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Always on the trail of good food stories, Nicola Miller stays close to home when she takes a food tour at Bury St Edmunds Guildhall and finds out about feeding service personnel during the war, British eating habits and what table manners can tell you. . .

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As I walk under the 13th century stone entrance arch of Bury St Edmunds' Guildhall and look up at its edifice of red and white brick, moulded stone and black knapped flint, I can't help wondering about the thousands of people who have done the same since it was built.

The Guildhall is the oldest continuously used civic building in Britain and we are fortunate to have a structure like this in our little town, especially one in such good repair. This is because back in 2015, a project was launched by the Bury St Edmunds Heritage Trust to convert the Guildhall into a heritage centre and now, post-lockdown, the building is once again open to the public.

I am here to attend one of the Guildhall's new tours, built around the theme of food. Like the other tours, it is an immersive experience where the very fabric of the building is brought to life. It feels right, considering the Guildhall was 'provided for the people as a meeting place, a community chamber and a public facility, and has always been in the control of the governing bodies of the town', representing a secular shift away from the Abbey's former control.

Bury St Edmunds Guldhall (52831350)
Bury St Edmunds Guldhall (52831350)

My guide is Catherine Buchanan. Over an hour, I get to see the banqueting hall, minstrels gallery, courtroom and evidence house, a Tudor kitchen, sensory gardens, and the Royal Observer operations room. In the latter case, of the 40 that were built at the start of the Second World War, it is the only one to remain intact.

It stuns me that during the Battle of Britain, the Guildhall Ops Room was the place where the region's air defences were coordinated. The staff were drawn from local people who were responsible for monitoring all air activity over East Anglia. There is a large mapping table in the centre of the newly-restored room where controllers would mark each plane's position, height, speed and course. This information would then be passed onto fighter pilots to help them intercept enemy aircraft.

Standing at the mapping table, I look out of the window at the gardens and adjacent buildings. It's the same view the controllers had as they went about their work in a tiny room in a town that has survived a civil war, the Great Famine, Black Death and two world wars.

Guildhall sensory garden (52831354)
Guildhall sensory garden (52831354)

Landgirls worked in this room, too – sometimes at night – after a busy day of manual labour and the usual domestic duties of women who were parenting alone because their husbands were deployed. I hope it helped them cope with what must have felt like a huge responsibility.

It's not just the Ops Room's 'big' history that attracts people, though.

"People ask to see it and learn how it works, but not all are interested in war," says Catherine. "More are interested in where the thousands of airmen and soldiers could get a bed and food during the war.

"This made me realise if people were going to return, we needed more than one tour, and as the Guildhall, throughout its history, had been a place of festivities and celebration, 'food' seemed a good starting point."

Guildhall pear tree (52831356)
Guildhall pear tree (52831356)

As we look through the photographs in the Ops Room (many of them feature people from well-known Bury families), Catherine tells me that "at the beginning of the war, there were 15 airfields and by the end of the war there were 107, and 360,000 people went through Rougham alone. The town needed and wanted to feed these people.

"The Athenaeum (equipped by Greene King) was one such place, but the Baptists and Methodists didn't want soldiers to go to pubs, so they set up canteens. I have counted 22 places in Bury where you could get a cup of tea," she says.

"The Methodist canteen on Brentgovel Street served 900,000 snacks, and a lot of the helpers were over 80. The YMCA on Crown Street was another location then there was the Salvation Army and British Legion and the WRVS, whose mobile canteen was given to them by the Americans."

Documents in the Ops Room detail the staggering amount of food served up by this canteen.

Catherine talks about the 'British restaurant' concept, establishments set up in places where people could not cook because of bomb damage or struggled to access food because their ration books had been destroyed or lost.

"Bury St Edmunds had one, located on a site opposite the Dog & Partridge pub, an old school that had been repurposed," she tells me.

Catherine has met people who have eaten there, and a three-course meal cost eleven pence.

Her interest in history began in childhood. Trips to museums and holidays in places like North Wales where "we were dragged up hills to piles of stones that had at some stage been a castle on the promise that there would be a dungeon – there never was!" helped her decide to study history at 'O' level. But, going back to the concept of 'big history', Catherine noted that the syllabus only seemed to include battles and wars. "I hated it. I was much more interested in how they lived and what they ate rather than how they killed each other. I was told how armies were fed wasn't relevant, so I dropped the subject and gave up on political and military history.

And this is where food history comes in.

"As a teenager living in the Far East but at boarding school in England, where the food was awful, I became fascinated with what people ate for breakfast. Once I started reading up on 'food history', I became hooked on the class and social laws of the table. It all followed on from there."

After a career in the British Army followed by running her own business, Catherine began to volunteer on the Guildhall's reception desk, then started to show visitors around the building.

Even back then, she focused on the social history of the Guildhall and the town and, as her historical research intensified, she started to do general tours before branching out into talks and themed tours. All of these retain a strong focus on local townsfolk and how their lives intersected with the Guildhall's civic function. Catherine is at pains to explain that she does not see herself as a food historian (in the manner of Annie Gray, whom she finds deeply inspiring) but as "someone who sees the absurdity of British eating habits and manners over the years."

I found her incredibly knowledgeable and personable, and it is obvious how much work she has put into the tour. (I don't want to tell you too much about its content because I want you to attend this tour and be as intrigued and fascinated by the Guildhall's history and Catherine's relating of it as I was.) But there is an old pear tree in the garden under which you are warned not to stand because it is a variety that drops its fruit like bombs onto unsuspecting heads, and this pear tree grows on land under which are ancient wine cellars.

Standing by the Tudor kitchen, you'll find out why eating breakfast means you are a 'peasant', why the working classes tended to eat their food piping hot, and about the workhouse the Victorians built in the town. And, at the end of the tour, there's a fascinating account of how one of the main functions of table manners is to identify who belongs to your social class and who does not.

We walked around the nearby sensory garden, which contains a variety of salvia that smells like body odour crossed with onion and a lemony sorrel as sharp and bright as a paper cut.

There's a corner plot based on the 'Anglo Saxon lay of herbs' with chervil and fennel "sent to the wretched and the fortunate, as a help to all' which is pointedly democratic. A 'Herbal' from the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, whose plantings are taken from a manuscript thought to date back to the time of Abbot Baldwin, is situated next to a patch of plants that were typically grown during the Second World War.

I ask Catherine how the tours have been received.

"It is early days. . . The groups I have taken around seem to enjoy it – especially Table Manners – Being British [which is] just an excuse to sort people into Us and Them. The number of nodding heads and laughter leads me to think they are enjoying themselves."

It's true; the British are obsessed with class, and seeing the evidence of this played out in front of you as Catherine demonstrates the 'correct' way to place a napkin after the meal is over, and how to pour a cup of tea, is deliciously uncomfortable at times. It entertainingly exposes your prejudices and beliefs.

So, go. There are many different tours and activities to choose from, or maybe you'd just like to sit quietly in the town centre garden or walk around the frequent art exhibitions held on site. I came away with a genuine desire to know more and, thanks to Catherine's talk, lots of ideas as to how I might do this.

You can find more information at burystedmundsguildhall.org.uk.

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale

Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020