Set on a beautiful 75 acre site with nearly 3km of woodland and riverside nature trails surrounding it, The Museum of East Anglian Life deserves to be known as one of the best museum attractions in England with a seemingly endless list of exhibits and things to do and see. Consisting of over fifteen historic buildings and collections of over forty thousand objects telling tales of East Anglian life, we’d definitely recommend a return visit because one day is not enough- especially if you wish to walk more of the beautiful Gipping Valley of which tantalising glimpses can be seen from the beautifully maintained meadows and mowed paths traversing the grounds. A footpath runs alongside the river Gipping, through the town of Stowmarket, taking walkers along the Gipping Valley to the docks in Ipswich.
Entered via gift shop, visitors then pass through Abbots Hall with its displays depicting the seasonal nature of food production – from bird scarers used by children, to beet forks with knobbly ended prongs onto a wide grassed area around which stand cart lodges packed with displays, the toilets, Osiers Cafe and the meadows leading to the other parts of the museum. Easy buggy trails have been laid and highlighted around some of the displays, the babychanging and toilets are well laid out and clean and throughout the site you will find little ride on toys to transport tired little legs. These have (and can be) left where you like after you have used them.
The enamel blue skies and warm temperatures on the day of our visit were a bonus with such a large part of the site being open air and many exhibits requiring outdoor walking to get to them; we would recommend sturdy waterproof shoes and a light jacket for inclement weather and plenty of sunscreen on hotter days. Children will want to take advantage of the outdoor playground, safe and well maintained with slides and climbing frames plus a fenced and grassed tractor race track furnished with plastic ride on toys to charge around on. Picnic benches, grassy hummocks and acres of mowed meadows made this area safe for children to run around with respite from the sun provided in the form of mini thatched cart lodges.
Further down the meadow is a small allotment surrounded by pens of rare breed animals- sheep, hens, rabbits and ducks; chickens, Suffolk black pigs and various goats, the latter tantalisingly close to the herb and vegetable patch. The sight and smell of it must have driven them demented, goats being goats. Wander past this, cross the small lane and ahead of you lies the Eastbridge Windpump surrounded by a wildflower meadow, hedgerows heavy with elderflower and cobnuts. A wooden bridge over the river leads you towards the towpath, pastures dotted with cows and Stowmarket picturesquely framed in the middle distance.
Skeins of families moved from exhibit to exhibit in ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’ style crocodiles; from the Blacksmith shed (originally built in Grundisburgh) and cart lodge filled with restored Romany caravans and a vintage Airstream that we coveted, to the Boby Building with its jangling steam belching giant engines, wheels higher than my head. Manned by cheery gentlemen wearing neckscarves and broad smiles, the children swarmed around these huge beasts of the road whilst around them lay sheds full of tractors, snowploughs and vintage cable laying equipment. In one corner of the shed could be found a child sized workshop complete with overalls hanging on pegs, mini hard hats and toy tool kits ready for junior handypeople. Interactivity is definitely encouraged here.
The same applies to all the mini exhibitions which are well curated and expertly explained via information boards and have a go displays. The ‘Toys Past & Present’ has a primary coloured corner encouraging children to play and adults to write about their toy memories seguing into displays of home environments from the past- a 50’s sitting room and kitchen with textile patterns reminiscent of those by iconic designer Lucienne Day; the atomic age, natural phenomena such as bark and the Memphis School all exerting their influence. A further display of a Victorian parlour, a kitchen and a bedroom contrasted with the obsession with plastic and modernism typical of the 50’s.
As we explored the site further, the discoveries were never ending. Inside Edgars Farmhouse with its bucolic and verdant garden and cutesy chocolate box exterior we found an interior stripped back to the architecture so as to tell the story of its construction. The first recorded owners of the farmhouse were John Adgor and his wife Ascelina. In 1346 they held nearly 40 acres of arable land, 1.5 acres of meadow, 1 acre of pasture, a rood of wood and 3 acres of alderwood in Combs. The farmhouse was saved from demolition in 1970 and reconstructed on the museum site. Built unusually in the style of an aisled hall with passing braces (as you’d more usually see in a church), there is an interactive cross brace joist for visitors to take apart and (attempt to) rebuild; a great way of demonstrating how ingenious these simple construction techniques are.
The Alton water mill was packed with things to read, look at and explore from bowls of different grains to an actual grindstone where we could add wheat and grind our own flour as shafts of sunlight highlighted the dust motes floating in the breezes. The mill works on water pumped up from the Rattlesden river and although no longer in commercial operation, is regularly operated for demonstrations.
Especially charming was the Moulton Chapel- a tin tabernacle, the ‘flatpack’ style of chapel often found in East Anglia, Wales and the West Country and of no affiliated Protestant denomination. Containing an empty baptismal total immersion pool, a side room used for Sunday School with tiny ladderback chairs, little hymn books and its humble, pared back vibe, it serves as a reminder that faith requires no adornment. The tabernacle was home to ‘Tell it to the Bees’- an mini installation demonstrating why bees are an important part of English folklore and why these traditions still echo through to today. No creature has provided man with so much wholesome food; nor has any inspired so many beliefs and superstitions. Bees, hives, and beekeepers appear in paintings and sculpture, on coins, jewelry, and Mayan glyphs; and carved into African tree trunks. The Greeks called amber Electron, and associated it with the Sun God Elector, who was known as the awakener. Honey, which resembles amber, was also known as an awakener, a regenerative substance that was revered across the ancient world. The resemblance of honey with amber led to the Bees exalted status amongst ancient man and secured its favor over other fossilized insects.
