Significant Stories: The Athenaeum

By poppy millett -


On spending an evening at The Athenaeum, you’d be forgiven for wishing you could turn back time - from the steps of the portico to the chandeliered ceilings, remnants of a rich and fascinating history are evident at every turn. This Grade I listed building has hundreds of years of spectacular entertaining under its belt, which means they really knows how to throw a party. A certified gem in the heart of Bury St Edmunds, The Athenaeum is an enduring favourite with locals and visitors alike… And we’re enchanted by this venue too. 

This month, we’ve delved into the history books to bring you some of The Athenaeum’s most dazzling moments through the ages. 


The Athenaeum was originally called ‘The Assembly Rooms’, and was given its Latin moniker in 1854. The word ‘Athenaeum’ means ‘an institution for literary or scientific study’, and for many years speakers were invited to give lectures or readings. Honourable guests to the venue include none other than Charles Dickens, who visited in 1861 to read from his novel, David Copperfield. 

Checkmate on the dancefloor

The Athenaeum was proudly purpose-built for the town’s local people. Tales of glittering societal events have accompanied the venue ever since. These include everything you can think of. Competitive chess matches. Antiques fairs. Club balls. Society dances. You name it; The Athenaeum has probably hosted it. Today, with an iconic Christmas ball every winter, soirées, receptions and corporate events on the agenda all year round, every host finds a home in The Athenaeum. 


Stories written in the stars

An astronomical observatory crowns the building, which dates all the way back to 1958. Sir James Airy, the royal astronomer of the day, was in the middle of delivering a lecture at The Athenaeum. As he spoke, a comet known as ‘Donati’s comet’ happened to appear in the sky. The comet was one of the brightest of the century, and so the event became legend overnight. The story inspired so many that it was decided The Athenaeum should have its very own observatory, complete with a telescope handpicked by Airy himself. 

The Athenaeum has looked almost the same - give or take a portico or two - since the early 19th century. The sweeping views over Angel Hill and Suffolk’s fields beyond, the charming Georgian ballroom and much of the iconic décor are enjoyed today exactly as they were two hundred years ago. 


As The Athenaeum continues to open its doors for private functions and occasions, every memory made is all the richer for the centuries of discovery and celebration in this building. It’s not often you get to conduct a presentation in the same room as Charles Dickens anyway…


For more information on The Athenaeum and it's upcoming events, click here.

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