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Historian Martyn Taylor visits the Bury St Edmunds property which has been 'home' to two saints





Number 2 Abbeygate Street is a Grade II-listed property from the early 17th century which, up to 1969, was the premises of Thomas Cross, Seedsman, Nurseryman and Florist (they also had a plant nursery in Barton Road).

Thomas, who lived at 7 Lower Baxter Street, had started his business at 24 Abbeygate Street then moved up the street to number 58, now occupied by Scotts opticians, finally moving across the street to number 2.

The flat above the shop was once occupied by owner Mrs Margaret Whitfield until purchased by Mr David Fenwick in 1952, the shop itself becoming the Halifax Building Society before 1980. It would later morph into the Ivory café and bar.

Boosh, Bury St Edmunds
Boosh, Bury St Edmunds

A ‘perpendicular Gothic niche’ above the entrance to what is now The Boosh Bar contains a statue of St Edmund looking remarkably like the St Edmund statue on the WH Smith's building (formerly Boots) on The Cornhill.

Previous to the present day statue there was another saint celebrated here, that of St Phocas, a patron saint of gardeners. It was obviously put there by T Cross after he took on the premises around 1887 as a Spanton Jarman photo from c1906 shows the niche empty.

According to reports it had a brownish coloured tunic and red cape, holding a rake in its right hand and a vegetable, possibly a cabbage in its left hand and was still in-situ around 1966.

St Phocas, right, and St Edmund - the old and the new
St Phocas, right, and St Edmund - the old and the new

So the legend goes, Phocas was a Christian who lived near Sinope, now in Turkey on the edge of the Black Sea. A kind and generous man, he shared the produce he grew in his garden with the hungry poor.

About 320 AD the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who had been persecuting Christians, sent soldiers into the area where Phocas lived. They failed to recognise him on meeting him but Phocas knew why they were there. After sharing his hospitality, the soldiers were about to depart the next morning but Phocas had other ideas. Unbeknown to them, he had dug his own grave during the night. He revealed himself and urged, then pleaded with the Romans to kill him as it was God’s will. Not wishing to carry out their orders, they said they could not kill him and would say they did not find him.

Reluctantly they eventually decapitated him, burying him in his own grave!

St Phocas is venerated by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

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

Martyn Taylor is a local historian, author and Bury Tour Guide. His latest book, Going Underground: Bury St Edmunds, is widely available