A visit to BURY ST EDMUNDS, ELY and NORWICH
In August 2021 Ted and I finally managed to have a few days away from home in England for the first time in almost two years – we escaped to East Anglia for a three-night visit with our friend Ken. The focus of the trip (not unusually) was to call in at a few pubs that we had identified as likely to appeal after a trawl through the Good Beer Guide and What Pub. A constraint was the limited availability of accommodation at a reasonable price due to staycations, though we were able to come up with a reasonable journey. The weather wasn’t great – overcast, which seemed to be the case most of this summer (apologies if some of the photos look as dull as the weather) – but we enjoyed ourselves.
Our first destination was Bury St Edmunds and we set off by train from Durham to Peterborough. The first class advance fares were cheaper than any tickets available in standard class, so we were fed by LNER and managed to resist the temptation of the beer or wine when the drinks trolley appeared just after 1100. Trains to Bury run only every two hours so we passed the 65 minute wait by visiting the Brewery Tap near the station. It is a big barn of a place, a former employment exchange converted to a pub in 1998 which showcases Oakham Brewery beers, some of which are brewed on the premises and all of which are kept in good condition – we drank pints of JHB. Steve’s first visit to the pub was in 2005 on the day of the 7 July bombings in London – I had spent the night in a hotel near to Kings Cross and managed to discover that the only train out of London was a shuttle from Finchley Park calling at every station to Peterborough. By then I was in need of a pint while trying to find out more about what was going on.
En route to Ely the train called at fascinating places such as Whittlesea, Manea and March then continued to Bury past the new station under construction at Soham. For fellow nerds, the four-coach train was a new bi-mode Class 755 train built for Greater Anglia by Stadler in Switzerland, with a power pack vehicle like those we’ve seen there (pictured). Our impression was positive, at least for shorter journeys. Anyone travelling after a couple of pints should be aware that the only two toilets are both in the same coach.
The station at Bury St Edmunds (above) is out of the town centre, which is an uphill walk away – in the otherwise flat-as-a-pancake Fens settlements were built where they wouldn’t be flooded. Our first impression wasn’t great – the area round the station isn’t inviting, comprising some bog standard new flats, a busy road junction which is impossible to cross without kindly drivers stopping. Also, the nearest pub – the Beerhouse – didn’t open until the evening (note 1). We pressed on to the town centre, past the best tattoo shop in town (pictured -this may or may not be true – we saw several during our visit). Don’t let this put you off – Bury is a much better place than the first impression.
It is a historic town and was particularly important during the medieval period. The Norman grid street plan dates from the 11th century and many of the town centre buildings date back several centuries. There are extensive remains of the Abbey, destroyed in the sixteenth century, including more modern houses built into the abbey ruins (pictured). The cathedral of St Edmundsbury was promoted from a parish church early in the twentieth century and building work including a new tower has continued until recently. The industrial revolution passed this area by and today the main industries are the Greene King brewery and a sugar processing factory. The town has significantly expanded since the 1950s as an overspill area for London, though the tourist will see little sign of the newer estates. Bury is also home to the world’s first illuminated street sign (phew!), constructed in 1935 and known as the Pillar of Salt (pictured).
And then there are the pubs. The most well-known is the Nutshell, the smallest pub in Britain, measuring 15ft by 7ft. It is tiny – a bar counter in front of which a few people can stand. Unfortunately social distancing is impossible, so no one was allowed inside – the only option was table service at an outside table We didn’t see the point and headed instead to the Oakes Barn for a late lunchtime pint – a modern free house built in a yard dating from medieval times with a good choice of beers and obviously popular with the locals – it was busy for a Monday afternoon.
After checking in to our accommodation and resting for an hour or two it was time for our evening out. Beer-wise the town is dominated by Greene King which has been brewing in the town since 1799 (note 2). However, there is plenty of choice in the pubs and where we tried Greene King beers they were in top condition. Our first stop was the Rose and Crown which turned out to be a smashing unspoilt pub where it is impossible not to get chatting to the locals. They obviously look after their regulars – the opening hours are arranged round when they appear.
The Masons Arms (pictured), a weatherboarded sixteenth century building, sold a decent pint of Woodforde’s Wherry though the pub appeared food oriented. Watching others eat was enough to make us hungry so we headed for a better-than-average curry at the Valley Connection (note 3). Eventually we reached the Dove. A little bit out of the town centre it is another impressive pub – a very traditional free house with six real ales (many priced at £2.50), nothing as modern as draught lager on the bar, and we could hear the local folkies singing sea shanties (we were about 40 miles from the sea) in the back room. Our final drink of our evening was in our accommodation, the Black Boy Inn (note 4). It’s a Greene King pub, the beer, the rooms and the breakfast were all perfectly acceptable and reasonably priced.
In the morning we had a wander round town taking in the cathedral, the abbey remains and gardens. Then it was back to the station and a wait for the train to Ely. We negotiated yet another type of complicated ticket machine – it seemed impossible to buy 2 tickets for people with railcards in one go. The station monitors were showing the train layout (another Stadler bi-mode) in reverse formation. The journey itself was uneventful – only a minor delay waiting for another train to pass before entering a single- track section at Soham.
