As a lover of history, living near Bury St Edmunds was like striking the proverbial motherlode. The past seemed to peer out of the walls and rest just beneath the ground of everywhere I went whether it be town or village or heath or coast. It was an embarrassment of riches.
Here was a town where I could walk on streets laid out by medieval monks lined with Georgian splendour and ponder the ruins of an abbey still accessed through its imposing gateway. Opposite there stood the hotel where Charles Dickens had stayed and been inspired to write The Pickwick Papers and a little further along was the Greene King brewery that had been making beer since 1799 although the history of brewing on the site went back much further.
On another street I could visit the guildhall, in continuous use for nearly a millennium or go up to Moyse’s Hall that had stood for nearly as long in the middle of the town. On the other side of the market square was the back of the extravagantly colonnaded Corn Exchange where farmers once traded their grains and next to that ran the original cobbled street of the old shambles where butchers practised their time honoured trade and the still present gutters ran red with gore.
Elsewhere in the county, I was fortunate enough to work in Lavenham. I have encountered few places elsewhere in the country as evocative of the past as this impossibly preserved medieval village with its timber framed houses set amidst rolling farmland. However, Suffolk seemed possessed of so many of these gems and experiences. One early Autumn evening, whilst walking out into the centre of Woolpit village, I smelt wood smoke on the air and it was as if I’d been transported back in time. It is strange how the right combination of environment and sensory stimulation can have this effect – can hold the power to help us re-imagine the past.
One of my favourite places was Sutton Hoo, that barrow haunted burial place of ancient Anglian kings overlooking the River Deben where it is possible to stand and imagine the leaders of the Wuffinga tribe hauling ashore their long keels onto this shoreline of creeks and mud-flats some time in the 5th century and deciding to carve out a kingdom for themselves. The amazing National Trust exhibition situated there brings to life the world of East Anglia’s most powerful king – Raedwald, one time overlord of Britain – and just possibly the man who may have rested in the famous ship burial excavated in 1939.
The history continues at West Stow where a rare discovery was unearthed in a series of excavations in the area that ran for over a century – an Anglo-Saxon settlement. This amazing place has gradually been reconstructed over the course of forty years and now its halls once more flicker with firelight and reverberate to the voice of the storyteller. The heathen world of Beowulf is resurrected and alive once more in the imagination.
That was what I loved so much about the county – I could connect with the past in so many different places. And then I left to find some place anew.
I’ve come to think that being able to connect with or take an interest in your surroundings on some level is vital to feeling at home. I choose to do it through taking an interest in the history of it and once more I’ve struck gold albeit of a different sort.
Ireland is a land of myth and legend yet so much of it is rooted in the physical landscape and the features and places upon it. There are no fanciful Camelots that can’t be found but real places that can actually be visited. What is even stranger is the fact that sometimes the stories of one area connect up with solid reality in another. I often feel like a detective on the trail of something special.
Our home and glamping site, Bramblewick House, lies not far from a place called Ardagh, a designated heritage village in the midlands county of Longford. It reminds me so much of the estate villages of parts of Suffolk (or even Wentworth in South Yorkshire) and so it should. It was not organically grown but planned and built by the Fetherton family in the 1800s around a central green, water pump and church with a funerary lych gate. Look closer, though, and the relics of a deeper history connected to St Patrick and his nephew, St Mel, begin to surface. There is a whole story in the cyclopean remains of Longford’s original cathedral tucked away in a corner of the grounds of St Patrick’s church.
Go back further and there is the legend of Midir and Etain, immortalised in statue form at Ardagh’s heritage centre. Nobody really knows how far back in time the story was originally written but one element within it refers to a burial mound (or home of the Sidhe) that could be from at least the bronze age at the back of Ardagh hill. This same story links to another amazing place near the town of Kenagh in Longford called Corlea.
Corlea is home to the remains of an iron age trackway recovered from one of the county’s numerous bogs and preserved within its own specially built centre. I originally saw it on a Channel 4 programme called Pagans and then went to view it on our first visit here. Each time we go back, the guides usually have something new to tell us about it although we still don’t know what purpose it served. What’s exciting about it to me is that it is a physical object that connects myth and reality together.
The story of Midir and Etain details the building of such a trackway and even mentions a fatal flaw in its construction. What are the odds that the Corlea trackway sank beneath the bog after only ten years? Fatal flaw indeed.
It might also be worth mentioning that the story also takes in the world heritage site of Newgrange in County Meath which is only just over an hour away from us.
This intersection of myth and reality occur elsewhere not too far away from us. Take a trip into County Roscommon and you’ll find a place called Rathcroghan just outside the village of Tulsk where a heritage centre celebrates the national epic called the Táin Bó Cúailnge or (in English) The cattle raid of Cooley and the home of the formidable Queen Medb of Connaught. This home is a complex arrangement of prehistoric monuments in a once sacred landscape.
The guides at the centre conduct a fantastic tour of the sites culminating in a visit to the fearsome Cave of Cats – the original Hell-mouth for Ireland’s early Christian community. Every year, this story is celebrated by the Tain march that follows the route Medb’s army is supposed to have taken on its way to Ulster.
I may be showing my age here but anybody who remembers the comic 2000AD and the character called Slaine will have read stories influenced by or even lifted straight from this narrative and its off-shoots. Slaine himself is based on one of its main protagonists – a warrior called Cú Chulainn.
In a further twist, that strange trackway in Corlea may have extended across the boglands of Longford and served as a connection between the heartlands of Rathcroghan and The hill of Tara – the seat of the high king of Ireland, a place also mentioned in the tale of Midir and Etain and deeply connected to the semi-legendary king, Niall of the nine hostages.
Closer to home, the top of Longford’s highest peak (Corn or Cairn Hill, depending on whom you speak to) supports two tombs. One is supposed to belong to the killer of Queen Medb although they both predate the myth by millennia. However, this fact demonstrates the importance and pervasiveness of the story that earlier monuments were co-opted to help tell it or fix it in the landscape. What we may actually be witnessing here is how ancient cosmologies were recycled in later tales of heroes and queens.
This is what I have grown to love about where we live. We are not surrounded by cold, dead monuments but rather historical places with vibrant stories to tell, stories that have survived and been told over and over again for possibly millennia.
There are other ways to find out more but the best way is to come and see for yourself. Find us on our website at www.bramblewickhouse.com Don’t forget, as WLBSE badge holders, you get 10% off our self-catering accommodation, using code BSE031018
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