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Centre adds sparkle to Sutton Hoo

PUBLISHED: 15:49 29 August 2001 | UPDATED: 10:28 03 March 2010

SUTTON HOO is set for its new lease of life early next year, thanks to a £6 million development.

Here, in the last part of our special series, Debbie Watson looks ahead at what visitors can expect from the site of Suffolk's remarkable find.

SUTTON HOO is set for its new lease of life early next year, thanks to a £6 million development.

Here, in the last part of our special series, Debbie Watson looks ahead at what visitors can expect from the site of Suffolk's remarkable find.

FOR years, Sutton Hoo has left its visitors sorely disappointed.

In an expanse of open land, a series of mounds lie overlooking the towns of Melton and Woodbridge.

And, even with the knowledge of their remarkable historic story, they make a truly unlikely tourist attraction.

It is little wonder that so few visitors have made their way along the winding paths that lead to the central focal-point.

It is little wonder that the National Trust is now so keen to turn around the potential of this site altogether.

"We have something very special here in Suffolk, and we should be doing our absolute best to make people aware of it," said National Trust archaeologist, Angus Wainwright.

"For too many years we have just expected people to come along and to be interested enough to want to walk around the mounds and hear the brief detail of how they came to be.

"Now we realise that that is not enough. We are doing something to set the record straight at long last."

At a cost of around £6 million, the Sutton Hoo burial site is now in the latter stages of being turned into a huge visitor attraction.

Back in 1997 the site was handed to the National Trust by the Tranmer Trust. Since then, the organisation has been working tirelessly to create a project of great public interest.

Just 500 metres from those 18 mounds, work is under way on a vast exhibition centre, reception building, tea room, an audio-visual theatre, and a fully equipped lecture hall.

It is a massive step in the story of Sutton Hoo, and a project which has thoroughly excited the archaeologists, researchers and visitors who have all come to appreciate the 'magic' in this unique burial site.

"It has often been really disappointing for the people that come here," said Angus.

"They have heard about the great finds, the royal background, and the amazing discoveries, so quite rightly they have expected to find a lot here at the actual site."

Instead, tourists and scholars have literally been guided around the mounds by enthusiastic members of the Sutton Hoo Society.

They have made their way through the woodland, expecting great sights, but only to feel let-down by the final picture.

On average around 3,000 people make the visit every year to the 230-acre site. On weekends and Bank Holidays, they have arrived full of expectation – but often they have left disappointed.

With the new centre in place, Angus believes that this visitor number will rapidly increase to some 50,000 a year.

"It isn't that people are not interested in the site – in fact, that could not be further from the truth.

"They want to find out as much as possible, and just a short walk around the land has not been enough to get visitors to appreciate the magic."

Beside the actual mounds – the place of the 1939 excavation which revealed the extravagant burial of the man believed to be King Raedwald – will now stand a special viewing platform, aimed at encouraging people to survey the vast regal cemetery.

Even the home of the late Mrs Pretty will come into play as part of the historic tribute.

The white fifteen-bedroom mansion was once the very building from which Mrs Edith Pretty had curiously looked out upon the mounds.

Legend dictates that she had been intrigued by the curvaceous mounds, and that she had called an excavation at the site after a spiritualist friend reported seeing visions of ghostly men with spears.

In 1942 Mrs Pretty passed away, and her family later moved from the home.

It was subsequently bought in 1972 for the sum of £322,000 by Ipswich businessman, Mr Leslie Tranmer.

"On the death of Mrs Tranmer, a trust was created in her name. Then, sometime later, we were approached, and told that the house was to be given to us as a gift," explained Angus.

"It was exceptionally generous, and gave us a great deal of scope to plan for the future of the burial ground as an historic tribute to the region.

"The only recommendation, and one which we have kept to in respect of the trustees, was that the house be used for educational purposes."

In keeping with that request, the downstairs of the huge house is now to contain a number of fully equipped classrooms ideal for school groups, and for visiting scholars.

The remaining part of the property, an expansive floor of bedrooms, is to be turned into 'plush' holiday flats which can then be used as an idyllic base by visitors to East Anglia.

There is little doubt that this aspect of the development will be a financial winner for the National Trust, but Angus stresses that the entire project is being viewed as a subtle and important way of enhancing the site's profile nation-wide.

He says the work will not disrupt the magical essence of Raedwald's great story.

"Obviously there are parts of the development which will provide us with much-needed income, but we would assure anyone that the work has been very carefully planned," he said.

"It will stay very in-keeping with the historical base of the site, and we don't want anything to disrupt that."

Indeed, the visitor centre is already taking shape and suggests a very respectful project.

Haymills has worked closely with the National Trust to maintain a highly appropriate image for the entire project, and further plans suggest that visitors will not be left disappointed by the changes they will soon see.

The original stable block of the Pretty's property is currently being lovingly turned into further conference facilities, while alongside it, an activities yard is nearing its completion.

It is this yard which looks likely to become the subject of great inspiration and imagination over the coming weeks.

Plans are under way to have men and women demonstrating period crafts, and to entertain visitors in full period costume.

Beyond this, it is also eventually hoped that work may begin on a full reconstruction of the Raedwald burial ship – which might then be launched on the River Deben at a later date.

"That is a project we would all really love to see," said Angus. "It would be something that I can imagine everyone getting very involved in, and we just have to go about raising the funds to make it happen.

"It is a big ambition and we would like to begin it next year – but first we need around £300,000 before we can even think about it."

In the meantime, there are plenty more ongoing and ambitious projects to keep the Sutton Hoo development team busy.

A thorough reconstruction of the burial chamber is now being painstakingly created within one of the exhibition rooms, having been put in place as part of a 3.5 ton reconstruction. Each aspect of the chamber and its contents are being carefully made in the delicate manner of seventh century crafts.

"We have craft specialists using Anglo Saxon techniques, and period tools, to create objects as close to the real thing as possible," said Angus.

"It takes a lot of time, care and research, but it is well worth doing every aspect of this project properly."

By March 2002 it is expected that this development will be entirely ready to open its doors.

With films to see, talks to hear, and even some original artefacts to view, this exhibition will be every bit worth the wait.

It is exactly what the people of Suffolk have deserved to be boasting for years.

It is exactly what the world's visitors have long been expecting.

Finally, after so much time, emotion, and adoration, Sutton Hoo is at last coming in to its own.

This is the ultimate tribute to the most remarkable true-life story of East Anglian history.

Weblinks:

nSutton Hoo's new centre is due to open in March 2002.

nWalks through the estate will also be available to the public for the first time.

nThe development project had come about at a cost of almost £6 million. nAlmost £4 million was awarded to the project with a generous National Lottery grant.

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