The National Trust visitor centre at one of Britain’s prime historical sites has attracted thousands of tourists – which is bad news, says Giles Worsley
Sutton Hoo is one of those names that send shivers down the spine. Who has seen the enigmatic warrior’s helmet with its sinister eye sockets – discovered there and now kept in the British Museum – and not wanted to know more of its owner?
There is something ineffably romantic about the idea of this silent group of burial mounds above a creek on the Suffolk coast, in one of which lay a Dark Age ship loaded with treasure until it was dug up just before the Second World War. So it was with considerable excitement that I set off to visit Sutton Hoo, drawn by the new visitor centre designed by those admirably sensitive architects Van Heyningen and Haward.
Earthwork remains are among of England’s most haunting monuments. Cathedrals and castles are wonderful, of course, but there is something particularly moving about Avebury or Maiden Castle or the bleak lines of the Wansdyke, striding its way across Wiltshire. Sutton Hoo should have the same numinous character. Sadly, as I soon discovered when I arrived, if it once did it no longer does. Thanks to £3.6m of lottery money, it is now just an ace visitor centre with some nice bumps thrown in…”