Memoir set mainly in Verona
#TalkingLocationWith… author Simon Edge – BURY ST EDMUNDS
10th August 2020
#TalkingLocationWith… Simon Edge, author of Anyone for Edmund? takes us on a tour of medieval Bury St Edmunds, once home to the greatest church in Christendom, in search of England’s lost patron saint
The Great Gate of Bury St Edmunds abbey is a striking sight. As the entrance to one of the richest monasteries in medieval England, its façade is decorated with elegant niches where saints once stood, until Thomas Cromwell and his 16th-century Taliban chipped them off. But this was also a fortress, and some of those empty niches contain arrow slits. The abbot’s private army thought nothing of shooting marauders from behind a saint’s head.
As you step under the portcullis, look to your left. In the gloom of the gateway interior is an artist’s impression of the abbey as it looked before Henry VIII ordered it to be torn down.
In the far left of this picture, like a tiny lego block, is the structure where you’re standing. Further along the front wall is St James’ Church, which has since been enlarged to create a new cathedral, serving the whole of Suffolk. Next to that is the Norman Tower, with its crocodile gargoyles, and then, at the far corner, St Mary’s Church, where Henry VIII’s sister, who was briefly Queen of France, is buried.
Your eye barely notices any of these landmarks, however. Instead it’s drawn to the huge Gothic structure at the centre of the picture. With a soaring tower in the west front, flanked by two smaller octagonal ones, and another vast tower over the nave crossing, it’s a colossal building, dwarfing everything around it. Designwise, it’s an amalgam of the great medieval cathedrals of Lichfield and Lincoln, but vaster than both: nearly half as long again as the former and three times the width of the latter.
The lost abbey of Bury St Edmunds, a place of royal pilgrimage for centuries, was the biggest church in Christendom until they built St Peter’s in Rome. Today, if you carry on through the Great Gate into the gardens beyond, all that’s left is the flint-rubble cores of the limestone pillars. Now tranquil and sleepy, but once a bustling centre of enormous wealth and power, this extraordinary place is the setting for my fourth and latest novel.
Anyone for Edmund? is a modern comedy about St Edmund, the East Anglian king and martyr after whom the town was named. For hundreds of years he was revered as the patron saint of England, but his remains went missing when the abbey was demolished in 1539. The smart money says his bones are somewhere in the Abbey Gardens, and my novel begins with their discovery, in a moment to rival finding Richard III under a Leicester car park.
A real-life search was meant to take place here this year, which also happens to be the millennium of the abbey’s foundation by King Canute in 1020 (a century and a half after St Edmund’s death). That didn’t happen, and the Abbey 1000 celebrations were derailed. But the abbey itself isn’t going anywhere and will still be there to visit when the Covid crisis has passed.
In my novel, St Edmund’s body is re-enshrined in the new cathedral, but problems arise when it turns out that this medieval saint still has a mind of his own. I won’t give the plot away beyond saying it involves an ambitious senior cabinet minister, a rogue special adviser, a blue-haired archaeologist and an elderly Benedictine monk – and there’s a climax in which a couple of characters get locked in the cathedral overnight while they’re up to no good.
The cathedral itself is well worth a visit. Much of what you see today was built in the 20th century in the Gothic revival style: brightly painted ceilings harking back to the pre-Reformation days when English churches were a blaze of colour inside. The project ran out of money but architect Stephen Dykes Bower heroically left £2 million in his will to finish the job. The tower was finally completed in 2005.
I made a couple of trips snooping around in here, trying to see if there were any escape routes, where my characters might sleep and where the CCTV was. I felt guilty for doing so, like a bank-robber casing the joint, but if my novel is successful and more visitors come as a result, I hope the Dean will forgive me.
TOP TIPS FOR YOUR VISIT!
The old medieval town is a great place to wander around. Check out The Nutshell, Britain’s smallest pub, or tour the Greene King brewery, where you can sample Abbot Ale and get the best view of the town from the brew-house roof.
The recent film version of David Copperfield was filmed in Bury. Locations include the Angel Hotel (where Charles Dickens himself stayed) and the Theatre Royal, the country’s only working Regency playhouse.
Thank you so much to Simon for such a fascinating ‘trip’ to Bury!
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