part of the ruins you are looking at. The main gate still exists in its grand original form from the 15th century, however the rest of the ruins aren't quite so glamorous. Most of them are almost down at foundation level with the middles dug out of the different parts inside, with a few parts of the original buildings still standing. Just outside of the gardens there are some of the original monastery buildings which stand behind the cathedral and are well worth a look as they give a good feel of what the original stone works must have looked like at the Abbey.
Next on the list are the beautiful gardens that surround the ruins with perfectly presented flower beds with a seemingly endless array of different flowers and colours, and equally well presented lawns that nobody is allowed to walk on, literally they are that perfect they almost look as though they have been ironed. The gardens were supposed to be originally based on the Royal Botanical Gardens in Brussels, and the amount of wildlife, in the way of semi tame squirrels, birds and ducks is actually quite surprising giving how close to the town centre the Abbey Gardens are. Despite the perfect grass here there are also quite a few open areas of grass that the public are allowed to walk, picnic, play and even walk dogs on (all dogs must be on leads however) giving adequate space even on a hot day when the place is really busy for everybody to find a bit of grass to sit on or use as they see fit.
There is a kiddie's play area here as well which has recently been rebuilt and does actually look pretty grand and makes me wish I wasn't 27 years old and 6ft 4 so I could at least get away with having a quick play here myself without being banned for life when I bowl over all the kids on the slide. There are swings, slides, tree houses, sandpits just to name a few along with an area to feed the resident ducks at the River Lark that defines the rear boundaries of the Abbey grounds. There is also a little shack type thing close by that sells ice-creams, hot/cold drinks and other snacks at quite inflated prices I would advise buying your own drinks and refreshments from the nearby town centre before wandering to the Abbey Gardens. There is also a tea rooms here where you can get afternoon tea and scones if this is more your thing, from the couple of times I have stopped at looked at the menu this is also a little over-priced but does look like a nice place to stop and relax for a while.
The only problem I can see here is that the toilets which do include disabled and baby changing facilities are as far from the play area as they can physically be without actually being outside of the Abbey Gardens. They are right near the main Abbey Gate as you walk in and the park is all the way at the back of the gardens. This just makes for a bit of a mission to pack up and take little ones to the loo if planning on settling for a while at the park, especially if there is more than one child with you and only one adult. You know what it's like, one will always want to try and stay behind whilst the one needing the loo is desperately crossing their legs and whining in the high pitched tone that if they wait any longer they will wet themselves.
Other things of interest here also include a small aviary with a few birds in, nothing too special just something to distract the kids for a few minutes if you decide you want to sit down and have a drink at the picnic benches. There is also a rose garden here with quite a large fishpond as a centre piece which is quite a secluded part of the garden with benches under cover at either end of the pond and makes for a most peaceful place to sit and read, or simply just relax. For those that are a little more active there are tennis courts and a putting course both of which are available for hire at the Garden Offices, I'm not sure on price as I have never used them but shouldn't think that they would be extortionate.
As you can probably tell from all that is written above the Abbey Gardens will not make for a full day out by any means. They are good if the little ones want to visit the park either before or after a long trek around town as a reward. Or somewhere to come and lounge about in the afternoons on a nice day for a picnic or to have a tea and scones, or just a sit down on one of the many benches just to admire the gardens and watch the world go by in one of the most quiet idyllic settings you are likely to find just 30 seconds from a town centre.
As the grounds are free to get into there is most certainly nothing to complain about here and I cannot drop any stars here. Somewhere that is so full of history, with such stunning surroundings, that is free to get into seems to be quite a rarity these days. This place is definitely a life saver for many parents in the area looking to just get out with the children for a few hours without spending anything, and also for anyone looking to pass a peaceful hour or two as the park is conveniently positioned away from all of the other amenities so as not to disturb the quiet. There are also 4 other gates that provide access to the gardens making it convenient to get to from all sides of town and also makes for a pleasant short or long cut depending on how much time you have if it happens to fall into your route whilst walking around Bury St Edmunds.
Transport links to the town are very good with trains and buses running frequently Monday - Saturday all year and several car parks near by, all making the Abbey Gardens easily accesible.
Disabled access wise there are no steps at all in the abbey gardens which makes for good access for all. There is also a way round to every corner of the park without going up any steep hills or the like making it easy for wheelchairs, and pushchair laden mum and dads all the same.
The opening times for the Abbey Gardens are as follows:-
7.30 A.M until Dusk Monday - Saturday
9.00 A.M until Dusk on a Sunday.
It is always worth calling the Tourist Information for Bury St Edmunds based just across the road from the main Abbey Gate on 01284 764667 to check the current closing times, they may also be able to give information on the prices for the putting course and the tennis courts.
Thank-you for reading and I hope this has been of some interest or help to you.