Steve McKenna savours a genteel English market town and its tiny pub.
It is a lovely spring afternoon in Bury St Edmunds, a pretty market town 90 kilometres north-east of London, and a group of French tourists is lingering outside the Nutshell, the smallest pub in Britain, according to the Guinness Book of Records. However, there is a full house, and the jolly drinkers inside are not budging.
As the nine-strong French concede defeat, I manage to squeeze in to what British comedian Ross Noble has described as "the best-stocked cupboard I've ever seen".
Measuring 4.5 metres by 2.1 metres, the Nutshell is furnished with random oddities such as a mummified cat, currency notes, black-and-white photographs, military paraphernalia and a plane propeller. The pub also serves a mean pint of creamy local ale, though I am amazed to discover that they once crammed a record 101 people and a dog in here.
Hearing the gentle, sing-song Suffolk accents of the Nutshell's punters, it is also hard to believe that the late Bob Hoskins, that quintessential Cockney actor, was born in these genteel parts. Hoskins's mother was evacuated from London in 1942, after the Blitz, and gave birth to him here, before returning to the capital soon after.
Pronounced "Berry", Bury does not hog the limelight like nearby Cambridge, but has, for centuries, been charming in-the-know visitors with its picturesque streets and gardens, lively markets and quality beers.
Touring East Anglia (England's eastern counties) in 1722, Daniel Defoe hailed Bury for its "pleasant situation and wholesome air", calling it "the Montpellier of Suffolk and perhaps of England". (Montpellier, in southern France, was a wealthy merchant town and a favourite of Louis XIV).
Radical English writer and politician William Cobbett, who penned the early 19th-century book Rural Rides, claimed Bury was the "nicest town in the world", while Charles Dickens was another admirer, writing in The Pickwick Papers of this "handsome little town, of thriving and cleanly appearance". More recently, British food critic Jasper Gerard called Bury "scandalously beautiful (scandalous, because if this were France, we would all coo, but because it is Bury St Edmunds, no one's been there)".
I enjoy a stroll around the gorgeous Abbey Gardens, in many ways the town's historic heartbeat.
Formerly a Saxon settlement called Beodericsworth, Bury was renamed after St Edmund, an East Anglian king and devout Christian, who was seized by marauding Vikings in AD868. When he refused to renounce his faith, he was tied to a tree, peppered with arrows then decapitated. Legend has it that his head went missing, but was eventually found in a wood, guarded by a wolf.
After the king was laid to rest, his grave became a site of pilgrimage, around which grew a majestic Benedictine abbey. It was here in AD1214 that rebellious English barons secretly met and swore an oath to force despotic King John to draw up a new charter of liberty. The following year, the under-pressure monarch signed the Magna Carta, regarded as the cornerstone of democracy in the English-speaking world.
Today, the abbey is a collection of ruins, around which green-fingered souls manicure the lawns and colourful floral displays, and folks picnic, frolic and read books and newspapers on the grass.
The Abbey Gardens form part of sprawl of ecclesiastical buildings, including the glorious Gothic St Edmundsbury Cathedral and St Mary's Church, the final resting place of Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, whose 1536 Dissolution of the Monasteries Act led to the wrecking of England's abbeys, including Bury's.
Like so many East Anglian towns and villages, Bury became rich thanks to its agricultural, wool and cloth-making industries. I delve into its compact grid of narrow streets, which are full of old merchants' houses built in Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian styles.
Many house art galleries, antiques stores, bed and breakfasts, beauty salons, lounge bars, alfresco cafes, bistros, tearooms, restaurants from French to Thai, upmarket boutiques, specialist stores, such as a model railway one, and scores of estate agents.
Surrounded by water meadows and gently rolling countryside dotted with golden fields of corn and rapeseed, Bury is one of Britain's most desirable places to live. A recent survey claimed that girls born on Bury's leafy Moreton Hall estate will have a life expectancy of 119, the longest in the country.
Bury is busiest on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when market stalls spread across town, just as they have for a millennium. The 1086 Domesday Book - a census of England's stock and population, ordered by William the Conqueror - mentions bustling trade here.
Against the striking backdrop of Moye's Hall, a museum of eccentric antiquities and tales of folklore and witchcraft housed in a Norman clocktower, traders bark in a mix of Suffolk and Cockney twangs.
"Hake! Cod! Lobster! Come on, get ya lovely fish," bellows one chap, who sounds remarkably like Bob Hoskins.
"One pawnd of bananas, a pawnd of bananas!" cries another, more Suffolk-sounding fellow. "Get your cheeses! Get your cheeses!""Three belts for a tenner!""Come on ladies, two dresses for 12 pawnd!""Sausages! Suffolk sausages!"
Bury's town motto is "Shrine of a King, Cradle of Law", but while it does not carry much political clout these days, it still reigns in one classic trade: brewing. Beer has been made here for centuries and you can savour it across town.
Originally the St Edmund's Head, the Old Cannon is a gem of a microbrewery, with amiable, knowledgeable staff and fruity, sweet bitter ales such as the Gunner's Daughter.
Bury is dominated, however, by the mighty Greene King, which was established here in 1799 and supplies beer to pubs around the country. A malty tang permeates the air as I head towards the brewer's towering red-brick buildings, which neighbour the Theatre Royal, Britain's only surviving Regency-era theatre. Dame Judi Dench says it holds "a unique place in the history of theatre in this country, as well as a special place in my heart".
Greene King's visitors' centre is full of artefacts and audio technology detailing the history and art of brewing. You can taste its Abbot Ale (a hoppy bitter), IPA (cask ale) or St Edmunds (a crisp golden ale) here, or pop down the road to the Dog & Partridge and Masons Arms. Then there is the Nutshell, a must on the town's pub-crawling circuit, if you can get in, of course.
Getting to Bury St Edmunds from London requires a change of trains. The quickest way is from King's Cross, changing at Cambridge. Journeys take about 90 minutes. Fares from £40.50 single ($72). For a slightly longer, but cheaper journey (from £5 booked online in advance, one hour and 55 minutes), take a train from London Liverpool Street and change at Ipswich; see abelliogreateranglia.co.uk.
Melding Georgian decor with contemporary trimmings, the ivy-clad four-star Angel Hotel faces the Abbey Gardens. Dickens stayed here while writing The Pickwick Papers. The in-house restaurant is highly recommended. Bed and (full English) breakfast priced from £110. See theangel.co.uk.