IAN CLARKE INVITES YOU TO EXPLORE THE MANY DELIGHTS OF BURY ST EDMUNDS, A SUFFOLK GEM RIGHT ON OUR DOORSTEPS
I've often thought that if Bury St Edmunds were further away we would appreciate it more.
Do you know what I mean? For some reason we overlook really special places a few miles from our doorsteps.
Well, if you've not discovered the town and all it has to offer, I'd strongly suggest you do - and if you know Bury reasonably well, how about getting more familliar with it?
History, heritage, charm, a modern buzz, culture and a good mix of shops (note I mention that one last!).
My wife and I enjoyed a short break in Bury and were fortunate enough to coincide our visit with the welcome home parade and medal presentation ceremony for servicemen and women from the RAF Regiment who had just completed a gruelling tour of Afghanistan.
Hundreds of people lined the streets and cheered the heroes home. And that displayed two other of Bury's positive attributes - pride and a sense of community.
One of the most delightful parts of Bury is Angel Hill - a charming area surrounded by the entrance to the Cathedral grounds, the Athenaeum and a range of other splendid buildings.
You dont have to take my word for the attractiveness of the area and it's magnificent Angel Hotel, which is where we stayed during our time there.
A certain Charles Dickens gave readings at the Athenaeum in 1859 and 1861 and mentioned the famous Hill and its hotel in The Pickwick Papers.
He wrote: "The coach rattled through the streets of a handsome town of thriving and cleanly appearance and stopped before a large inn, situated in a wide open street facing the old abbey. 'This must be Bury St Edmunds and this,' said Mr Pickwick, looking up 'is the Angel."
Glancing up at the Angel is certainly quite a sight and there has been a building on the site since the 13th Century. Vaulted cellars under the hotel confirm this and they are now being used by the hotel as a bar and eating area appropriately known as The Vaults.
The main part of the hotel was constructed towards the end of the 18th century with the rest added by 1830.
Dickens stayed in room 215 on his two visits and the four-poster bed where he rested his head remains in the Angel today.
The Gough family has owned the Angel since 1973 and at that time it had two stars and 50 bedrooms.
They see themselves as custodians of the important landmark and after the late Dick Gough died, his wife Mary received an MBE for services to the hotel industry in 1990.
The Angel has undergone extensive renovation and now has 80 rooms and the Eaterie. Travel Industry experts have recognised the improvements made at the Angel and in 2008 and 2009 it won the best large hotel award at the East of England Tourism Awards.
And famous guests from King Louis Philippe of France to Pierce Brosnan and Angelina Jolie have chosen the Angel when in Suffolk. The hotel has a wide range of accommodation including suites and family rooms and views overlooking the Cathedral and in to the quaint courtyard.
Our suite certainly had the "wow" factor, and I sense we had one of the best bathrooms, which included an amazing copper bath.
The clue was when I told one of the bar staff our room number and he looked up with a wry smile and said: "Ah, you have the room with THE bathroom!" I nodded with a wide grin.
The Angel Eaterie offers award-winning cuisine and there is strong emphasis from head chef Simon Barker to use locally-sourced and produced ingredients on his menus.
Everything is prepared on site and the Eaterie also has amonthly food theme to complement the local seasonal ingredients and the time of year.
No visit to Bury is complete without going to the magnificent St Edmundsbury Cathedral and the wonderful Abbey Gardens.
The death of Edmund, King of the East Angle, at the hands of the Danes in 869 led to the building of an abbey to house his remains. St James' Church was built within the precincts of the Abbey becoming a Cathedral in 1914.
Abbey Gardens were created in 1831 following the pattern of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Brussels and the ruins of the vast 11th-century Benedictine abbey are in the centre.
The gardens prove a chance to wander in peaceful surroundings and marvel at the fabulous floral creations. There is a cafe and also an aviary which is well worth seeing too.
Another fascinting historic building in Bury is St Mary's Church, which is close to the Cathedral. It is the resting place of Mary Tudor and one of the largest parish churches in the country.
If culture is your thing, then the town has a real gem. Bury Theatre Royal is the country's last Regency playhouse and the only UK theatre under the wing of the National Trust. The town also has another important regional venue, The Apex.
If you wander around the town you will soon find the right place for a coffee and a bite to eat, or a more substantial meal.
One string to the town's bow is that it has Britain's smallest pub. If you like to enjoy a drink and - shall we say not feel too intimate with others - you may want to stay away from the Nutshell. But it is an intriguing place and can cater for no more than about 15 people at any one time - so be quick!
Bury market on the Buttermarket and Corn Hill is open Wednesdays and Saturdays and maintains the great tradition and atmosphere of a town market.
There are about 80 stalls selling everything from fruit and veg to local chesses, meats and fish.
Ok, I'm not a great shopper but if you are, Bury has a blend of quirky boutiques in and around St John's Street and the impressive new complex of stores called The Arc.
Another attraction well worth a visit - as long as you have a car and dont mind travelling just out of Bury to the village of Horringer - is the neoclassical National Trust property at Ickworth.
The house has an amazing Rotunda and is steeped in history, with an extensive collection of paintings.
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