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Historic Guildhall, in Bury St Edmunds, to throw open its doors

PUBLISHED: 15:43 11 July 2018 | UPDATED: 09:44 12 July 2018

Simon Pott and the mayor of St Edmundsbury Margaret Marks raise a glass to Jankyn Smyth. Picture: GOODERHAM PR

Simon Pott and the mayor of St Edmundsbury Margaret Marks raise a glass to Jankyn Smyth. Picture: GOODERHAM PR

Archant

The historic Guildhall, in Bury St Edmunds, which has been transformed following a stunning £2 million restoration project, is to throw open its doors this weekend with two open days.

Dating back to 1279, it is the oldest continuously-used building in Britain and proudly boasts a World War Two Royal Observer Corps Control Centre – the only surviving room of its kind in the world.

The open weekend, which is free to the public, will be held on Saturday and Sunday to give the community a taste of what’s to come in Bury’s newest visitor attraction.

It will also act as a celebration of what has been achieved and a thank you to everyone who has supported the project.

Little over 35 years ago, things were very different with the building on the Historic Buildings ‘At Risk’ register and rumours circulating that it would be sold.

Step forward the Bury St Edmunds Heritage Trust.

Not content with just making sure this most historic of buildings was safe, the Trust set about devising a plan for the future which would ultimately raise £2 million to complete the restoration.

Simon Pott, chairman of the project board, admitted: “This was good and bad news in equal measure for the Trust. Good in that we had firm control of the building. But bad in that, being a charity, we did not have the great sums needed to restore the Guildhall.”

The Guildhall came off the register once an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund was submitted and further generous grants were given by Historic England, anonymous private donors and local organisations such as the Bury Society.

Martyn Taylor, chairman of the Bury Society, said: “We are committed to such projects which look after the heritage of yesteryear, today and for the future.”

The first phase of the restoration work concentrated on the roof and one of the many great discoveries was that the roof timbers on the existing building dated back to the late 14th century – some 100 years earlier than previously thought.

Intriguing finds, as well as obstacles attached with restoring such a historic building, appeared around every corner. Sometimes it was both – including the uncovering of a 20ft well in the Tudor kitchen courtyard in exactly the same position that had been identified for a proposed disabled lift.

Amongst the finds was an early example of recycling in the form of a 14th century oak lintel with finely carved mouldings, assumed to be from another building and now supporting part of the old floor, and a 16th century chimney breast.

Back to the present day, the Guildhall tentatively began opening its doors with a successful drama evening held in April before interactive displays arrived inside and a sensory garden developed outside.

At the same time, groups of dedicated and committed volunteers were taking shape to get ready to meet and greet visitors, make costumes and form a crucial part of the learning team ahead of the opening weekend. Their commitment to the project saw them receive special recognition from the High Sheriff of Suffolk.

They hosted their biggest pre-opening event earlier this month when the traditional cake and ale ceremony was held to commemorate the death of Jankyn Smyth, benefactor of the town, who made a bequest to support the poor in the community and assist with payment of taxes to the Abbey. His example led to others bequeathing money to the Candlemiss Guild which later became the Guildhall Feoffment Trust.

Following the open days a programme of events around the summer holidays has been planned.

This will herald another chapter in the Guildhall’s historical and continuous service to the community.

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