A fascinating insight into the history of Bury's Abbey Gardens

Martyn Taylor, chairman of The Bury Society in the sensory garden in Bury St Edmund's Abbey Gardens

Martyn Taylor, chairman of The Bury Society in the sensory garden in Bury St Edmund's Abbey Gardens - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

This year Bury St Edmunds celebrates the belated millennium of its historic abbey, founded in 1020 by King Cnut.

And one man who is incredibly excited to finally mark the historical milestone is Martyn Taylor. Chairman of The Bury Society, he has lived in the town for all of his life, and is the go-to person when it comes to all things Bury.  

Martyn Taylor, chairman of The Bury Society in the sensory garden in Bury St Edmund's Abbey Gardens

Martyn Taylor, chairman of The Bury Society in the sensory garden in Bury St Edmund's Abbey Gardens - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

“It’s incredible that the Abbey has now turned 1,000 years old, and we can finally celebrate that this year,” he says.  

“We’ve got lots of events taking place between now and November.” 

Keen to share the town’s history with both locals and tourists, Martyn joined the society’s committee in 2006 and has been working with it ever since.  

“Weirdly, I wasn’t taught about the history of Bury or the abbey when I was at school. But eventually I got into tour guiding, and I’ve since helped the society with efforts such as the Blue Plaque trail, and organising the photo competition for its 40th anniversary in 2011.” 

Anyone who’s ever been to Bury will know that the Abbey is the town’s pride and joy.  

The abbey ruins in the Abbey Gardens

The abbey ruins in the Abbey Gardens - Credit: Archant

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“The abbey grew due to the fact that Edmund, the King of East Anglia, was martyred on November 20, 869,” explains Martyn.  

King Edmund would end up being buried in a monastery in the settlement, which at the time was called Beodricesworth.  

“Edmund eventually became the first patron saint of England, and an enormous Benedictine abbey grew around his shrine.” 

Construction of the abbey began in 1081 and was completed in 1210. It stood until 1539 when it was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries – a period during King Henry VIII’s reign that saw the monarch disband monasteries, priories, convents, and friaries across the country.  

“The abbey church was the largest Romanesque church in the whole of northern Europe, and if the abbey church was still intact today, like some of the minster up north or Westminster in London, Bury St Edmunds wouldn’t be the wonderful town it is today. Instead, it would be a sprawling, metropolitan city, and a mass of urbanisation.” 

An aerial shot showing the Abbey Gardens next to St Edmundsbury Cathedral

An aerial shot showing the Abbey Gardens next to St Edmundsbury Cathedral - Credit: Paul Smith

Today the abbey is mostly ruins – but extensive ruins nonetheless.  

The former abbey’s remains can be found in the eponymous Abbey Gardens in the centre of town, and also include the 14th century Abbeygate, and the 12th century Norman Tower. 

But have you ever stopped to think and wonder more about the gardens themselves?  

Abbey Gardens is a sprawling green space that covers 14 acres, and is known the world over for its eye-catching floral displays that have won it a number of awards. 

Visually, culturally, and historically, these gardens have a lot going for them – and it’s no surprise that on average, one million people visit the green space annually.  

A floral display in Abbey Gardens

A floral display in Abbey Gardens - Credit: Paul Couch

Today, around 20,000 plants are bedded out in the spring for the summer display, while 12,000 plants and 20,000 bulbs are planted in the autumn for the spring display.  

But how did these gardens grow into the space we know them as today?  

"Where the flowerbeds are today, this was called The Great Court of the Abbey and they were designed in 1831 by Nathaniel Shirley Harness Hodson,” explains Martyn. 

A keen horticulturalist, Hodson already had a small botanical garden in Bury after moving there from London in 1818. He relocated to the town in order to turn his hobby for plants into a profession – and Bury St Edmunds proved to be the perfect place.  

It wasn’t long before his green-fingered skills caught the eye of the Abbey’s owner.  

“The Marquess of Bristol was so impressed with Hodson’s work, he asked him if he’d design a botanical garden on the former court of the abbey. Utilising the same concentric flowerbed design that was in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Brussels, he created the Abbey Gardens as we know them today.” 

By 1820, Hodson brought his personal collection of plants down to the new garden at the east side of the churchyard. His garden, which started off as three acres, ran down to the River Lark. 

By 1831, it had officially opened. In order to help cover the costs of rent (which was £60 a year), the salary for a curator, and general maintenance, Hodson appealed for subscribers, who for a yearly fee, would have access to the gardens for their enjoyment. Soon enough, he was inundated with interest, and had amassed 133 subscribers to his garden.  

“When it first opened, it was two guinea per annum, and sixpence per child, which was a lot of money then,” explains Martyn.  

Over the years, thanks to subscribers and donations, Hodson was able to expand the garden, gradually planting more blooms as time went on.  

Hodson was so beloved throughout the town, he was an esteemed member of Bury society, as well as the town’s mayor between 1855 and 1856. He also had a house built for him in the garden’s grounds – Alwyne House – which became a tearoom many years later in the years following his death but has since become a private residence once again. 

