Memories of the Suffolk Hotel in Bury St Edmunds revisited after plans submitted to return the Buttermarket building to its roots
When Sarah Johnson heard of plans to restore the former Suffolk Hotel in Bury St Edmunds, she was transported back to the 'best years' of her working life.
From the chit-chat with regular customers to the restaurant's aromas of cakes, cheeses and jacket potatoes and even the sound of rattling keys from the town's Grey Lady ghost, the foundations of the building at 36 Buttermarket preserve the echoes of happy times.
The redevelopment proposals by Gatsby Retail Limited will see the future of the historic building lean into its past and the move has rekindled the embers of precious memories from what felt like a more innocent age.
"They were happy days," Sarah remembers. "The customers were so lovely - it would be a pleasure to serve them. There were no worries in life then I don't think like we have now."
The 49-year-old, of Bury St Edmunds, worked at The Suffolk Hotel for six or seven years, having joined aged 19 in the venue's coffee shop before becoming the restaurant manager.
With a team of about 40 staff, the hotel was like 'one big family' including the customers.
"We would always have the same regular people come back," Sarah said.
"On December 22 you would pack your suitcase and you would live there until the new year basically. That was your Christmas and that was your family and the residents treated you like family."
When her daughter Lucy was born in January 1997, not long after the hotel closed, Sarah received 95 congratulatory cards - with most from former customers.
"The best years of my working life were in the hotel," she said.
"It was hard work, long hours and you could work from 6.30am to midnight sometimes but they were happy times.
"You did everything there. Sometimes if someone was off - one minute you're in the restaurant serving, then being a chamber maid, chef and the next minute on reception. You had to multi-task.
"They used to say 'Sarah I'm sure you served us breakfast and now you're making our bed'.
"I often used to do night portering as well. We used to have the police come in at about 2am to 3am to have a cup of tea, make sure we were okay and everything was safe. We would know them on first name terms.
"We would know all the market traders on a Wednesday and Saturday because they would come into the hotel to use the toilets and grab a cup of tea."
The hotel boasted nearly 40 bedrooms, a board room for conferences and a silver service restaurant, which was the go-to destination for lunch for mother's and father's days.
It hosted weddings and Christmas discos and the hotel's rivals were The Angel Hotel and Everards, in Cornhill.
Sarah can still remember the smell of the jacket potato machine and the aroma of cakes and cheese as you opened the restaurant door.
The presence of the town's Grey Lady ghost could also be felt in the hotel.
"Every so often you would hear her or a few people actually saw her," Sarah said.
"I only used to hear her keys rattle. I knew when she was in the restaurant in the summer because it would be freezing cold despite it being a burning hot day. Her presence was there."
For centuries the site was an inn and hotel and until 1833, it was known as The Greyhound, before renovations saw it reborn as the Suffolk Hotel.
Its bar at the back, known locally as The Suffolk Shades, was a popular haunt for many.
Historian Martyn Taylor said it and Everards were the ‘two favourite watering holes of the town’.
A 1966 advert shows there were 32 bedrooms with 13 private bathrooms and by 1970, after a new wing was added, the hotel boasted 39 bedrooms.
A 1973 advert said its restaurant, The Chantry, was ‘old English in character’, while ‘warm and friendly’ bar, The Viking, was decorated with military prints and its open hearth housed the original bell
from the MV Suffolk.
Accommodation for staff was at 11 High Baxter Street, which is being restored by the Bury St Edmunds Town Trust.
Sarah and manager Anita Hockridge were the last to leave the hotel when company Forte closed the venue in December 1996.
I was sad because of all those happy memories and friends I had made - Sarah on the hotel's closure
"We literally closed within three weeks of notice," Sarah said.
"We were fully booked that Christmas and we had to reaccommodate all the people who were coming to stay for Christmas into other hotels and reimburse them money.
"I was sad because of all those happy memories and friends I had made.
"I was more concerned about where our customers were going to go and to lose that contact with them."
She now works in the restaurant at Glasswells but The Suffolk Hotel will always hold a special place in her heart.
"I got in contact with Anita and said it would be lovely if they do restore the hotel, we could do some kind of reunion. She said that would be amazing."