Heroes, rabbits and ancient treasures

Mildenhall Museum this year celebrates its 25th birthday at its present home. Steven Russell takes a look at the treasures withinAS impressive arrivals go, it's hard to trump.

Steven Russell

Mildenhall Museum this year celebrates its 25th birthday at its present home. Steven Russell takes a look at the treasures within

AS impressive arrivals go, it's hard to trump. Peter Merrick, vice-chairman of Mildenhall Museum, turns heads as he pulls up in his open-top Lagonda Rapier. There's a meeting of Suffolk enthusiasts coming up and he wants to fill the car with fuel, and check the tyre pressures, once he's given the EADT a tour of the King Street building.

It's an appropriate choice of chariot; built in 1934, it reflects nicely the theme of the past.

Rapier safely parked, it's through the door and into the museum, thought to have been two 19th Century workmen's cottages in a previous incarnation.

Fairly nondescript from the outside, inside it tells the stories from more than 500,000 years of history: from Stone Age flints to Roman treasure, and the heyday of peat-cutting to the great Mildenhall Air Race of 1934, when Amy Johnson was one of the pioneers striving to be first to Melbourne, Australia.

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It can transport you back to the Victorian era, too. There's the homily “We praise thee O God. We acknowledge thee to be the Lord” over the mantelpiece in a kitchen scene from the 1800s.

Old washboards show children how backbreaking the chores used to be before the invention of automatic front-loading washing-machines, and aged bottles display much more character than today's waxed containers, as well as remembering names from the past.

There are milk bottles from A Seeley, of High Fen Farm, Lakenheath, and AS Wortley, of High Street Dairy, Lakenheath - complete with their compact phone number of 217.

Sadly, relics of the past appear quite attractive to modern-day magpies . . .

“Unfortunately, due to pilferage, we've had to chain all the irons, and we're had to put a glass cabinet around the shelf to stop people taking the milk bottles and so on,” says Peter.

A couple of the volunteers who keep the museum going are former teachers and, when parties of children visit, are adept at giving demonstrations of butter-making and clothes-washing.

Down some steep steps is a cellar, where a dehumidifier rumbles .

Mildenhall didn't have mains water until 1939, and on this site there are at least two wells, so it's little wonder dampness is a constant challenge.

There's a butter churn here - an oak one made in about 1915 by Bury St Edmunds firm Cornish and Lloyds and used by the Clements family of Beck Lodge Farm, Beck Row, once or twice a week up until the early 1930s, when the family set up a milk round and stopped making large quantities of butter.

Above it is a picture of a buttermaking class outside the White Horse, West Row, in about 1912. They're all ladies in pinafores, bar one man - Baptist minister the Rev CJ Fowler - who presumably was there in a ministering capacity and not to learn about curds and whey.

Back on the ground floor, there are plenty of curios to enjoy. Take a mid-19th Century mahogany-and-cane cradle. It came from Lakenheath and the story is that Lord Kitchener - the moustached “Your country needs you!” soldier who adorned First World War recruitment posters - used it as a baby.

There's a very early vacuum cleaner. It needed two maids to operate it: one to pump, to create the vacuum, and the other to run the hose over the rugs.

There's a lovely old bell from Mildenhall Union Workhouse in Kingsway, where the police station now stands. It would have been rung to mark the working day, and to summon inmates to meals; and possibly also to assemble workhouse children before marching them two-by-two to the Church of England school in North Terrace. The workhouse closed in 1924.

On the staircase is one of the museum's most important exhibits: a large, early 17th Century, wallhanging, found buried underneath layers of wallpaper at a house in Mill Street. It's quite rare.

If you couldn't afford an expensive tapestry in those days, an artisan with artistic leanings could achieve a similar effect with paint and canvas.

It shows a pastoral scene, though certainly not an East Anglian vista, judging by the hills. “Experts who looked at the plants say it looks very much as if it was Dutch East Indies.”

At one time, noticing that the hanging was looking a bit drab, museum organisers took it to the National Trust textile conservation unit at Blickling Hall in Norfolk. “We arrived there wondering what they were going to say about this tatty bit of canvas and they said 'Ah! This is wonderful. It's so rare to find one in such lovely condition,'” says Peter.

Thanks to various grants, the hanging received some tender loving care from experts without the museum having to raid its piggybank. The canvas is now framed behind light-resistant glass to stop it fading.

Part of the first floor is devoted to aviation - a major part of local history, with air bases at both Mildenhall and Lakenheath. RAF Mildenhall was an important British bomber base during the Second World War, and since 1950 has been home to the United States Air Force.

One of the pilots to have flown from the area was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery.

Flight Sergeant Rawdon Middleton has a local road named after him. On the night of November 28/29, 1942, his Stirling aircraft was involved in a raid on Turin. Despite suffering serious face wounds from shell-fire, he flew his damaged plane back to the coast of southern England. His fuel had almost run out.

