Why our region's history is so important to East Anglia

Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge.

Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge is central to history of England and East Anglia. - Credit: Paul Geater

This week there's been a heavy emphasis on the history and education of this part of the country with the visit of the Duke of Gloucester to formally open both The Hold in Ipswich and the revamped Sutton Hoo site for the National Trust.

The Hold is the new home of Suffolk's records - and holds the history of the county going back centuries while Sutton Hoo gives us an insight into the very start of England as an identity.

Both developments show the importance of this part of the world in the history and culture of Western Civilisation - and speak to the identity of East Anglia as crucial to that.

I deliberately use the expression East Anglia rather than restricting it to Suffolk because the culture that grew up and is recorded here speaks to the whole region - it isn't restricted to the county boundaries however ancient they might be.

As a Suffolk youngster I occasionally stayed with my grandmother and aunt at Fressingfield near the Norfolk border. My cousins and I would go for bike rides in the rural lanes - we might end up in Wingfield or Hoxne in Suffolk or at Harleston or Starston in Norfolk.

The culture doesn't change which side of the River Waveney or River Stour you live -- but there is a strong East Anglian identity.

The formal opening of Sutton Hoo was the culmination of the £4m redevelopment of the site which saw new displays at Tranmer House and the main exhibition hall and the delayed opening of the viewing tower giving people a view over the burial site.

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I actually went there a few days before the official opening - I hadn't been aware the tower was open but was really impressed at the new perspective it gives to the whole site and especially the mound that covered King Raedwald's ship.

For me the opening of Sutton Hoo to the public by the National Trust in 2002 was one of the great events in East Anglia's recent history.

At school I had heard stories about Sutton Hoo from my teachers (I was at primary school when the site was being re-excavated in the 1960s) but unless you had an MA in archaeology you couldn't get near the site.

What the National Trust has done over the last 20 years is to open up the site and the story and make it much more accessible to thousands, if not millions of visitors.

It has given those visitors a real insight into the early Anglo Saxon years in this country, long before King Alfred the Great came along - showing that the Dark Ages were not quite as dark as some history books might suggest.

Sutton Hoo ship

The sight of the outline of Raedwald's burial ship from the tower at Sutton Hoo is breath-taking. - Credit: Paul Geater

I've heard people say: "The Trust has spoiled Sutton Hoo's serenity." Rubbish. Anyone who goes on one of the walks on the estate can find peaceful spots. 

And I've even seen it compared to Disneyland. I've been to Disneyland Paris. I have to say I can't think of a tourist attraction further removed from Sutton Hoo.

What is important is that Sutton Hoo may be in Suffolk - but it doesn't just belong to Suffolk. It belongs to the English as being a foundation of this nation's culture - and it especially belongs to East Anglia as the resting place of its warrior king.

And it is East Anglia that is at the very heart of the birth of the nation, even before it can be said to exist.

The oldest human footprints in this country have been found in Norfolk - dating back to when the British Isles were still connected to mainland Europe. 

Grimes Graves near the Norfolk/Suffolk border has been dated to 2300BCE - and Boudicca's sacking of the Roman garrison town of Colchester helped unite the Celtic tribes in the east.

But it was the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons and the culture they brought stretching from Felixstowe to Hunstanton that truly brought this region, and ultimately England, together.

We have every right to celebrate that history. It might be ancient but at Sutton Hoo you can find a real connection with the past.

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