Somewhere in England: Bedford, a quiet success

In praise of ordinary places logoThere are few pleasures like exploring an unfamiliar town on foot for the first time. A new series of posts on this website, In Praise of Ordinary Places, will look at Middle England towns that are overlooked by tourists (Oxford, Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon need not apply). This is the antidote to Crap Towns. I’ll speak as I find and won’t overlook ugliness, tackiness and misery. But I’ll also celebrate authenticity, unexpected surprises, and the ordinariness of places that rarely feature in Best Places to Live contests. First up: Bedford.

Alfred Waterhouse’s Shire Hall and the spire of St Paul’s church

Donald Trump lives in Bedford.

Bedford NY that is, until he moved into the White House in January (his neighbours there include actors Chevy Chase, Glenn Close, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds, Bruce Willis, Kate and Rooney Mara and the designer Ralph Lauren).

In the US there are more than a dozen Bedfords, two of them in New York state. As well as Trump’s swanky outlying suburb, 40 miles north of Manhattan, NYC itself has Bedford Stuyvesant, a traditionally African-American district of Brooklyn, now being rapidly gentrified. The Bedford is one of Chicago’s most exclusive cocktail bars. It’s a Wonderful Life was set in the fictional town of Bedford Falls.

Just about every large western city has a suburb called Bedford, and Bedford Hotels – in Brighton, London, Sidmouth, Tavistock, Blackpool, Brussels, South Africa – are almost as ubiquitous as the Hotel Bristol. Bedford is a brand name that crops up on just about everything – a millennial blog template, a guitar made in Sheffield, an American wine importer, a Californian clothing retailer, a 1960s television set and a new e-cigarette brand, Bedford Slims. From the 1930s to the 90s Bedford was a British truckmaker, later renamed Vauxhall by its owner General Motors (even Vauxhall’s Griffin logo has its origins in Bedfordshire: it is derived from the heraldic crest of Falkes de Breauté, who was granted the Manor of Luton by King John, and whose London home Fulk’s Hall lent its name to the district of Vauxhall).

London has the name Bedford all over it. Bedford is one of only 24 surviving British dukedoms, a Whig dynasty that’s produced Lord John Russell (Prime Minister twice in the mid-19th century) and the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Today the 15th Duke of Bedford, Andrew Russell, still owns a large chunk of Bloomsbury and is worth an estimated £520m (which will surely only grow, thanks to the new Crossrail station being built by Centre Point). Until 1913 the Russells owned large parts of Covent Garden as well as Bloomsbury, and many of their street names can be traced back to the dukedom.

There’s some dross, but most postwar development in Bedford has benefitted the town. Clockwise from top right: facade detail that resemble knobs on a 1950s transistor radio, The Higgins, a reclad block off Greyfriars, the airy bus station, and Castle Quay

Bedford Street, just off the Strand, is home to two key London landmarks: the Lady magazine’s offices and St Paul’s, the actors’ church. In Bloomsbury the Bedford Estate still owns the freehold of Russell Square, Tavistock Square (Marquess of Tavistock is a courtesy title given to the eldest son of the Duke of Bedford), and Bedford Square. The latter, one of London’s most complete 18th-century squares, is home to the Architectural Association, publisher Bloomsbury, one of London’s flashiest literary agents – Ed Victor – and formerly Bedford College, founded in 1849 as the first higher education college for the education of women (now merged with Royal Holloway). Not far away are Woburn Square, Woburn Place, and Bedford Row (next to Gray’s Inn and full of barristers’ chambers), one of London’s most complete 18th-century streets.

Further west Bedford Park is the world’s oldest garden suburb, developed by Norman Shaw from the 1870s onwards (its name has no connection  to the Duchy: the Bedford name was assumed by a local landowner, John Tubbs, in the 1790s). In Balham the Bedford Arms is one of south London’s best known music venues (the Russells get about a bit: the 2nd Duke married a wealthy heiress from nearby Streatham in the 1690s).