Middleton ordered his crew to bail out as he tried to keep the plane in the air. Eventually the Stirling ditched in the sea. The pilot's body was washed up the following February.

“One of my earliest jobs here was when we redid the RAF room,” recalls Peter. “I had to get a copy of the London Gazette for that period in order to find out what he'd been honoured for. I started reading it I think at about four o'clock in the afternoon and finished at I think four o'clock in the morning. The bravery of those guys . . .”

Many people think museums are all about bits of ancient pottery and suchlike. There's some here, but it represents a small proportion of the items on display, and what there is is relevant.

High Lodge, Mildenhall, is among the oldest archaeological sites in Europe, with many stone tools discovered in the 1960s, while Warren Hill also yielded numerous stone axes.

Two of the most recent finds given to the museum are a type of cast bronze arrowhead, found in a nearby village - “Quite unusual. We understand only five have ever been found in Britain” - and a late Bronze Age object thought to be a hair decoration: alternating bands of dark and pale gold around a base metal core.

Downstairs, the more recent past is showcased. Particularly intriguing is the way several local industries rose and fell.

Take rabbits. They're not native to Britain, being introduced from Spain in the Middle Ages, but were valued here for their meat and fur. Rabbits were farmed in warrens - large open spaces enclosed by earth banks - and Breckland's heaths were ideal for that. By the 18th Century the area's numerous warrens supplied the rabbit fur industry with much of its raw material.

There's a poignant reminder of the trade's halcyon days in the shape of a hat presented to Basil Rought-Rought in Brazil in 1951. It was made from best back rabbit skin supplied by his processing factory in Brandon.

The business closed in 1970, the supply of skins having dried up because of myxomatosis.

An object doesn't have to be large to be significant. One piece of Roman craftsmanship found at Lakenheath, possibly an incense burner, is in fine condition for its age, with only one little ring missing.

“The British Museum haven't got one that's as good!” laughs Peter. “Our photograph is the one they show!”

ONE of the things for which Mildenhall is most famous is its Roman treasure.

It was at West Row in January, 1943, that ploughman Gordon Butcher found a large metal dish. He and his boss, agricultural engineer Sydney Ford, later dug out more dishes, bowls and spoons - more than 30 high-quality items altogether.

After the war, a visitor realised Ford's “pewter” was actually Roman silver. An inquest declared it treasure trove and it became Crown property.

The two men shared £2,000 for their discovery and the treasure went to the British Museum, where it remains.

Mildenhall Museum has something nearly as good, however - a dazzling £60,000 or so collection of replicas that was officially opened by the Duke of Gloucester in 2001. Professionally-designed display boards tell the story of what happened and put the find in context.

One theory is that it belonged to a general called Lupicinus, who was sent here from Gaul by Emperor Julian in 360AD to quell barbarian attacks.

The piece de resistance is the Great Dish, which is almost two feet in diameter and weighs more than 18lb.

Represented on it are drunken merrymakers, including Pan, Hercules and Bacchus. There are also sea monsters and nymphs, and a sea-god - Neptune or Oceanus, say experts.

Also in a display case is a collection of Roman coins not linked to the Mildenhall find.

“Up until about five years ago we hadn't got one Roman coin. Then two lots were found locally and were given to the museum, including a gold solidus that's in an extremely fine condition,” explains Peter Merrick.

“It doesn't look as if it's ever been in anybody's pocket. Mind you, I expect that if you'd had a gold solidus in those days you wouldn't have put it in your pocket!”

ALTHOUGH its focus is very much the past, Mildenhall Museum has an eye on the future. It's been running an appeal to raise money for a two-storey extension at the back of the museum, which would give more room for things like children's education work.

The building work is likely to cost £400,000 or so, with about the same amount required to kit it out.

There's a chance, says Peter, that Forest Heath council - which owns the building and leases it to the museum - might itself step in and take care of the work.

If the extension becomes reality, it's hoped it might come to house the

Lakenheath horse and warrior.

In 1997 skeletons of an Anglo-Saxon warrior and his horse, unearthed at the American air base, were said to be of national importance because it was rare to find the two buried together.

That and the style of the grave, in a mound surrounded by a ditch, suggested the man was a significant and wealthy character from about 550 AD. His mount had a decorated ceremonial bridle.

Another Anglo-Saxon horse-and-warrior burial was discovered at Lakenheath a couple of years later. It was similar to the first, but there was no ceremonial bridle.

The museum currently attracts about 3,500 visitors a year, from far and near - addresses from Alaska and New York feature in the visitors' book.

A curator from Moyse's Hall museum in Bury St Edmunds is here one day a week; otherwise, things are run by a team of about 60 volunteers.

Funds come from district and parish councils, donations and sales of publications. Admission is free, but the museum welcomes donations from visitors.

Core opening times until the end of April (and from October to December 20): Wednesdays and Thursdays 2pm-4pm; Friday 10.30pm-4pm; Saturday 2pm-4pm. Between May 1 and September 27 it's essentially the same days and times, but closing 30 minutes later.

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