By Alan S

[As you’ll see, this is written as a result of our recent decision to sometimes extend the remit of the Journal into the early historic era. If that’s what floats your boat please consider sending us a contribution – news, views, images, anything you like].

Another Bank Holiday already? Wow, they come thick and fast this time of year! Ok, so some very late planning for this one led to picking a general area, easily reachable from London but one that I’m not overly familiar with. Suffolk was the winner, and looking at the map on the Megalithic Portal web site showed a cluster of possible sites for investigation between Bury St Edmunds and Thetford, either side of the A134.


A plan was therefore formulated, to take a trip back in time, including the following ‘attractions’:

  1. Norman Abbey and later cathedral in Bury St Edmunds
  2. Anglo Saxon village at West Stow
  3. Bronze Age barrows at Rymer and Honington
  4. Neolithic Cursus monuments at Fornham All Saints

So, an early start from London, heading up the M11, and joining the A14 at Newmarket, to head into Bury St Edmunds. I’ve known of the city since my early adult years, when a pint of ‘Abbot and Eddy’, made by local brewers Greene King was a staple part of my diet.

St Edmund was King of England until his death in 869 at the hands of the Danes. Legend states that he was shot with arrows and beheaded because he refused to renounce his faith. A fine artwork of Edmund is placed on a roundabout on one of the approach roads to the city, depicting his body tied to a post and filled with arrows.


Edmund’s body was brought to Bedericesworth (Bury St Edmunds) and subsequently housed in a shrine in what developed into a great Benedictine Abbey, the ruins of which can still be seen today, and which include two fine gatehouses. Edmund was martyred, and made England’s original patron saint. The church of St James which held his shrine was part of the original abbey complex. The church has been extensively modified over the years, and this work has continued right up to the present day. The church was consecrated as a cathedral in 1914, and in 2009 changed its dedication to become the Cathedral Church of St James and St Edmund. The central tower was completed in 2005, and it’s vaulting was only completed in 2010.

The Abbey Gatehouse

The Abbey Gatehouse

Due to our early start, the Moyse’s Hall Museum in the nearby market square was not yet open, so leaving the city we headed up the A1101, following the course of the River Lark, through Fornham All Saints, the site of at least three Neolithic cursus monuments. Identified by cropmarks in aerial photographs, sadly there is nothing to see here on the ground although a recent news article suggests the area “may have been as important as Stonehenge in it’s time“.

In no time at all, we arrived at West Stow, which describes itself as ‘The First English Village’. West Stow was excavated between 1965 and 1972 by Dr Stanley West. These excavations showed evidence of occupation by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age farmers, a Romano-British pottery industry and an early Anglo-Saxon village, all in the same area. An impressive line-up!

The site itself is now set in a country park, popular with walkers. There is a small museum, shop and cafe all fully accessible, though the reconstructed village itself, a short distance away, has some soft ground so may not be fully accessible to wheelchair users. We didn’t test this. The village consists of seven reproduction buildings, based upon the excavation findings. These have been built at various times, the earliest having been erected in 1974, shortly after the excavations. The buildings are all different in construction and design, based upon structural evidence and imagined purpose. In order of reconstruction, these are:

1974: ‘The Oldest House’ Using simple technology to test an idea that a wood floor was built over a pit and that the roof could be supported by poles rather than by the walls.


1976: ‘The Sunken House’ Built to demonstrate the old idea of Anglo-Saxons living in a pit. The only house on site not to match the evidence, and thus not thought to be correct.


1984: ‘The Weaving House’ A two-post house, containing looms. Used by a group of ‘costumed villagers’ who are often on hand to provide a ‘living experience’, though none were present during my visit.


1987: ‘The Living House’ A six-post house constructed as a living space, with a central hearth, and bedding area. One end includes a raised platform.


1991 ‘The Workshop’ Built to meet the present-day needs of the experimental archaeologists, this is the only wattle and daub building on site, based on later Anglo-Saxon designs and not thought to have been used at West Stow.


2005: ‘The Hall’ A post built structure with the walls supporting the roof, no internal posts and with no underfloor pit. Representing the communal focal point for the village, it presents a larger usable space than the six-post buildings.


2007: ‘The Farmer’s House’ Another six-post building, with a deep wood-lined pit, a central hearth, bedding and storage areas.


After looking at, and in, each house in turn, I returned to look around the museum in the main visitor centre. There are actually three display areas on site:

  • a small area by the entrance, playing an introductory video  on loop and with some fine displays of Neolithic, Bronze Age and later finds from the area.
A selection of Neolithic finds from West Stow

A selection of Neolithic finds from West Stow

  • a larger museum (below the cafe) displaying various aspects of Anglo-Saxon and Viking life, including a replica of the famous Sutton Hoo helment


  • a Finds Store with a larger collection of material which could not be accomodated in the other displays. I didn’t visit this building as it is in a fenced off area which looked off-limits, but is apparently open for visitors.

Although the plan called for travelling back across to the A134 for the other sites, as I wasn’t too sure about public access for some of the barrows (some of which lie on private land), and following an issue with our wheelchair which restricted our mobility more than usual, we cut short the drive after leaving West Stow and headed for home.

All in all, a slightly different heritage drive to our normal Bank Holiday excursions, but an enjoyable one. I can imagine that West Stow gets incredibly busy when events are held there, it’s a large site, with plenty to see and do. But we purposely timed our visit (early on a Sunday morning) when it was very quiet. Entry is £5 for adults, £3 for concessions, which I considered money well spent as there really is a lot there.


All pictures copyright © Alan S.