A few years ago I went to the Georgian splendour of the Bedford Estates’ offices on Montague Street, round the corner from the British Museum, to discuss their redevelopment of Time Out magazine’s old offices on Tottenham Court Road (I was being paid to win over the NIMBIES in an adjacent mansion block). The conjunction of ancient and modern was like something out of a Anthony Powell novel: the Estates’ steward, a rosy-faced old man with a gammy leg, told me conspiratorially that the dowager duchess (widow of the 14th Duke) was taking a close interest.



Much of old Bedford is a blend of Limestone and brick, reflecting the local geology

Back in Bedfordshire Woburn, the family seat a dozen miles south-west of Bedford, is a former Cistercian abbey with one of the finest private art collections, and nowadays one of the biggest safari parks, in Britain. It was first opened to the public in the 1950s by John Ian Russell, the dapper 13th Duke, known in his heyday as the best-dressed man in Britain and later a tax exile in Monaco (watch this hilarious film about how he used to get dressed in just 90 seconds).

Like the 13th Duke himself, the Bedford name evokes refinement, understated sophistication, and above all Englishness. But what about the town itself?

On the river Ouse 60 miles north of London, the original Bedford is a lot less known than many of its offspring (most Londoners know it only as the northern terminus of Thameslink trains).  It’s not a huge town. Bedford Borough has a population of 166,000, but this includes the adjacent town of Kempston and a large rural hinterland: Bedford itself has only about 100,000 people.


One of the shopfronts undergoing restoration on the High Street

Today it’s only a county town for ceremonial purposes: Bedfordshire was divided into three unitary authorities in 2009 and its county council was abolished. And Bedford lacks the trappings of most county towns: no cathedral, no ancient university (the University of Bedfordshire, founded in 2006, has a campus on the edge of town but its main site is at Luton), no professional football club, and no proper theatre (its Civic Theatre closed in 2012, and the Corn Exchange mainly hosts comedy, tribute bands and amateur orchestras).

No national institution of any note is based here (the Graphical, Paper and Media Union’s HQ is no longer here since the union merged with the T&G in 2004). Until recently the town’s Shire Hall, designed by Alfred Waterhouse, was a magistrates’ court but it’s lost that as well: magistrates now sit in Luton, 20 miles away. Bedford doesn’t even have its own postcode (it falls in the MK postcode area, thanks to the upstart Milton Keynes). The town’s glissando dialling code – 01234 – is scant consolation.


The Ouse is a surprisingly wide river with rowers, swans and boathouses

Why then do I love the town? Despite its homely name and proximity to London (St Pancras is only 39 minutes away by train), Bedford is more than just a commuter dormitory (and its name has nothing to do with beds – it probably derives from a Saxon chief called Beda). Bedford may not have an ancient university but it is very ancient nonetheless: there was probably a ford across the Ouse here in Roman times. Bedford was a Danish Burh by the tenth century, got a market charter from Henry II in 1166, and returned two Members of Parliament from 1265 onwards.

Bedford’s street pattern is still largely the intimate grid laid out by the Danes more than a thousand years ago. It isn’t all beautiful, and there isn’t any truly great architecture, but it’s wonderfully dense and varied: lots of brick of course, but not too much. Even the brutalist Lurke Street car park, and a similar multi-storey behind the Harpur Centre, perform a useful function: they may not be pretty but they mean the town centre is not ringed with surface car parking.

South of the Ouse there’s a lot of Dystopia – gyratory roads and cheap retail sheds surround St John’s Rectory (which appears as the House of the Interpreter in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. But north of the Ouse, where the town proper lies, the streets are a delight.

Unlike so many English towns that turn their back on the river (Oxford, Bath and Norwich for starters), Bedford has one of the best riverfronts I’ve seen in England. The composition of Bedford’s main church (another St Paul’s), the Shire Hall, Georgian Swan Hotel, the regency Town Bridge and the Castle Mound nearby is an inspiring sight. The 1960s Park Inn hotel, at the southern end of the bridge, may not appeal to all but to my mind it shows how tall buildings can work (it’s right up to the river and well-lit at night).