‘Telling it to the Bees’ references the importance of these creatures to the rural economy and families – bees would be the first to be told of a family death, their hives draped in black cotton and the first to be told of good news too. The underpinning common sense was of avoiding disturbance to the hives. A family busy with the business of bereavement and burial might lack the time to attend fully to their bees so covering them keeps them quiet and reduces the chances of swarming because they feel unsettled. Inside the tabernacle a mini beehive acts as repository for the secrets and hopes of children as they write their news onto slips of paper, posting these through the slot.
Happy to meet up with an ‘old friend’ we took a moment to sit inside the ‘Settling House’, also known as the Round House, Tally House, or Counting House which sat at the heart of Bury St Edmunds cattle market for over 130 years. The Victorian Gothic building, with its distinctive octagonal design, was rebuilt on the museum site in 2011 and contains depictions of the Bury St Edmunds market by David Gentleman who also illustrated books by George Ewart Evans.
The Settling House was originally used by traders to complete their business, with the toll collector given permission to sell ginger beer and buns. The building soon became the central hub of the cattle market, the place where traders met and tickets to the auctions were handed out. We remembered this building well firstly from the bustling market where traders with cages full of rabbits and chickens would chat to farmers en route from the livestock market behind the Settling House, to the produce market on Buttermarket. The close of the livestock market was the death sentence for this building and for a decade it stood neglected and marooned in a sea of parked cars until it was rescued by the Museum and rebuilt on its site.
Having recommended you stay the day here, we can also recommend the on site cafe, Osiers, which is a delightful spacious place to sit and eat cake (home made), snacks (home made) or full meals (home made- get the picture?). With its sun trap courtyard shaded by trees and parasols, picnic benches and army of not too bold ducks, this is a safe place to stop mid visit, eat and allow the kids to try out yet more ride on toys that are everywhere here too. Over in the corner are cart lodges, birds flying in and out of sedge or thatch, airstream caravans with the sun glinting off them and games such as croquet for loan.
Finally, we meandered over to the Abbots Hall and Gardens, a Queen Anne style house built in 1709 by Charles Blosse, a local gentleman and merchant and boasting a perfect walled garden that is framed beautifully from many of the deep silled windows inside. For us, this was the icing on the cake with its expertly curated displays and timely interactive child friendly activities, each linked to an ongoing display. Amazingly helpful staff are there to help you understand the context of each exhibition and their expertise in passing on their knowledge really enhances the visit. In this imposing yet friendly space the rooms are arranged and designed to explore concepts of home in East Anglia and the feelings these instill and provoke within us. Our sense of place, of self, our attachments to our traditions and the landscape; what we remember and what we pass on to others forms the backdrop to the often deeply moving exhibits. The room dedicated to the local asylum St Audrys and the ways in which it formed home, sanctuary AND confinement to its residents elicits very powerful emotions with patients belongings- wallets and spectacles, the tokens used to exchange for goods (Token economy) records and artwork by local people. If you are interested in finding out more, we can recommend the St Audrys Project and ‘Telling it Like it is’.
For children we saw a wonderful dressing up corner in the exhibition ‘The Good Life’ celebrating all things 1970’s and most definitely mining the Tom and Barbara ‘look’ and a great little interactive gardening task which related back to said same self sufficiency movement during that venerable decade- children and adults were invited to write on little tags what their garden meant to them and hang them on a grid. Plastic tubs full of nature inspired toys- watering cans, little bugs bore labels inviting children to explore and play with them in a room overlooking the stunning gardens.
The history of local Romany families begun by their beautifully restored waggons outside is enlarged upon inside Abbots Hall with a travellers view of the home and amazing funeral floral tributes to local community leader Dannie Buckley. Tackled too are less edifying facts; a glass display tackles discrimination and the name calling and discrimination often experienced by travellers, looking at words like ‘chav’.
We have long been supporters of the tradition of oral history (or testimony) and the museum interweaves the testimony of local people in several exhibits; in the St Audrys exhibit where we hear the accounts of people who have worked there or lived in the region. Movingly, the accounts of patients are missing because St Audrys dates from a time where the service user movement had yet to develop and mental illness was buried in layers of taboo, shame and silence. There is also a room dedicated to the work of George Ewart Evans, the father of British oral history. Sound recordings preserve local dialect and idiom, the table is set, books by regional nature and local history authors to the right of each plate and photos document the Yeoman and field worker heritage of East Anglia. Ewart Evans, author of one of our favourite books, ‘Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay’, also broadcast and published countless articles on the old traditions and became a pioneer of oral history in Britain after moving to Suffolk from his native Wales. As the artist and illustrator of many of his books, David Gentleman says;
“The scope of George’s work is complex and hard to define. His books might seem on the surface to be simply about subjects: the countryside, and the past. Much in them is indeed remembered: old people talking clearly and vividly about how things were, in their recurrent phrase, ‘at that time of day’ – that is, when younger. Certainly one can enjoy the books in a spirit of nostalgia, and take pleasure in the charm of the rural subject matter. But George was too clear-headed and too objective for nostalgia, and one quickly finds out – as he did – that the lives and times he recorded were far too hard for anyone with any humanity to wish them back. Rather, he used the past as a way to understand the present.”
A quote that applies as much to what the Museum of East Anglia is doing too.