In Ely, we made our way to the Cutter Inn (below), a few minutes walk from the station by the River Great Ouse and marina. It is an ideal location and seats outside are at a premium. Inside, the pub felt a bit foody even in the bar area, though that may have been a result of Covid arrangements reducing the number of tables and removing seats at the bar. However, the beer slipped down a treat and the pub is well worth a visit if you happen to be changing trains at Ely.
From there we climbed up the hill into the town centre and the High Street. Ely was an island until the Fens were drained in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Our destination was our base for the next two nights, the Lamb Hotel. It is another Greene King Pub though this is a much larger affair – a 200 year old former coaching inn. After a rest it was time for an early doors pub crawl round Ely. We even took some time to have a look at the impressive cathedral, which dominates the town and is visible from miles around. There’s been a cathedral on the site since the seventh century and the current buildings mainly date from the fourteenth – today it is the main attraction for tourists to Ely.
Our first stop was the Townhouse. It was quiet when we visited but it looks like it gets busy on weekend nights, On the forthcoming bank holiday they promised a Proppa Old Skool Disco which almost looked tempting. We then found our way to the Prince Albert (note 5), a small public bar with a dining area and garden behind. The bar area was quiet but had the feel of a good local community pub. The Fountain, a street corner pub close to the cathedral, also had good beer though it was considerably more expensive than elsewhere. We had heard it referred to as the Black Hole which seems a bit harsh – the landlord was friendly and the Adnam’s Southwold Bitter was in good condition. The Minster, in the centre of town was focussed on food (the Christmas menus were being advertised in August). However, it had kept a bar area which was gearing up for a quiz night. Our final pint was in the Lamb before a very early night. In summary nowhere as outstanding as a couple of the Bury pubs but worthwhile all the same.
The following morning we traipsed off to Norwich for the day. Our original plan was to base our trip there but no accommodation was available except at seriously outrageous prices. The reason for our visit was the incredible number of pubs in the Good Beer Guide – more than many other cities – for example there are 27 Norwich pubs in the 2022 Good Beer Guide, while Newcastle upon Tyne has 18 and Glasgow has 16. Constraints of time and our livers meant we had to be very selective and choose only a few – with a couple of reserves in case of temporary or permanent closures or restricted hours due to the plague. In 2021 the Good Beer Guide and What Pub were struggling to keep up to date and we have found many examples around the country of pubs own websites or Facebook pages with inaccurate opening hours information.
As the train heads north from Ely station there are fine views of the Cutter Inn and the cathedral on the hill behind. The line to Norwich turns towards the east and travels across the flat lands of East Anglia. Ours was a fast train so we passed through several halts in the middle of nowhere, such as Shippea Hill, Harling Road, Eccles Road and Spooner Row, without stopping. There was a large area of pine woodland round Thetford – if I remember my geography lessons correctly this is Breckland, an area of infertile sandy heath, much of which was planted with trees to provide a reserve of timber after the First World War. The remainder of the route was agricultural – though not as intensively farmed as we expected, We passed a couple of farms surrounded by caravans – for the non-existent EU agricultural workers. At Wymondham there’s a steam railway – the Mid Norfolk Railway which runs the fifteen miles to Dereham. We had no time to visit – maybe some other time. Attleborough appeared to consist of endless rows of bungalows. Finally, we crossed the Trowse Swing Bridge – a single track bridge over the River Wensum – and into Norwich station.
We walked across the river and uphill to the city centre (Norwich is another town built on a hill above the surrounding countryside). We walked around yet another cathedral area (this is becoming repetitive), where queues of kids were waiting to see Dippy the Diplodocus, on loan to the cathedral from the Natural History Museum. From there we sauntered back down to the river and along the riverside until we arrived at the Ribs of Beef shortly before midday opening time – the Woodforde’s Wherry was worth the wait. Outside is a ‘Pub and Paddle’ stop – you paddle your own canoe on a pub crawl round the river – we had visions of canoeists visiting a dozen pubs along river then trying to paddle their way back (note 6). Next, we visited the Vine (below) – a tiny pub near the marketplace which also functions as a Thai restaurant – the main food area is upstairs so the bar is not diner-dominated, though the couple of meals being eaten in the bar looked excellent.
Then we tried to get into the Murderers Arms. There was a doorman outside (this is at 1400) and punters were only allowed in with results of a Covid test within the last 48 hours or proof of vaccination. No problem for me as I have the NHS app. No problem for Ted as non-sentient beings don’t need jagged. But Ken lives in Scotland – the Scottish NHS app didn’t include vaccination status QR Code – you needed to request a printed copy within 14 days of travel. And his invite for jags in February and April were by phone so there was no email record. We were knocked back. So no Scottish tourists were welcome in the Murderers Arms which felt like discrimination to us. Whether anyone from the EU or elsewhere would get in we don’t know. If that’s their attitude to non-locals then we recommend that you don’t visit the pub (note 7).
