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
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.
A FISH OUT OF WATER?
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.”
THE MILDENHALL HOARD
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.
THE SECRETS IN THE CELLAR
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.