East of England special: Trail Of The Unexpected, St Edmundsbury Cathedral

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The Independent Travel

This is the head of Edmund, King of East Anglia, who was killed by Danes in 869. Little is known about Edmund, but legend has it his death was so brutal that his head was severed from his body. Both were guarded by a wolf, whose cries attracted his supporters; the head and body were joined back together and he was taken away for burial.

Edmund's remains were brought to Bury St Edmunds some 30 years after his death, and a shrine built to house them. A Benedictine abbey was built around the shrine, the dead king became England's patron saint, and his shrine a major place of pilgrimage.

The abbey is now in ruins, although pillars and a window frame still stand. The four largest pillars would have supported the central tower, and their bulk hints at its vast size. Pilgrims visiting the shrine were received in the church of St James, to the west of the abbey church and dwarfed by it; the church of St Mary, also within the grounds, was where locals worshipped.

Bury St Edmunds Abbey was immensely powerful, one of the richest in the country, and outside the control of any bishop. There had been an unsuccessful attempt by the Bishop of East Anglia to establish his cathedral there, and Henry VIII considered creating a new bishopric in the town, only to abandon the plan when he dissolved the monasteries. The Abbey was stripped of its riches and sold off, but St James and St Mary survived.

Nearly 400 years later Bury was given a bishop, when the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich was created; and with the abbey church in ruins, a potential cathedral had to be found. The choice seems to have come down to an accident of geography. St Mary's church, lavishly decorated and with impeccable royal credentials, sits at the corner of two main roads, with little room for expansion; and so St James's was chosen. A building programme began, turning the church into the only unfinished cathedral in Britain, with a stump instead of a tower.

Construction work has continued for more than half a century, following the plans of cathedral architect Stephen Dykes Bower. A bequest from Dykes Bower and money from the Millennium Commission has allowed for the completion of the building, adding a north transept containing two new chapels and, crucially, a tower.

With the removal a few weeks ago of some 25 miles of scaffolding, the cathedral is all but completed and the new tower has been revealed. It may not be as large as the one on the old Abbey church, but it has changed the skyline of Bury. Visible from all over the town, it is the subject of much enthusiastic local comment. Many people can't believe they finally have a tower, others admire the way it looks as if it has been there forever. Once again, the main church of Bury St Edmunds stands out like a beacon against the flatness of the surrounding countryside, welcoming pilgrims to England's newest cathedral building.

St Edmundsbury Cathedral (01284 754933; www.stedscathedral.co.uk) open 7.30am-6pm daily. Admission free.

The Tourist Information Centre at 6 Angel Hill (01284 764667; www.burystedmundstourism.co.uk) open 9.30am-5.30pm Monday to Saturday, 10am-3pm on Sunday, 10am-4pm Monday to Saturday between November and Easter.