The Lowland distillery’s new facility features a gallery, gift shop and tasting bar.
As the clouds of war darkened over Europe in 1938, the story behind a series of mounds in the Suffolk countryside can’t have seemed hugely significant to the world at large. But they bugged Mrs Edith Pretty, who owned the land across the River Deben from the town of Woodbridge, so she called in local archaeologist Basil Brown.
What Brown discovered the following year – in a race against time as the inevitability of conflict grew – was one of the most dramatic archaeological finds in the history of the British Isles: the 7th-century ship burial of a man believed to be the Anglo-Saxon King Rædwald, complete with an array of treasures, including his helmet, shield and gold belt buckle.
In the years since, these unprepossessing grassy bumps have been further investigated, with a dig in 1991 uncovering a warrior buried alongside his horse and a number of artefacts, including a sword and a comb.
Beyond the immediate appeal of the ship and the treasures themselves, the finds transformed historians’ understanding of a mysterious era in British history. In the words of the National Trust, which owns the site, a period previously viewed as being ‘dark and insular’ was now revealed to be ‘cultured, sophisticated and vibrant’.
Face of the past: A replica sculpture of the helmet discovered at Sutton Hoo
It’s a dramatic and inspirational story but, until now, visitors to the site might have been forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. ‘The word “underwhelming” was used quite a lot,’ conceded Mike Hopwood, National Trust visitor experience project manager, talking to The Guardian newspaper.
‘There was a sense that, no matter how much you read that this was a really important place, when you stood at the site there wasn’t enough to give a connection. “Ok, I have seen some lumps in the ground, but I don’t really understand why I should be so excited.”’
A raft of changes at Sutton Hoo, unveiled this week, should put an end to this sense of ‘meh’. Visitors are confronted by a full-size, 27 metre-long sculpture of the burial ship in the visitor centre courtyard; a new route follows the likely path taken by the ship as it was hauled uphill from the River Deben to its – and its king’s – final resting-place.
In Tranmer House, the former home of Mrs Pretty, displays, recordings, projections, photographs, and diary and newspaper extracts aim to recapture the excitement of the dig itself, and the small moments – such as the unearthing of the first ship’s rivet – that made Brown’s heart beat faster in the realisation that something special lurked in the Suffolk soil.
In the main exhibition hall, there are beautifully made replicas of the main treasures (now in the British Museum in London), while films, audio clips and displays explore Anglo-Saxon culture. This autumn, a 17m-high observation tower will enable visitors to gain an enhanced perspective of those bumps and the landscape surrounding them.
Unprepossessing bumps: Visitors to Sutton Hoo were previously left feeling ‘underwhelmed’
The realisation for the National Trust with Sutton Hoo was that you need more than a compelling story if you’re expecting people to journey to a relatively obscure part of the East Anglian coast (40% of visitors travel for more than two hours to reach Sutton Hoo).
In this respect, there’s an obvious correlation with whisky tourism. New city distilleries and the forthcoming Johnnie Walker Experience benefit from their urban locations, but the vast majority of malt whisky distilleries are in rural locations that are, by comparison, relatively inaccessible. For all but the true whisky enthusiast, some shiny copper, a few dusty casks and a free dram just aren’t enough to justify the detour.
Money is only part of the answer here. The Sutton Hoo transformation is costing £4 million, but it’s the philosophical approach which holds the key to the venture’s future success – the recognition that this special place needs to connect with people on a more visceral level.
The hundreds of millions of pounds being spent on whisky tourism in Scotland (and elsewhere) can pay for all manner of flashing lights, whistles and bells, which can in turn engage the five senses of the visitor; but it is only by connecting with people on an emotional level that distillers can truly inspire them, and create a bond between whisky and drinker that endures long after they have returned home.
Visual aid: Changes at Sutton Hoo include this full-size sculpture of the ship
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