Angel Hill | Hazells’ Histories
We are pleased to bring you the second instalment of our collaboration with well-known local historian Martyn Taylor. We are reproducing sections from Martyn’s book A-Z of Bury St Edmunds in our monthly newsletter and we hope that as a result, subscribers will enjoy the historical reflections of so many parts of this wonderful town in which we live and work.
From medieval times when it was known as Le Mustowe, The Muster and also God’s Square, this large open space has been used for many purposes over the years, from the celebrated ancient Bury Fair (abolished 1871), civic ceremonies such as Freedom of the Borough and Remembrance Sunday and in recent years the very popular Christmas Fayre. Angel Hill curves around Crescent house past the ancient One Bull which has a barrel vault and to nos.19-21 fine timbered properties. The iconic Virginia Creeper covered Angel hotel now lends its name to the hill. The hotel built on the site of three inns, The Castle, The Angel and White Bear dates from 1779 when designed by Harleston architect John Redgrave. Denuded of creeper a few years ago the Suffolk white bricked building looked very stark, supposedly the reason for the removal was that mice were climbing up the creeper into the bedrooms, the audible screams were not of newly-wed marital bliss! Thankfully all is back as it should be. There is also now the ‘trendy’ Wingspan Bar in the undercroft, a groined vault from medieval times. The Angel’s connection with Charles Dickens is well documented. The Victorian author of social conscience stayed here and so did his eponymous hero Samuel Pickwick. Dickens carried our readings at the nearby Athenaeum, once assembly rooms for the great and the good of Bury society during Georgian times. When banker James Oakes, ‘Mr Bury St Edmunds’ of his day, purchased the building in 1801, he then conveyed it a few years later to some members of the thirty-seven-man corporation; hence Subscription Rooms above the portico. With internal parts of the Athenaeum stretching back centuries it has an Adam style ballroom and an observatory perched on the roof. The cultured people of Bury who belonged to The Athenaeum Club (established in 1854) had the observatory built there soon after a lecture given by Astronomer Royal, George Airy in 1859.
Does Angel Hill have a warren of tunnels leading to and from the abbey as we are led to believe? Did an intrepid violinist at the end of the 18thC really leave The Angel Hotel via one such subterranean route accompanied by other revellers? The story goes that as they were heading in the direction of the abbey, fear overtook the bravado of his colleagues until he was left alone playing his fiddle, his chums followed his tune above until no more was heard of him. Ooh-er! The stories of ancient tunnels can be taken with a ‘large pinch of salt’. Another salty story is of a listed traffic sign designed in 1935 by Basil Oliver the architect of the former borough offices, listed as it did not conform to normal traffic regulations. Its moniker is ‘The Pillar of Salt’ after the story of Lot’s inquisitive wife in the Bible. It is the only structure in the world with that appellation. Opposite is perhaps the most used icon of Bury St Edmunds, The Abbeygate. This is the second secular entrance to the abbey, the first was dead opposite Abbeygate Street and was destroyed in riots by the townspeople in 1327, a year of national unrest with the grim end of Edward II. Bury’s rebellious inhabitants were severely unhappy with their lord and master, the Abbot and the abbey who owned and taxed the town. A new gate in the English Decorated Style, niches for statues and embellishments was finished twenty years later (the portcullis is a Victorian replacement). After suitable punishments were administered the town eventually settled down until further riots in 1381, the Peasants Revolt. This time things really got nasty, two officials Sir John Cavendish the king’s chief justice and Prior John Cambridge were beheaded, their heads displayed on pikes in the great market (Cornhill); the aftermath was that the town was heavily fined and the rebel leader John Wrawe received a traitor’s death.
St James Parish Church became The Cathedral in August 1913, the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich being created from parts of Norwich and Ely dioceses in January 1914. Bury St Edmunds has the cathedral as Ipswich did not have a church that could be extended; the Bishop sits in Ipswich. As St James (mainly 16thC) it had master craftsmen work on it through the years including Kings College mason John Wastell. Modern day craftsmen really came to the fore when the 20thC diocesan architect Stephen Dykes Bower, who had carried out the extensions from 1960, left money in his will for the building of a tower. His vision was finally carried out with the help of a Heritage Lottery grant which saw the work start in 2000, its name The Millenium Tower. A thousand metric tonnes of brick and the same in stonework allowed England’s last uncompleted cathedral to be finished five years later. The pages of a book of remembrance from WW1 in the cathedral are turned daily, the names of the ‘glorious dead’ not being recorded on the Angel Hill cenotaph which was unveiled in August 1921. Other victims not of war but of beliefs are recorded on the Protestant Martyrs Memorial in the nearby Great Churchyard. It was somewhere near to the Queen Anne Angel Corner that ‘Bloody Mary’s’ chancellor Stephen Gardiner was born, the son of a Bury cloth merchant. He rose to prominence as the secretary of Cardinal Wolsey who came from Ipswich. History has it that Bishop Gardiner was somewhat responsible for the pyres that claimed hundreds during Mary’s five-year reign when she tried to re-introduce the Catholic faith. Other fire connections on Angel Hill at different times were at nos.9 and 12 where thankfully no-one died, though at no.7a in 1929 a fire at the premises of electrical engineer Rowland Todd tragically resulted in the death of nine months old Trevor George Todd despite the valiant efforts of Fireman Baldwin who brought the baby out of the burning building.
If you wish to continue the journey through the streets A to Z of Bury St Edmunds, or indeed read more about the history of Bury St Edmunds, you can purchase Martyn’s book from St Edmundsbury Cathedral shop, Waterstones and Moyses Hall.
Look out for another instalment next month, or subscribe to our newsletter to be notified when Hazells’ Histories returns!