Written by Robert Fairclough
On Tuesday 13th June, a week shy of the Summer Solstice, a minibus full of participants from our Heritage Group visited the Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo. It was a very hot day, bottles of water an essential part of the walking kit as we toured the country estate.
Sutton Hoo in Suffolk is rightly famous for the discovery in 1939 of an Anglo-Saxon burial ship by Basil Brown (in what has since become known as ‘mound one’). The excavation revealed the final resting place of an Anglo-Saxon king, with treasures the equal of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. More discoveries followed, but it wasn’t until 2002 that the Sutton Hoo site and exhibition centre, now under the care of the National Trust, first opened to visitors. Dominating the forecourt between the second-hand bookshop and King’s River café and shop is a sculpture of the skeleton of the great ship, an appropriate place to start your journey.
By August 2021, with the establishment of “the complete new Sutton Hoo experience”, the buzz word ‘immersive’ best describes the way the visitors’ centre has been put together. The High Hall exhibition building enfolds you in a brooding darkness, highlighting the colour and intricacy of both original archaeological finds and some astonishingly accurate replicas. The skill involved in creating these relics gives the lie to the idea that after the Romans left England, the population left behind sank into a barbaric, uncivilised state. The romantic nature of the carvings and inscriptions moved our colleague Darren France to comment that the exhibition left him “lost in stories.” As you study the craftsmanship involved (below), your imagination certainly takes flight.
As a pre-arranged group booking, Waveney Heritage were awarded an extremely informative – and friendly – tour guide called Laura Howarth. The National Trust’s generosity didn’t stop there: our party was allowed in for free, reflecting how highly the Trust regards a heritage organisation dedicated to positive mental health and wellbeing.
For me, the highlight of the day was the opportunity to walk the grounds, taking in Tranmer House (once owned by Edith Pretty) – which hosted an idiosyncratic and engrossing exhibition detailing Brown’s initial excavation, including first-hand audio accounts from those who took part in the 1930s – and the 17 metre-high viewing tower (below), which offered stimulating views of the surrounding countryside and the mounds in the Royal Burial Ground. Just being out in such beautiful countryside attested to how much nature can enhance your wellbeing.
I felt tranquil as I walked through the extensive woodlands of coniferous and deciduous trees, admiring a view that reached as far as the River Deben. Our group lunched in a circle of benches that had been placed among some pine trees – a beautiful spot that called to mind either a meeting place for Hobbits or, with daylight waning, a campfire-centred telling of ghost stories.
Our group all enjoyed themselves, as evidenced by the chatter in the minibus on the journey home. New member Kerry Ann praised “a lovely day with excellent company,” while Margaret commented that the visit made her “want to go back again and build on what we’ve seen today.” On the social side, she praised “a good gang of people with varied conversation.”
Ian was equally effusive: “It’s always lovely to be part of the group. We had a particularly exhilarating and interesting time, largely because we had a guide with us.” In fact, Ian’s only (minor) gripe was that, strangely, there were no waste bins – though it was a sign of how well the grounds were maintained that there wasn’t a speck of litter in sight – and, with mobility issues, he was also able to take advantage of the estate’s people carriers. A thoughtful touch.
Phil lauded “yet another brilliantly successful day learning new things,” while Darren summed up the experience most accurately:
Sutton Hoo is an exceptional experience and, perhaps, the archetypal heritage site for enhancing wellbeing. A model for the future?
Photographs © Robert Fairclough 2023