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Bury St Edmunds historian Martyn Taylor explains why the town has spent so much time mopping up floodwater





You would probably expect that a town with two rivers, technically chalk streams, would have to contend with flooding, and through the years Bury St Edmunds certainly has.

The Lark rises south of Bury near Bradfield Combust, flowing 31 miles into the Great Ouse River just past Prickwillow. Via the undrained Fens, this was probably the route that stone from Barnack reached the Abbey site.

The Lark was known in medieval times as the Bourne or Burn. The other river, the Linnet, rises at Ickworth until it joins the Lark behind today’s Premier Inn hotel. It too had another name, The Maydewater, hence Maynewater Lane and Square today.

Eastgate Street flooded in 1907
Eastgate Street flooded in 1907

During the time of the Abbey, water would cascade down Churchgate Street and at different times flow through the Churchgate (Norman Tower) and flood parts of the Abbey Church. This is why the ground around today’s Norman Tower was raised, to prevent this. Opposite, Chequer Square was known as Paddock Pool, where once water collected.

The first real account of flooding occurred in 1879 when a Grand Gala to be held in the Abbey Gardens had to be cancelled when the River Lark burst its banks, much to the annoyance of the organisers.

During late December 1906 heavy snow lay across much of England and this snowfall obviously contributed to the River Lark bursting its banks in January 1907. Low-lying areas were affected, especially the former shop at 12 Eastgate Street shown in the picture above.

Flooding at the Spread Eagle in 1968
Flooding at the Spread Eagle in 1968

During 1947 the weather was foul and there was more flooding, but this did not compare with the torrential rainfall of 1968 for on Sunday, September 15, nearly three inches of rain fell in 24 hours, causing massive flooding throughout the town. One later major casualty of the rainfall would be that of the 30 houses built in the ill-fated Jacqueline Close, because Friday, December 13,1968, after weeks of further rain the chalk mines the houses were built over were compromised causing collapses. The rest, as they say, is history and all the houses – bar two – were demolished!

Many low-lying areas were flooded: Northgate Street, Tayfen Road, Mustow Street, Cotton Lane, by the Spread Eagle, St Botolphs Lane and Raingate Street (unfortunate pun that). In Eastgate Street, the fine Steggles-built bridge of 1840 was erroneously blamed for floods by not allowing the Lark to flow through and demolition was advised. Thankfully, the bridge was retained, later listed, and the river banks strengthened. It later transpired, according to reports, that the Marquis of Bristol had opened the sluice gates at Ickworth to prevent the loss of his fish stocks, thus the Linnet was engorged and exacerbated the situation.

St Botolphs Lane flooded in 1968
St Botolphs Lane flooded in 1968

One story of that day told by Grenville Wilson, whose father kept the Eastgate Street Post Office, was how he triumphed over adversity at 10am to get from his place of work in Abbeygate Street and circumnavigated Bury via Southgate Green to help get his father’s stock above water. All to no avail because by the time he got there his father had been incredibly busy getting all the stock up higher than the water. All he lost was one chocolate bar!

So what can we learn from the past? Well obviously ensure that rivers and banks are kept clear, major restoration to the Linnet has been carried out along by Winthrop Road and towards Gardiner Close in recent years and the ever-watchful Bury Water Meadows Group help out as and when required. Obviously the main focus has to be not to build too close to potential flood plains, water meadows are a good indication of where not to, the Butts a prime example.

Martyn Taylor. Picture: Mecha Morton
Martyn Taylor. Picture: Mecha Morton

— Martyn Taylor is a local historian, author and Bury Tour Guide. His latest book, Bury St Edmunds Through Time Revisited, is widely available.