5. Sutton Hoo – 1/8/2013

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Now before I start this, I have to admit that ancient history is not really my cup of tea. I think this is due to the number of unknowns. After all, as far as Sutton Hoo is concerned, the buried ship could well have been the last resting place of Raedwald, king of the East Angles and a significant figure in English history around 500-600 AD… but then again, it could not. No one knows for sure.

But although I was perhaps less than enthusiastic about this property before I started, I threw myself wholeheartedly into the visit and I have to say I really enjoyed my time there. Now, if you’re like me, you’ll be wondering what that ‘Hoo’ is all about (no?). Well, they don’t make it easy to find out; I reached page 18 of the guidebook before it was explained that Hoo comes from ‘haugh’ in Old English, which means a high place or the bluff of a hill. This makes perfect sense when you see where this property is located, high on the edge of a hill overlooking the Deben river valley, with the buildings of Woodbridge nestling along the banks of the river below, occasionally visible through the trees.

On arrival at the Hoo, I was given a very helpful map of the site and was advised to look at the exhibition first, then the burial grounds and finally Tranmer House. Not wanting to upset the kind volunteer, I agreed to do just that… as long as I could have lunch first! Once fed and watered, I headed into the exhibition hall, a new building full of information about the finds at Sutton Hoo. An introductory video is available to help to build the atmosphere and shows lots of beardy Anglo-Saxons going about their business, with a voiceover intermingling facts and readings. I could have done without some of the more flowery quotes but there were some interesting facts to be found amid the flora, including that we share 80-90% of our language with the Anglo-Saxons and that some of our eating habits also come from them, including our habit of spreading butter on bread.

To sum up the history of the Sutton Hoo burial mounds as best I can, some of them were apparently looted in the 16th century, while in 1860 several other mounds were opened up, including one of the ship graves; little was recorded about any finds on either of these occasions. It was in 1939 that the site’s most important discovery was made, when the other ship grave was uncovered and a number of gold and garnet items were found below the ship itself, only the outline of which was found as the wood had rotted away leaving only the impression of planks. While the dead man’s possessions were recovered, the dead man himself was not, the only signs of the presence of a body being in the chemical signatures in the soil. (See, this is why I don’t like ancient history… I have a very good imagination but still… call me greedy, but I want more than just chemical signatures).

Also in the grave were the fragments of an iron helmet, reconstructions of which can be seen in the exhibition. Sutton Hoo is certainly very proud of this helmet as it features on all their signage and merchandise, while short talks are given in the exhibition so you can handle a replica and see how ornate it would have been. I listened in to one of these talks and found the most interesting fact to be the presence of garnets in the eyebrow piece on one side and not the other. This was because in battle the red stone would shine on one side to look like an eye and would make the enemy believe that they were facing Woden, a Pagan one-eyed God.

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From the helmet and the other items found in the ship grave, it is thought that the man buried there was a man of some importance (although surely the fact that he was buried with his ship was a big enough sign!). But was it Raedwald? Who knows?

The archaeology has been ongoing at Sutton Hoo since 1939, although the war interrupted things and it was 25 years before digging resumed. Other interesting finds over the years include a warrior and his horse, which was sacrificed to be buried with its master (at least I assume it was that way round!). There were also later signs of several executed bodies. Sutton Hoo has certainly seen it all and it may well have more to offer from future digs.

The Treasury room within the exhibition holds replicas of some of the key finds from 1939, although the actual objects were donated to the British Museum by the then owner of the site, Edith Pretty (who sounds like an absolutely delightful lady, just see what a nice name can do).

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Leaving the exhibition, I headed off to the burial grounds, a very pleasant walk with beautiful views of the Deben valley. My visit was on one of the hottest days of the year so I was glad of the tree cover for the first part of the walk. Then a very helpful couple coming the other way told me to turn right when I got to the gate out of the woods (next to the Dog Park, complete with P for parking signs). This would lead me to the viewing platform a lot more quickly than the directed path, which sends you all the way round the site. Some might prefer the longer walk but the only thing to see is a field of grassy mounds and a pig farm so in 30 degree heat, I opted for the shorter route.

Despite the heat, it was still blowing a hoolie up on the bluff (Sutton Hoolie? Sorry, couldn’t resist). I’m not sure if this is the norm but be prepared. The viewing platform includes a board outlining which mound is which but I would say the only reason to go out to the mounds is for the pleasant walk and the views. After all, whatever once lay beneath them, grassy mounds are grassy mounds. What struck me most about the site from a practical point of view was how far the undertakers – or whatever they may have been called in 625 AD – had to drag the boat. The river seems to be quite some way away at the bottom of the hill. That’s what I call long haul. Maybe this guy really was a king after all.

There is a wheeled shepherd’s hut next to the viewing platform to indicate the type of hut the 1939 archaeologist Basil Brown might have used. Coincidentally, that’s my second shepherd’s hut in three visits as there was one at Max Gate too. I wonder if I will I see another one throughout the whole of the rest of this challenge?

Heading back to Tranmer House, home of Edith Pretty when the ship grave was uncovered, I passed a guided tour coming to the burial grounds. There is an added fee for this hour-long tour and I decided against it considering the heat (and the fact that, to me, a mound is a mound!) I saw no one else except a squirrel and a gentleman in a mobility scooter before getting back to Tranmer House.

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This is set up as it would have been in Edith Pretty’s time, with three rooms open to the public. It’s a lovely house, with oak panelled walls and ornate plaster ceilings and cornices. There is a piano that visitors can play in the drawing room and it is fairly informal so you can sit in any chair in the house (with the exception of a rather fragile chaise longue). Beyond the flitting house martins outside the sitting room window, I could see the largest burial mound in the distance so the burial grounds would have been often in the residents’ minds. It was thought that Edith Pretty’s interest in spiritualism prompted her decision to open the mounds, while there is another story that a friend of hers saw a ghostly figure at the site.

Interesting finds in the house included a 1934 book called The Happy Housewife (which made me giggle, although I should probably have taken at least some note of its advice) and the holes that pepper the oak panelling in the drawing room – not woodworm apparently but an indication of where the family dartboard once hung!

I made a quick visit to the secondhand bookshop in the old stable block and then stopped at the restaurant and shop to buy a bottle of water (it really was a hot one) and a fridge magnet. I admit I’ve given in as this seems to be the current memento of choice; it would appear that bookmarks have had their day (curse these dratted e-readers). Then I headed off. Once back on the main road away from the site, I saw the gentleman in the mobility scooter coming up the hill back towards the drive. I have no idea how he got out there in the time available since I last saw him. So maybe it is not just the ghost of King Raedwald that haunts Sutton Hoo but also the ghosts of visitors past.

Highlights: Walk to the burial grounds with views of Deben valley

Refreshments: Cheddar Cheese with Mixed Leaves sandwich, Maple & Pecan traybake, Apple & Raspberry juice drink from an NT-owned estate in the Cotswolds

Purchase(s): Guidebook, fridge magnet, ‘The Ambassadors’ by Henry James

Companion(s): None

PS: Sunday 11 August, 2o13: During a recent visit to London, I managed to squeeze in a visit to the British Museum so I tracked down the Sutton Hoo finds for a look at the original items. They’re given a lot of attention at the museum, which was nice to see, and are presented in an interesting way (e.g. the shield decorations are presented on a fake shield to show how they would have appeared). An interesting supplement to my Sutton Hoo experience.

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