The Corn Exchange

Although the interior of St Paul’s was over-restored by the Victorians it occupies a fine Market Square, ringed by fine civic buildings – a Georgian Town Hall (originally a schoolhouse) with a Victorian extension, a gingerbread Corn Exchange and Waterhouse’s Shire Hall (awaiting a new use now that the magistrates have moved out).

There are plenty of other great public spaces. The town’s Norman castle now exists as a mound only – its stone ramparts were demolished as long ago as the 1220s – but there are fine river view from the top, and the grounds around it have been relandscaped fantastically well. On Harpur Street there’s a simple plaza between the impressive limestone façade of Bedford Modern School’s original building (behind which lies, incongruously the Harpur Centre, a typical 1980s shopping mall) and the Victorian Public Library opposite. It’s elegantly proportioned, and thank goodness there’s not too much street furniture to spoil it: the buildings speak for themselves.


Regency terraces on The Crescent

There’s surprisingly little pedestrianisation: Bedford’s one of the few large towns whose high street can still be driven down (albeit southbound only), and as a result it’s not as lifeless as many other places after dark. Frontages on the High Street, and the Edwardian arcade just off it, have been well-restored thanks to a Townscape Heritage Initiative. Snobs may complain that one of the best is occupied by a branch of Wilkos, but it’s better than the coffee chains that proliferate in other towns.

And Bedford still has two important institutions right bang in the centre (in many other towns they’d have been converted into flats by now). First there’s the prison, a largely Victorian edifice recently plagued by rioting (and whose predecessor once housed Bunyan). Close by is the red-brick Bedford School, founded in 1554 (its spinoff Bedford Modern School, founded in 1764, moved to the outskirts in the 1970s). Bedford’s seen as an unpretentious, practical and sporty school (Harold Abrahams and Alistair Cook both went there) – and its pupils are often seen rowing on the Ouse.



Bedford’s justly proud of John Bunyan, but his puritanism is out of fashion today

Bedford’s an inverted place. Usually English towns’ most salubrious districts are to the west, upwind of any industrial fumes, but here the poshest streets are to the north (there are fine regency villas on The Crescent and Adelaide Square) and the east, around the riverside Russell Park. Here are brick Victorian villas that would not look out of place in Cambridge 30 miles away, and the extraordinary Panacea Museum, devoted to a local Holy Water sect.

For once the less salubrious land uses  – the station and its sidings, the Charles Wells brewery, and the most modest terraced housing  – are on the west side of town. There’s been a lot of post-war redevelopment here, around River Street and All Hallows, but it’s all at a human scale, with good Festival of Britain style detailing and lots of trees.

And then there’s Riverside North, where a hotel, restaurants and a seven-screen cinema are replacing a 1960s office block behind the Town Hall. It’s still under construction and it’s a pity that the residential block facing the river, Merchant Square, looks so bland, and that the nearby footbridge is so much less elegant than promised (much to the annoyance of the Bedford Forum). But returning a cinema to Bedford town centre, rather than yet another multiplex off the bypass, is no bad thing.


The Swan Hotel: bow-windowed Georgian elegance that would be at home in Brighton or Bath

And there’s the Higgins – one of the best town museums I’ve ever visited, in a converted brewery. Alongside the usual staples (shards of Roman pottery, a mammoth tusk found locally) is a collection of clothes and china which would not look out of place at the V&A, and it has an “ace caff” attached, the Higgins Pantry. Over the road is Castle Quay, a mixed development of flats and restaurants a cut above the usual town centre development (it follows the curve of Castle Lane, and fronting the lane are shops, not inactive brick walls).


