211: Bury St Edmunds

OS Explorer map 211, Bury St Edmunds & Stowmarket: Debenham & Elmswell – I do not own this map, but have visited it before starting this blog. Visited again for this post 17th June 2018.

I have finished another degree! As of Friday 15th June, when I handed in my dissertation (“Ælfric’s Colloquy and Latin Learning in Anglo-Saxon England”), [1] I’ve completed my MPhil in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic!

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My completed dissertation! (Because every dissertation needs a dragon to guard it) [2]
I have finished my degree, and so my friends finished theirs too – while mine was a masters course, so my final thing to do was hand in a dissertation, Vesper, Millicent, Erithacus and Cheremy are finishing their BAs, so ended with exams. Cambridge doesn’t make as big a thing as Oxford does over ‘trashing’, but still, when people come out of their last exam, they are usually met with a spray of some kind of drink or another from their friends as a beginning to the celebrations, and naturally I was there to meet those four!

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Vesper, Cheremy, Erithacus and Millicent after their last exam!

So, exams are now over, and people are free. The final week of term (this year, the 18th-22nd) is May Week, when May Balls and garden parties happen and everyone is generally  busy in revelry.

Now the last couple of years, after exams we’ve gone on a short trip somewhere nearby for a visit – in 2016 we went to Ely and looked at the cathedral, and last year went to Essex and looked at various medieval churches (and Colchester castle). This year, we decided to go to Bury St Edmunds, since there’s the ruined abbey there, a cathedral, and it’s easily reachable by train from Cambridge. (I couldn’t drive us, since, together with Queenie who’d come back to Cambridge for the week, we’d be six, and my car fits only five.) And so, the day before May Week would start in earnest (and it really would, since Vesper went to a May Ball the next day), we were off!

We met up at Vesper and Erithacus’s house (where Queenie had also been staying), and, after a brief delay caused by pancakes, walked to the station. [3] Now, being under 25, I’m eligible for a 16-25 railcard, and would normally therefore get 1/3 off all train travel. However, my railcard expired a couple of months ago, and I’m not planning on getting another one until shortly before my 24th birthday, because waiting and buying a three-year car until the last opportunity the rules allow will mean that I get to keep the discount until I’m almost 27. [4] For today, though, I was saved – we were multiple people travelling together, and so could get the group discount.

We got on the train without incident – it was a two-carriage Greater Anglia train to Ipswich, which was mildly exciting as I don’t think I’ve been on Greater Anglia before – and were soon in Bury. The station was quite pretty.

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Bury St Edmunds train station

We walked towards the centre, the plan being to buy lunch and find somewhere grassy to eat it before going to a service in the cathedral at half past three. We passed a church that turned out not to be a cathedral despite having seemed so from a distance, and another church that had a sign claiming it “aimed to provide a Christ-centred experience” – not a particularly unique aim for a church, one would think.

Upon arriving in a shop-filled area, we eventually found suitable food in Marks and Spencer. I caused some delay by handing Vesper a sandwich that looked vegan but actually wasn’t. During this delay, the rest of us stood by the entrance attempting to work out with our bodies whether the pose the shop dummies modelling swimsuits were in were actually physically feasible. This got us some strange looks, and the exercise was rather inconclusive.

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The gatehouse to Bury St Edmunds’s Abbey gardens

We then walked to the Abbey gardens – i.e., the gardens contained within the walls of the ruined Bury St Edmunds Abbey – and sat there eating our lunch and generally being relaxed, after reading about the abbey and town’s gruesome history of rioting and beheaded abbots.

We had made full use of M&S’s odd selection of fancy-sounding juices, and so passed those around trying them. The one containing coconut water was rather universally condemned – Erithacus has a deep-set hatred of coconut water that seems to be spreading – but I liked the others.

When the time came, we cleared up and walked over to the cathedral in time to go to Evensong at half past three. Millicent has a severe hatred of anything Victorian Gothic, despite acknowledging that he would sometimes like the exact same building if it were genuinely medieval, and for this reason doesn’t like this cathedral. I thought it was perfectly pleasant, even if it’s not nearly as wonderful as many of England’s other cathedrals.

So yes, we attended the evensong. There was a chatty priest whom Cheremy knew from some Cambridge Christian thing or another. The music was pleasant, although I don’t know a great deal about such things. Some of the trebles looked amusingly bored. It was also the first time that Erithacus had ever been to a church service, so that was interesting for her.

Afterwards, we went back to the Abbey gardens to look at the ruined abbey itself! We first, though, were amused by a stone claiming to be God.

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I may not be religious but I am pretty sure that this stone is not God

We also stopped for a group photo, because of course we needed one of those.

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Vesper, me, Cheremy, Queenie, Erithacus and Millicent. (Taken on Erithacus’s phone.)