As you make your way through Abbey Gardens, Hodson’s influence can be seen to this day. Little white numbered discs are scattered around the Abbey site, and these relate to his original plant cataloguing system.  

Just some of the plants that bloom year-in, year-out include roses, daffodils, wildflowers, tulips, and daisies to name but a few. These are tended to year-round by a number of gardeners, alongside the Abbey Garden volunteers, who help keep the green spaces and its blooms in tip-top shape. 

Lavender in Abbey Gardens 

Lavender in Abbey Gardens - Credit: Charlotte Bond

By 1912, Bury St Edmunds Borough Council took out a lease of the gardens from the fourth Marquess of Bristol for £90 a year, and on December 28, the gardens officially opened to the public as a free park for all to enjoy. 

Horace Barker, curator of Moyses Hall Museum, said in a newspaper article at the time: “It is pitiable to compare the present state of the ruins with what is shown by 18th century prints, or even with what remained in one's own boyhood. The tale of the gradual demolition of the various buildings might form the basis for a sad but interesting record but it is to be hoped that under the zealous care of the Corporation all that remains of the once magnificent Abbey will be carefully preserved for the admiration and instruction of generations yet to come.” 

Over the years, the gardens have expanded greatly, and are home to a number of gardens within.  

In 1936, the garden’s concentric circles were replaced with 64 island beds, and paired with illuminations, which formed part of the George VI’s coronation celebrations in 1937.  

“The Appleby rose garden is one of my favourite places,” explains Martyn.  

The entrance to the rose garden in the Abbey Gardens

The entrance to the rose garden in the Abbey Gardens - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Originally, pigs were kept there during the Second World War but now this flowering rose garden is home to over 400 rose bushes, and is named after the late John Appleby, an American serviceman who served with the 487th Bomb Group in Lavenham. 

“John spent his time riding a bike around Suffolk, and in 1948 released a book called Suffolk Summer detailing his short time here. It might be looked upon as twee now, but it captured a moment in time – and the royalties from that book helped create the rose garden.” 

Within the rose garden, a bench made from the wing of a Flying Fortress Bomber and memorial stones can also be found. These pay tribute to various conflicts and to the US service personnel who were stationed in Suffolk during the war – including 3,000 who were at the former RAF Bury St Edmunds at Rougham. 

Visitors to Abbey Gardens should keep an eye out for the Pilgrims’ Herb Garden. Opened in June 1988 by Prince Charles, it links the cathedral with the gardens, and features many of the traditional plants and herbs that were used for cooking, medicine, and warding off sprits in medieval times.  

Just some of the plants sprouting from within include rosemary, sage, and thyme. This garden was inspired by a famous manuscript written at the Abbey in the 13th century, which can now be found in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. 

In 1990, a sensory garden was established with the garden’s grounds. Designed with the visually impaired in mind, it features an abundance of plants and herbs including lamb’s ear which is soft to the touch, prickly sempervivens, aromatic lemon thyme, sweetly-scented gladiola murielae, and two candyfloss trees. 

The entrance to Abbey Garden's sensory gardens

The entrance to Abbey Garden's sensory gardens - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

And in 2015, a Garden of Reflection was opened. It commemorates the murder of 57 Jewish people in the town on Palm Sunday in 1190, as well as all other victims of genocide. Within the garden is a 1.5m tall stainless steel teardrop which symbolises human suffering and sorrow, two stone benches, and 57 cobbles stones.  

In terms of fauna, the gardens have a long and extensive history when it comes to animals. In 1835, Hodson opened a menagerie which consisted of rabbits, guinea pigs, pheasants, wildfowl, and a variety of water birds. Today, a free-of-charge aviary survives, and is home to species such as canaries, budgies, teal ducks, Bengalese and Zebra finches and diamond doves. 

The River Lark plays an important part in the garden’s history, and the Abbots Bridge which spans the river, goes back to the medieval era. 

Completed in the early 13th century, it’s situated at the north-east corner of the Abbey precincts and is connected to a 12th century precinct wall. “This bridge allowed townspeople to access the vine fields, where they used to grow grapes,” adds Martyn. 

Other historical monuments worth noting include the Sundial Fountain. Given to the townspeople by the third Marquess of Bristol in 1870 and is an early example of a sundial that was Greenwich Mean Time rather than local time. Originally placed in the town, it was moved to the gardens in 1939. 

The official opening of the Abbey Gardens to the public on December 28, 1912

The official opening of the Abbey Gardens to the public on December 28, 1912 - Credit: The Bury Society

And in 2001, the world’s first internet bench was installed near the garden’s Abbey Gate in 2001. Installed by tech giant Microsoft on August 6, it allowed up to four people to plug their laptops into the modem jacks for free. The bench itself cost £60, and the modem was £30, and it soon became the subject of worldwide fascination.  

However, the bench’s technical purposes became obsolete once Wi-Fi became the norm. It still makes a great place to sit, though.  

To find out more about Bury St Edmunds, visit burysociety.com

Do you have a favourite feature within Abbey Gardens? Get in touch with danielle.lett@archant.co.uk to share your stories and photos.