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St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds summer tour offers fascinating insight into its past



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St Edmundsbury Cathedral boasts almost 1,000 years of history - and visitors are able to engage with this ancient legacy through regular tours.

Situated in the heart of Bury St Edmunds, the cathedral employs a team of around 20 trained guides.

They work on a voluntary basis to educate tourists and residents alike.

Individual members of the public can join the tours on scheduled dates for a small fee
Individual members of the public can join the tours on scheduled dates for a small fee

Last week, I joined a tour group led by Valerie Moore, hoping for some insight into the life of the cathedral.

Mrs Moore cast light on the site's complex history.

While the cathedral building itself only came into being in the second half of the 20th Century, a church has occupied the same grounds since Anglo-Saxon times.

Pre-booked group tours are also available
Pre-booked group tours are also available

The site was originally tied to the Abbey of St Edmunds, which now exists only as ruins.

As Mrs Moore explained, the community which grew up around the Abbey was of great significance in medieval times, being the resting place of the legendary Saint Edmund.

The guide said: "This cathedral here has a symbiotic relationship with the Abbey.

The cathedral building itself is more modern than many residents realise
The cathedral building itself is more modern than many residents realise

"Certainly, by 1020, King Cnut had started to build the Abbey.

"That was where the monks were, where the pilgrims came, where royalty came.

"Royalty often outstayed their welcome, because they came with a large entourage, and they consumed a lot of food, a lot of drink, and had a good time."

Much of the cathedral's architecture is far more modern than it would appear at first glance.

For instance, the side chapel and lady chapel were built in the decades after the Second World War.

Stephen Dykes Bower, who served as cathedral architect for over four decades, is chiefly responsible for St Edmundsbury's Gothic design.

The cathedral's interior is in the neo-Gothic style
The cathedral's interior is in the neo-Gothic style

In contrast to many of his 20th Century peers, who opted for modernist influences, Mr Bower drew on medieval colour schemes and architectural stylings.

Mrs Moore described him as a larger-than-life figure, whose influence still looms large over St Edmundsbury.

Although he did not live to see the construction of the cathedral's tower, he made a vital contribution towards it.

Mrs Moore related the story: "In 1994, Stephen Dykes Bower died. He had been one of four brothers. They were all bachelors, and didn't have children.

"When one died, they left the money to the others. The last one standing was Stephen Dykes Bower, so he inherited a lot of family money.

"He decided that, in his will, he would leave around £2 million either to complete [the cathedral's] groundwork, or to go towards Westminster Abbey.

"He didn't say he wanted this to build a tower, because he knew that £2 million was no way enough to build a tower.

"But, once you get a bit of your house looking brilliant, you think: 'I better complete it!'"

His bequest, coupled with Lottery grant money and fund-raising by cathedral staff, led to the completion of the tower in 2005.

The tour contextualises the cathedral's architecture, providing fascinating technical and historical insight.

Sarah Friswell, the cathedral's visitor experience manager, said: "Even though I'm in charge of the guides, I learn stuff off them all the time.

"Obviously, we all have our knowledge, and the guides continue to learn - it's an ongoing process.

"We actually have guides training every month. Quite often, they've done a bit of research, and they then present it to the rest of the group.

"Recently, one of the guides told us all about bell-ringing, because that's something he's interested in."

Scheduled tours at St Edmundsbury take place on Wednesdays and Saturdays around 11am.

Individual members of the public can show up on the day, with tickets available for £5 per head from the cathedral's shop.

Alternatively, groups can pre-book a tour any time of the week by contacting visits@stedscathedral.org