House of mys­ter­ies

Hid­den trea­sures lie in the humble flint cot­tages of mar­ket town Milden­hall. But are they all real? And just who was the mys­te­ri­ous mus­cle-man un­cov­ered with his horse nearby? Lind­say Want can’t wait to solve the puz­zles

EADT Suffolk - - Inside -

Lind­say Want en­joys an Easter hol­i­day treat at Milden­hall Mu­seum

HURRAH! It’s Easter hol­i­day time, and what bet­ter Suf­folk hori­zons to head for than that land of Pur­ple Milk-vetch and bun­nies – the Brecks. The for­mer home of the largest con­cen­tra­tion of rab­bit colonies in the whole of Bri­tain is a mag­nif­i­cent for­est and heath­land patch for en­joy­ing the great out­doors, and for spot­ting sea­sonal wildlife, from cute lit­tle ‘coneys’ to those weird bugeyed birdies that sound like a six­ties’ pop group - the stone curlews. Burrow through the an­cient land­scape of Knet­tishall Heath to track down Bronze Age bar­rows, won­der as you wan­der around the lumps and bumps of ‘Grimes Graves’, stride out on the ‘War­rener’s Walk’ through Milden­hall Woods to hap­pen upon the 15th cen­tury ru­ins of a war­rener’s lodge. Around every cor­ner awaits some sort of dis­cov­ery or puz­zle, a his­tory-mys­tery or clue.

But when it comes to em­bark­ing on great lit­tle Breck­land ad­ven­tures, there’s one won­der­fully free, all-weather spot that’s enough to keep any num­ber of cu­ri­ous young de­tec­tives - not to men­tion Un­cle Quentin, Aunt Fanny or other at­ten­dant rel­a­tives, in­clud­ing Un­cle Tom Cob­bly (who­ever he is) and all oc­cu­pied for hours. Meet the mar­vel­lous, mod­ern Milden­hall Mu­seum. You’ll dis­cover it keep­ing a low pro­file on King’s Street, dis­guised in a humble, his­toric flint-cot­tage home and qui­etly blend­ing into the back­ground, amidst the hub­bub of su­per­mar­ket shop­pers and bustling mar­ket town car parks. An un­ex­pected find? Step in­side and the sur­prises just keep com­ing.


Through the door, a swift right turn brings you nose to ten­ta­cle with an­cient Breck­land an­ces­tors of the un­der­wa­ter kind. Large bi-valve beast­ies and gas­tropods, belem­nites and sponges, all firmly fos­silised like lit­tle time cap­sules, put on a dis­play of Suf­folk life more than 65 mil­lion years ago. Next up, sim­i­larly smart, well-lit ex­hi­bi­tion cases get to the point about Milden­hall’s ear­li­est hu­mans, with rows of sharp ar­row heads, worked flints and scrap­ers, part-pol­ished flint­stone axes, scythes, chis­els and bor­ers. ‘Can you spot a gen­uine flint tool?’ chal­lenges one pull-out draw, and that’s even be­fore you get hand­son. Here you can piece to­gether frag­ments of his­tory for your­self in the shape of a 6,000-year-old Milden­hall Ware pot, or get to real grips with Iron Age quern stones.

‘Sev­eral sets of pri­vate finds were later be­queathed – such as Syd­ney Ford’s im­por­tant ar­chae­o­log­i­cal col­lec­tion’

Be­yond ev­i­dence of the Isle­ham Hoard and shared clues about Bronze Age round­houses at nearby West Row, lis­ten­ing posts tell the story of lo­cal am­a­teur ar­chae­ol­o­gist, Lady Grace Briscoe of Lak­en­heath Hall. Re­tired den­tist and chair of Milden­hall Mu­seum Trustees, Stephanie Palmer, fills in the gaps. “Lady Briscoe and sev­eral lo­cal doc­tors were founder mem­bers of the orig­i­nal so­ci­ety which cre­ated the be­gin­nings of this mu­seum,” she ex­plains. “As part of the Fes­ti­val of Bri­tain cel­e­bra­tions in 1951, they staged a one-day only ex­hi­bi­tion of mainly ar­chae­o­log­i­cal and some nat­u­ral his­tory arte­facts. It proved a real suc­cess. The ‘mu­seum’ was given per­ma­nent space above the town hall and the col­lec­tion just grew and grew.“There’s a pause as due rev­er­ence is given to a glass-fronted ma­hogany cabi­net in the cor­ner.

“Sev­eral sets of pri­vate finds were later be­queathed – such as Syd­ney Ford’s im­por­tant ar­chae­o­log­i­cal col­lec­tion. The mu­seum moved to Mar­ket Place above a bank be­fore it even­tu­ally found a per­ma­nent home here in the 1980s.”