We walked past the castle (pictured), southwards out of the city centre and eventually reached the Kings Arms which was excellent. It is a welcoming Bateman’s pub, so we stayed for a couple. There was time for one more pub before catching the train back to Ely and the Coach and Horses was recommended as the best pub near the station.
We walked along the old city walls and another stretch of the River Wensum with its swans, past the station then up the hill. We made it just in time before a comfort break became absolutely imperative. The Coach and Horses is the brewery tap for Chalk Hill Brewery, and we enjoyed their Best Bitter. It’s a little bit of a barn of a place (currently with an outdoor marquee) but worth dropping in if you are in the area. Then it was back to Ely on the train and a pub meal in the Lamb . This leaves plenty more places in Norwich to try on future visits.
After a latish breakfast we left the Lamb next morning dropping our room key in the box at the foot of the stairs. Just outside a couple asked us for directions and at that point the receptionist came running out to say we hadn’t paid for the last nights meals. Oops. I was sure I had paid contactless at the time but once we checked the app I obviously hadn’t. A bit embarrassing but the receptionist was relaxed about my mistake and we made our way to the station with a clear conscience.
When we saw the rail replacement buses in the station car park we thought it might affect our journey. Sure enough the line to Peterborough was closed – we found out later that a freight train had hit a tractor on a level crossing a couple of hours previously – the tractor and train drivers received minor injuries and the line (a main route for freight travelling from Felixstowe to the Midlands and North) was closed for four days (note 8).
What should have been a 30 minute train journey became an 80 minute bus journey. Along the main roads there seemed to be a lot of development – agriculture machinery sales, quarries and so on – rather than the rural landscape we expected. However, we eventually reached Peterborough and had the dubious pleasure of seeing the sights of March en route. We arrived at the station just after our booked train to Durham had left – we had a hour’s wait so once more there was time for a pint in the Brewery Tap. LNER were fine about us travelling by the next train on our advance tickets. So we arrived back in Durham by mid-afternoon and another trip was over.
(1) at the time of writing the Beerhouse opens at 5 during the week and 12 at weekends
(2) tours of the brewery can be booked at www.greeneking.co.uk .
(3) Valley Connection is at 42 Churchgate St, IP33 1RG. I couldn’t find any connection to the Valley restaurants in Corbridge, Hexham and Jesmond – probably a co-incidence.
(4) Early in 2021 Greene King announced that the pub would be renamed the West Gate, and it is referred to as that on What Pub. However, when we visited in August all the Black Boy signage remained. In early November it was still known as the Black Boy on booking.com .
(5) The Prince Albert was in the 2021 Good Beer Guide, it was the local CAMRA Pub of the Year 2020, but for whatever reason is not in the 2022 Guide.
(6) In fact the Ribs of Beef is the starting point for civilised trips downriver, visiting only a few pubs along the way. Details at www.pubandpaddle.com .
(7) The Scottish NHS app was finally sorted in September. We heard later that the Murderers Arms had to close several times due to staff and punters testing positive and the management has overreacted… but the experience was not good.
(8) Information from Rail magazine.
A souvenir of Bury St Edmunds
Information on the pubs we visited and others in the area are available in Good Beer Guide book and app and What Pub . We used the 2021 Good Beer Guide. The 2022 Good Beer Guide, CAMRA, price £15.99 details 4000 of the UKs best pubs is now available from bookshops. www.whatpub.com is CAMRAs online pub guide providing details of the majority of UK pubs. The Good Beer Guide app draws on both these sources and can be downloaded free, though access to all features requires a subscription.
These are the pubs we visited on this trip:
Brewery Tap, 80 Westgate, PE1 2AA
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
Oakes Barn, St. Andrews St South, IP33 3PH, GBG
Rose and Crown, 48 Whiting St, IP33 1NP
Mason’s Arms, 14 Whiting St, IP33 1NX
Dove, 68 Hospital Road, IP33 3JU, GBG
Black Boy, 69 Guildhall St, IP33 1QD
Cutter Inn, 42 Annesdale, CB7 4BN
Townhouse, 60-64 Market St, CB7 4LS
Prince Albert, 62 Silver St, CB7 4JF
Fountain, 1 Silver St, CB7 4JF
Minster Tavern, Minster Place, CB7 4EL
Lamb, 2 Lynn Rd, CB7 4EJ
Ribs of Beef, 24 Wensum St, NR3 1HY
Vine, 7 Dove St, NR2 1DE
Kings Arms, 22 Hall Road, NR1 4HQ
Coach and Horses, 82 Thorpe Rd, NR1 1BA
Photo credits: All of the photos are by Steve Gillon, except for the following which were sourced via Google Images: The general view of Ely Cathedral is from wikipedia; the class 755 train is from railmagazine.com ; Norwich Cathedral is by Bill Smith and was published in the Eastern Daily Press http://www.edp24.co.uk ; Norwich Castle is from wikipedia and the train accident is from Network Rail. The photos of the Townhouse and the Kings Arms are by Ken Donald.
Ted poses by Ely Cathedral
Thanks to Ken Donald for company on the trip, pointing out the typos in the draft and reminding me which beers we drank and where.
Copyright. Text and all photos except for the above are copyright (c) Steve Gillon, 2021