The place I call home, aside from Southampton, is Bedford, the county town of Bedfordshire.
Situated about 55 miles north of London, or 20 miles directly north of Luton, the town’s not known as a tourist destination. The Council’s decision to close the tourist office’s own premises and its relative proximity to London, Cambridge and the roundabout-filled behemoth that is Milton Keynes, probably haven’t helped.
However, this town of approximately 100,000 people can still surprise you with the delights it has to offer.
One notable town feature is that the fourth-longest river in the UK, the River Ouse, runs through it. The river once marked the border between Wessex on one side and Danelaw, the kingdom of Vikings, on the other. Legend also says that the eighth-century King Offa of Mercia is buried at some point along or now in the Ouse at Bedford, possibly with a huge treasure.
Today, the riverside or embankment, is probably the part of town most residents take greatest pride in. There’s a reason why I tend to return to my house from town the longer route back via the embankment and that’s just how wonderfully picturesque it is.
Flanked by Willow or Plane trees for much of its 1.4 mile length, the embankment’s gorgeous in the summer with numerous aquatic fowl and just asking to be photographed on a sunny day with the water reflecting the blue skies above.
Equally enjoyable and wildlife friendly is Priory Country Park, within easy walking distance from the embankment. Generally speaking, the town itself is quite green, while it doesn’t take long to end up in quiet villages of rural Bedfordshire complete with countryside walks, scenic cycling routes and traditional old English pubs.
Westwards and effectively at the town centre on the northern embankment side are the scant remains of Bedford Castle. Said to have been formidable back in early medieval times, all that remains today are a few wall parts and a mound, which affords great views of the riverside and the 21st century Bedford medieval map mosaic below.
The main reason for the limited castle remains today dates back to an order by King Henry III in 1224. Following a successful, but expensive siege against a troublesome baron and his supporters, he ordered the castle, or ‘nursery of sedition’ as a Tudor chronicler put it, be demolished.
Events in Bedford
Although only biannual, it’s worth mentioning the River Festival, full of stalls, activities, food outlets, local musicians and usually a fly past by the Red Arrows. Due to be held on 14-15 July 2018, the 2016 edition saw over 250,000 spectators, so it’s quite a large free festival! Meanwhile, held annually in August is the three-day Bedford in the Park festival, last year headlined by Kaiser Chiefs and this year by Jess Glynne.
For sport fans, are the more regular Bedford Rugby Club home games, usually held every other Saturday from mid-September to late-April. Located less than 10 minutes stroll from the High Street, crowds for the high-flying second division rugby club average over 2,500.
Bedford’s largest arts venue is the Corn Exchange, its entrance facing the town square. Future acts include the comedian Henning Wehn, Jason Donovan and the Russian National Ballet performing The Nutcracker.
Several other smaller performance art venues exist in the town, the most noteworthy being Esquires, whose small main stage has been graced over the years by the likes of Wolf Alice, Coldplay and Franz Ferdinand.
Due to Bedford being a market town, virtually every Wednesday and Saturday in the main town square, is a vibrant, open market, overlooked by a statue of the pensive-looking 18th century prison reformer John Howard.
Finally, not so much an event but an experience, are the buzzing of car horns and general party atmosphere in the town during international football championships when Italy win. An estimated 30% of town residents are part Italian, granting the town at times a ‘Piccola Italia’ feel.
For a rainy day…
If you’re feeling historic, St Paul’s Church in the town square is worth a visit, while The Higgins is the modern and fantastic free town museum. Other smaller, summer town centre museums of interest include the John Bunyan Museum, charting the life of the Pilgrim’s Progress author, and the Panacea Museum, exploring a mysterious Christian millenarian group, who resided in Bedford from the early 20th century until 2012.
Following the recent completion of a riverside development, the town’s now serviced by two cinemas, one right in the town centre. The High Street, a small pedestrianised area and the Harpur Shopping Centre form the nucleus of Bedford shopping opportunities, providing a serviceable range.
Although the immediate surroundings of the bus and train stations are less than welcoming and it’ll never top a tourist destination list, Bedford has its charms. In the embankment, it arguably boasts one of the most beautiful town centre areas in England, while a range of events and cultural sites are to be sampled too.
So why not give Bedford a try sometime?