There were indeed some ruins. There was a monastery in Bury St Edmunds since Anglo-Saxon times (since well before, indeed, Edmund’s martyrdom, I think), but the current ruins are those of the 12th-century Norman abbey, destroyed, as such things tended to be, in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. There really isn’t much left at all; the walls of the abbey church remain only as shapeless columns.

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The ruins of the abbey church

At the east end of the building the crypt that would once have been below St Edmund’s shrine was still fairly present.

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Erithacus, Millicent, Queenie and Cheremy in the crypt

From there, we began our walk back to the station – but on the way we stopped for a moment to admire two of Bury’s minor interesting things: the Pillar of Salt, probably the country’s oldest illuminated road sign, and The Nutshell, the UK’s smallest pub.

We were soon at the station, and off back to Cambridge!

Previous Visits

One of my cousins lives in Bury St Edmunds, with her husband and two sons, and they have since about 2004, I think. I’ve therefore been there many times over the years, visiting that part of my family. However, I don’t think it would particularly make much sense to tell you blow-by-blow accounts, even if I could remember them, of such trips, since they almost always would follow the formula of come to their house, eat some food, play with the children, repeat. Therefore, here are just a few photos.

We start, naturally, at the beginning, with amusing photos of ten-year-old me in 2005 for you to giggle at. These are in the Abbey’s grounds, the same place I went to this time. I do seem to have been having rather a round phase at the time.

Here I am holding my cousin’s first son soon after he turned up, and playing at blocks with him a year or so later.

If we then skip forward a decade, here I am with assorted parts of my family, sitting on  top of some hay only last year, when we went to visit them and then went for a little walk. I recall that I had to borrow my cousin’s husband’s jacket on that occasion, since the one I had with me was thoroughly unsuitable for rain – when Father Dearest saw the photos he got rather excited, thinking I had bought a jacket that wasn’t the same kind of jacket I always buy. But no.

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Me and various family members sitting on some hay!

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[1] So yes, my dissertation had the title “Ælfric’s Colloquy and Latin Learning in Anglo-Saxon England”. Ælfric was a monastic teacher, and later abbot, in Anglo-Saxon England in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. His Colloquy is a teaching text: it portrays, in fairly simple Latin, a conversational lesson between a teacher and some monastic students. The students ask for instruction in speaking Latin, which the teacher achieves by launching them into a role-play exercise where the students take on the roles of various workers and craftsmen; the teacher questions them in these roles. (After this there’s a bit more where they talk with the teacher about what they’ve learnt and their daily habits of life around the monastery.)

Now, there exist a few other texts called “colloquies” that were written in or known in Anglo-Saxon England – Ælfric’s student Ælfric Bata writes some, and there are a handful of others – De raris fabulis, Colloquia e libro de raris fabulis retractata, the Colloquia hisperica. Those all descend from the Hermeneumata pseudodositheana, third-century collections of bilingual Greek-Latin language-teaching material, which are mainly glossaries but include little dramatised scenes too. My main argument was that it’s a mistake to see Ælfric in this tradition, since he can’t be shown to have known any of it when he was writing – hīs only textual link to it is that Bata later used both it and him – and really in many ways it’s just qualitatively extremely different to them.

I didn’t actually think of this argument, though, until when I’d nearly finished the dissertation, about a week before my full-draft deadline – before that I’d just envisioned my dissertation as a bit of a mixed bag of interesting explorations of the Colloquy, but fortunately most of the stuff I’d already written – about Ælfric’s use of humour; the way that the Colloquy does its language teaching; and the connections of the thoughts about society and wisdom and language that you can get out of the Colloquy by literary reading with Ælfric’s thoughts as attested in his other works – could be appropriated to work towards this idea.

My supervisor thinks it would be a good idea for me to rework my dissertation into a new edition of the Colloquy and submit it somewhere, so there’s something for me to be doing next year…

[2] This little dragon is called Ethel. My character in the long-running Dungeons and Dragons game that I’m in with Erithacus, Eadgifu and three others is called Undetricesimus MacDoverchan, Undy for short. (Undetricesimus means ‘twenty-ninth’ in Latin, the joke being that that must be what naming children ‘Primus’, ‘Secundus’ and the like gets you to if you’re particularly productive. MacDoverchan is a rough Gaelic/Irish/Old Irishy thing meaning Son of the Otter.) He is a warlock, i.e. a magic user whose power comes not from academic learning, innate talent, the natural world, or the divine, but rather from the patronage of a powerful spirit. I also play him in a Scottish accent, which can cause problems at times when I get so used to it that I do it when I shouldn’t… But in any case, where this is relevant is that Undy has a familiar, a pseudodragon (i.e. very small dragon) called Ethel. The soft toy Ethel was acquired to be the game-Ethel’s real-world avatar.

[3] Cambridge’s railway station is a fair distance from the city centre, about a mile. This, I’ve heard, is because the University back in the 19th century when the railway was being built, didn’t want it too central as they were afraid students would get the train into London to engage in debauchery outside the University’s control.

[4] I know there are the 26-30 railcards available now, but they only give money off off-peak travel.

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