So why does Bedford rarely feature in guidebooks, popular culture, and the media? Bedford is not a chocolate box, and neither is it somewhere with newsworthy stigma, like Hull or Stoke. Ronnie Barker and John Le Mesurier were both born here, but neither stuck around long. Bedford’s justly proud of John Bunyan, born in nearby Elstow and author of the Pilgrim’s Progress – many office blocks and streets carry the name Pilgrim or Bunyan – but today he is an unfashionable writer. Maybe if Bedford had produced an Elizabethan playwright or a Victorian novelist rather than a Puritan preacher it would have a higher profile today.


Bedford’s High Street has, unusually, not been pedestrianised, and is all the better for it

Like its neighbour Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire is overlooked as its virtues – tranquillity, modesty, friendliness –  avoid extremes. The countryside is neither very hilly, nor as flat as the fens. But Bedford does have a fascinating hinterland. Within a few miles of the town are an extraordinary John Soane house (Moggerhanger), one of England’s finest formal gardens (Wrest Park, until recently owned by the Ministry of Ag and Fish but now being well-restored by English Heritage) and RAF Cardington (in whose giant hangars the R101, then the world’s largest airship, was built in the 1920s). The limestone villages along the Ouse to the west of Bedford – Pavenham, Felmersham, Odell and Harrold – are some of the prettiest in southern England. Bedfordshire, and its county town, are seldom visited by tourists though that may well change in the 2020s once rail and road links between Oxford and Cambridge – both of which’ll run via Bedford – are improved.


A spiral walkway up the Castle Mound: Bedford is full of simple, elegant public spaces like this

Bedford’s chief exports – beer, bricks, and lace – are not luxuries nowadays, and one of its important 20th-century duties had to be done anonymously: during World War Two the BBC made live broadcasts from Bedford School, always billed only as “somewhere in England” so the Luftwaffe didn’t bomb the town.

“Somewhere in England” is a neat line: Bedford has a confidence and vibrancy that are increasingly untypical, but it doesn’t shout about itself. At first glance it can seem like Anytown (like many large southern towns it’s a political bellwether: Bedford elected a Labour MP in 1997, 2001 and 2005 and narrowly elected a Tory one in 2010 and 2015). But in other ways it’s unique. Bedford has had an elected mayor since 2002 and neither the Tories nor Labour have ever won: the first Mayor was the independent Frank Branston (ex-editor of Bedfordshire on Sunday); the current incumbent is a Lib Dem, Dave Hodgson.

And it’s little-known by outsiders that Bedford has the largest Italian community in the UK: thousands of Italians were brought over to work at the nearby brickworks in the 1950s. The town still has an Italian consulate, lots of gelati stalls and pizzerias, and it’s said that up to 30% of Bedfordians have some Italian blood.

There are also sizeable Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, and more recent immigrants from eastern Europe have arrived without the friction seen in similar towns like Peterborough (lot of Poles came here during World War Two, so Bedford is used to them).


Behind the 1840s facade of the former Bedford Modern School is… a 1980s shopping mall, the Harpur Centre

Brexiteers should study Bedford’s history closely: if it had not been for European migrants there wouldn’t have been the labour to make the bricks that rebuilt Britain after the war. In their heyday the brickworks provided homes to rent, a swimming pool (only 20p for a swim in the 1980s) and retirement homes for their 2,000 workers. Though the last brickworks closed in 2008 (most of them are now covered by the Forest of Marston Vale nature reserve), Bedford is close enough to London to have bounced back, and it doesn’t have much of the deprivation, xenophobia and anger that afflict many post-industrial towns.

Unshowily and without much fuss, the town is on the up. Its centre retains both a large Marks and Spencer and a large Debenhams (I only hope they survive once the huge new Rushden Lakes shopping centre, 15 miles to the north, opens later in 2017). There are few empty shops, and Bedford’s Business Improvement District says that trade was up in the run-up to Christmas 2016, bucking the national trend. Bedford does not agonise about gentrification, rising rents or homogeneity like so many more fashionable places: it just evolves.

All photographs by Alex Grant

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1 Response to Somewhere in England: Bedford, a quiet success

  1. Pingback: Northampton, a town that needs to grow up and become a city | Alex Grant

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