Peeling back the past in Abbot’s Hall

We’ve got the builder’s in. Over 12 months since we got our stage two pass from the Heritage Lottery Fund, construction on the Abbots’ Hall project is under way. The building works will see restoration  of the Hall, the complete renovation of the derelict Crowe Street Cottages and the re-erection of the Bury St Edmunds Settling House.

The pace of work is impressive and our builders, Haymills a firm based in Stowmarket for nearly 100 years have approached the works with gusto. Haymills were recently bought by the huge, French based Vinci group. On a recent trip to Paris I noticed that Vinci were also building the new Louis Vitton Centre for the Environment in the Bois de Boulogne, MEAL is keeping some notable company.

One month in, the construction phase has unearthed some curious discoveries. A well was found to the south of the house. Nothing suggested its being… except the inscription in the wall no-one noticed, saying “well 8 feet”.

More intriguingly excavations for a platform lift inside what was the butler’s pantry exposed some very early brickwork possibly dating from the 16th Century. Whilst the current house dates from 1709, we know that there was an earlier high status building on the site but are not quite sure where. This brickwork provides us with tantalising clues. Either the current Abbot’s Hall was built on top of an earlier house or the bricks were moved from the original building close by. The work is not only enabling us to open up a private dwelling to the public for the first time but also helping to add missing pieces to the history of the estate.

Upstairs in what was my old office, the builders have discovered two hidden doors which led to a dressing closet. The doors looked to have been reused from elsewhere and cut to fit within the original 18th century panelling. Sometime in the 1950s the panels and the doors were built over with plasterboard and the gaps filled in with sawdust. We plan to re-instate the original doorway as part of a new temporary exhibition gallery.

Even the smallest object or inscription is a window on the past. Old newspaper’s used as wall paper lining, help us date when previous work  was carried out. Some graffiti uncovered as we took down later partition walls shows that Tom, a very active tea boy was at work in the house in the 1940s. This week a ‘time capsule’ was discovered in  a floor void. Stuffed in a glass bottle were newspapers, and objects dating from around 1905, the time the West wing of Abbot’s Hall was built.

These discoveries reinforce the sense of stewardship that we at the museum feel towards the house.  The building has witnessed many lives as it changed owners or the taste of the occupants altered. We hope that when Abbot’s Hall opens this time next year the public will see that we have preserved the integrity of the house as a home as well as its status as Stowmarket’s newest public building.

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