All that glit­ters is not nec­es­sar­ily gold, of course. It turns out that, al­though agri­cul­tural en­gi­neer Syd had a good eye for spot­ting an­cient tools, he wasn’t per­haps quite so sharp at in­ter­pret­ing other finds. It’s 1943, and when plough­man Gor­don Butcher un­earths a dull ‘me­tal’ dish near Milden­hall, Syd helps re­cover over 30 fur­ther items from the same site. To be fair, it’s wartime, with so many other things to worry about. The pieces are stuffed in a sack, deemed to be prob­a­bly lead or pewter. Work­men straighten out a few items and Syd pops them on his mantle­piece for good mea­sure. A mighty mantle­piece in­deed, when you think that one of the great dishes is well over two feet in di­am­e­ter and over a stone in weight.

Of course, it was all later dis­cov­ered to be 4th cen­tury Ro­man sil­ver­ware, the plat­ter dec­o­rated with stun­ning im­ages of Oceanus and sea mon­sters which can only make Milden­hall’s bra­chiopods and belem­nites ap­pear truly tame and re­ally quite cud­dly in com­par­i­son. And how th­ese glit­ter­ing prizes - the Milden­hall Trea­sure - now shine un­der the ex­pert light­ing of the mu­seum, each mas­sive piece a real stun­ner. Or should that be replica stun­ner? No mat­ter, the spec­ta­cle is truly awe­some and rea­son alone to pop in. But who did they be­long to? Who buried them at the fen edge and why?

It seems that the mys­te­ri­ous An­glo-Saxon and his horse, stretched out in a vast ad­ja­cent glass case, had lots to chew on - a tasty lamb din­ner for him and a bucket full of feed for a loyal steed, sac­ri­ficed so that horse and master might gal­lop away and get into the swing of the af­ter­life to­gether. But what were they do­ing un­der the base­ball pitch at RAF Lak­en­heath? Was this a rev­ered war­rior? The lav­ish grave goods and os­teoar­chae­ol­ogy sug­gest not. They all point to him be­ing a bit of a heavy­weight - a 5’ 10 mus­cu­lar chap in his mid-30s, hardly the sort you’d want to go pick­ing a bone with re­ally.

Up­stairs, all sorts of strange shov­els and scup­pits, fuel-turf cut­ters and mea­sur­ing ‘beck­ets’ line up to dig the dirt on the shrink­ing and drainage of the Fens. Why did the par­sons of Prick­wil­low have to get fit­ter over the course of a cen­tury? Here are dis­plays of by­gone Fen­land life like shep­herd­ing, thatch­ing and game-keep­ing. This is the place to spot the birdie, go fish­ing around and catch a tale or two of slip­pery lo­cal eels, or cut to the chase and dis­cover why bun­nies were such big busi­ness in the sandy heath­lands of the Brecks.

And then the mu­seum re­ally goes to town. There are shop fronts to peer into, pen­ny­far­things and per­am­bu­la­tors, a green rail­way bench and gas-lamps. By mem­o­ries from the work­house and the di­lap­i­dated old toll board re­call­ing the fares for Jude’s Ferry, a po­lice­man has aban­doned his bi­cy­cle - and his hel­met too. A mys­tery-in-the-mak­ing for sure, but there are sim­ply too many other tempt­ing dis­trac­tions - the gleam­ing elec­tric lan­tern and gad­gets in the pho­tog­ra­pher’s shop, the die-cast dinky cars and china-faced dolls in the dis­play cases, not to men­tion the ex­cit­ing dis­cov­ery that Mother­sole of Milden­hall used to man­u­fac­ture gin­ger beer and fizzy min­er­als lit­er­ally just around the cor­ner.

Yet surely more than just gin­ger beer bub­bles would have been flow­ing freely in Milden­hall back in 1934 to cel­e­brate a world event which re­ally put the town on the map. The Great Milden­hall to Mel­bourne Air Race saw a de Hav­il­land Comet cover 11,300 miles in just 72 hours, smash­ing the pre­vi­ous record of 8 days, 20 hours and 47 min­utes. But which craft tailed behind? Press the but­tons on the in­ter­ac­tive map and piece to­gether the story, be­fore mov­ing on to the life and times of Milden­hall at war and its fa­mous post-war USAF air­base where the Breck­land skies re­ally were the limit.


Back down­stairs, a room decked out with retro kitchen cab­i­nets, truly ‘vin­tage’ tof­fee tins, home to hairdry­ers, a phone and paraf­fin-filled lens TV. In the ad­ja­cent Vic­to­rian scullery, by the china pots and plat­ters, a more mod­ern TV screen saves weary legs the trou­ble of de­scend­ing into the depths of the cel­lar, yet con­vinces more ag­ile and cu­ri­ous ex­plor­ers to step into one last lit­tle ad­ven­ture. For down there, next to a car­pen­ter’s work­bench full of tools, all the mys­te­ri­ous para­pher­na­lia of an old dairy, from but­ter-churns to milk­ing stools, sim­ply pale into in­signif­i­cance along­side the se­crets stashed away in an of­fi­cial time­cap­sule. Lit­tle snap­shots of Milden­hall life set in stone for years to come, just like those lit­tle belem­nite fos­sils.

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