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Historian Martyn Taylor takes us on a stroll down Bury St Edmunds' Churchgate Street through the years



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Local historian, author and tour guide Martyn Taylor has trawled through his archive to find some of his favourite Bury St Edmunds pictures and stories from the past.

This week he takes a historical stroll down Churchgate Street.

Once a medieval processional way to the abbey, Churchgate Street led under the Norman Tower, going straight into the Abbey Church.

The awnings in this picture show how many shops there were in the street
The awnings in this picture show how many shops there were in the street

Previously, here on Chequer Square, water once collected thus creating what became known as Paddock Pool.

The street, a busy thoroughfare, once boasted several shops which have nearly all disappeared.

On the south corner with Guildhall Street, Leslie Peachey had a secondhand shop (now Bedfords) while opposite, Reggie Chinery had his turf accountants premises (now Whatley Lane).

Martyn Taylor
Martyn Taylor

Coming down from Guildhall Street on the left corner with Whiting Street, the confectioner’s shop of James Stockbridge would eventually become Land of Green Ginger sweet and confectioner’s shop, a magnet for children when owned by Doreen Tilley, later to become an eco-activist.

The shop subsequently became a succession of bistro/bars including the Decanter and Petrus, currently it is Whitings.

Further down is the magnificent Unitarian Meeting House which started life as a presbyterian chapel in 1711, the then pastor, Samuel Bury, a charismatic preacher. It was significantly restored from 1967-91.

Adjacent to the Meeting House, number 16, from the 16th century, had its jetties widened in the 20th century to allow Georgian-style sash windows to be put in.

Further down, on the corner with Hatter Street, was William Pryke’s hardware premises, amongst the myriad of goods he sold, paraffin and linoleum figuring promptly. In good weather, the lino, or oil cloth as he called it, stood to attention outside his shop tied up with pieces of string.

Strangely every morning he would use a fresh piece of string, why, nobody knew?

Another business that used string to good effect were the Bloomfield family, their boot and shoe shop at no 46 had Wellingtons at one time strung up outside.

Family firm Bloomfields closed in 1995
Family firm Bloomfields closed in 1995

Service here was exceptional but nothing lasts for ever and this well-established family business sadly closed as a going concern in 1995.

Nearby was Taylors watch repair shop at no 47 and, adjacent on the corner with College Street, what are probably the oldest timber framed properties in the town – 48/49 /49a – the interiors of which are probably from the 13th centurt when it was a Hall House.

This is similar to a Wealden House, a distinctive medieval structural type, the term ‘recessed-hall house’ also used. It is characterised by having an open hall flanked by floored, jettied end-bays, under a single roof. All now hidden under a stucco finish.

On the opposite corner was the Golden Fleece pub, one of several in the street now gone.

This pub was unusual as it brewed its own beer at the rear of the premises as opposed to being supplied by a brewery. It ceased serving customers in 1933 and would eventually become Foto Fayre photographers but is now residential.

Next door was the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows Society – who can forget the school of dancing here run by the diminutive Angela Morgan?

While on the subject of drinking establishments, only the Queen’s Head survives, but as a restaurant, Queens Bar and Grill.

I remember this as a proper community pub with men’s and ladies darts teams, cribbage and a football team; notable mine hosts Neil and Sandy Parrin.

A far older inn was the Six Bells on the corner with Angel Hill, a much-used coaching inn at one time. It ceased trading in 1885 to become the Masonic Lodge five years later. This has now moved to Ashlar House in Eastern Way.

On the east corner of Angel Lane is no 35 Churchgate Street, once the premises of Bury YMCA which came to Bury in 1905 thanks to a generous donation by Great Barton Hall owner, Frank Riley-Smith, master of the Suffolk Hunt. The mid 18th century Grade II listed property is now called Churchgate House.

Now Churchgate House, it was once the YMCA
Now Churchgate House, it was once the YMCA

On the opposite corner, since the reign of George III a bakery had been at 34 Churchgate Street. Proof of this is an embossed oven plate in situ with the king’s name on.

F Woolnough ran it as a bakers and confectioners until Dansie Berry purchased it in 1905. Stanley Pugh then took it over as a going concern in 1954. Stan died in 1994.

Paddy, Stan’s son, took over and had his last bake five years later, no more would you be able to sample the delicious jam-filled doughnuts Berrys were famous for. It is now a private house.

Berry’s bakery, at no 34, closed in the late 1990s
Berry’s bakery, at no 34, closed in the late 1990s

The upmarket French restaurant Maison Bleue at 30-31 is one of the finest restaurants in the town – previously it was Mortimer’s fish restaurant.

Way before then it belonged to H R Land, a family firm started in 1905 by Harry Land as ‘art house furnishers and removals’.

They also retailed soft furnishings, bedding and carpets. Harry’s son and daughter ran the business for 50 years from 1929. National removal firm Pickfords then took over but after three more years Land’s ceased trading, closing down in 1982.

H R Land had the premises now occupied by Maison Bleue
H R Land had the premises now occupied by Maison Bleue

At no 28 is the long-term hairdressers founded by owner Gavin Ashley. Opposite here at no 42, run at one time by Cecil Watson, was Churchgate Street Post Office, now re-modelled, an Indian restaurant Valley Connection occupies the site.

Nearby, Ben’s restaurant recently closed after a few years, as did its predecessor, Wibbling Wools in the mock Jacobean building which replaced the grocery premises of George Rowland Harvey.

This mock-Jacobean building replaced the fire-hit grocery business of George Rowland Harvey
This mock-Jacobean building replaced the fire-hit grocery business of George Rowland Harvey

On Tuesday, November 3, 1903, this caught alight at 1.40am in the morning. Pc Offord, who was patrolling down Westgate Street at the time, noticed a bright light over in Churchgate Street.

By the time he arrived at the scene there were flames shooting through the roof of the ancient property. He alerted residents nearby including Edward Bloomfield, whose boot manufacturing store was adjacent. Edward rushed upstairs and grabbed his sleeping nine-year-old son Stanley.

Fortunately for the fire brigade who, according to reports, were very efficient, there was plenty of water to be had from hydrants nearby. They were able to prevent the fire spreading into the boot shop and down the street to a taxidermists run by a Mr Travis, but Harvey’s Stores were gutted.

Both the boot shop and the grocers were insured for loss of stock and damage to buildings but Mr Travis was not. The cause of the fire, unknown. The conflagration was likened at the time to the great fire of Bury in 1608, more than a slight exaggeration.

The rebuild of the premises was carried out with black painted beams, a look that over a 100 years later still confuses people thinking it is genuine. A similar style was at one time used on both The Fox and Dog & Partridge.

In 1925, Marlow & Co, timber and builders’ merchants, purchased the former William Barnaby alms house in College Street as stores for the coffins they made, the rear of the site also used for their wood business and linked round to Harveys former grocery shop in Churchgate Street.

This would later serve as their showroom for bathrooms and sanitary ware until Marlows moved to a new site in Hollow Road in 1973/4.

Looking back, it is quite amazing how this historical street, an integral part of the medieval grid with a wealth of listed buildings has seen so many changes of use. The properties still there, the occupancies radically different!