The Bedford Diary

July 2nd: The Panacea Society in which Debs writes about Bedford’s very own non conformist religious commune and Steve interferes and adds a bit on the end!

Most people who read this blog will have heard of John Bunyan, the 17th century Bedford preacher – looked like Oliver Cromwell without the warts, was imprisoned (twice) and wrote “A Pilgrim’s Progress”.  Yet he wasn’t Bedford’s only brush with non-conformist notoriety.  How many have heard of the Panacea Society?  In a nutshell –

Fit for a King, a King of Kings!

Fit for a King, a King of Kings!

This was a religious group and charitable society who lived and worked together and believed they could establish the kingdom of God on earth.  They believed the second coming of Christ was imminent, and prepared a house for him at 18 Albany Road, Bedford; kitted out with new carpets and curtains.  Why Bedford? According to them, Bedford was the central point of the Garden of Eden – or to be more precise, the back garden at “Castleside”; one of their houses. The society was founded by Mabel Bartrop, who changed her name to Octavia and refused to go out of her house much.  Her followers were mainly like-minded women, drawn from across England to live in and around Albany Road who shared an interest in Joanna Southcott. 

Joanna Southcott was an 18th century mystic who was the possessor of a sealed box of prophesies (her own) which could save mankind from damnation, to be opened at a time of national danger by and only by 24 Bishops. In 1792 she declared herself to be the woman referenced in the Book of Revelations. This is the bit that features the Scarlet Whore of Babylon and the antichrist so as far as the bible goes it’s a fairly interesting bit but Joanna’s story probably beats it for content!  In 1814, aged 64, she announced she was pregnant with the new Messiah.  The baby never came (it was probably something to do with gallstones).  She died soon after although her followers stayed quiet and only gave up on her coming back to life when her corpse started to decay and she was interred in a graveyard in Kilburn. While there was no physical baby, an anti climax which should have brought the saga to an end it turned out that there was an offspring from Joanna in the form (!) of  an invisible, spiritual child. Mabel Bartrop was one of four women who had in no uncertain terms rescued the legacy of Southcott and Mabel having been similarly rescued from a lunatic asylum for what would today have been recognised as a bipolar disorder and OCD went on to proclaim that the invisible spiritual child released from Joanna so 100 years prior was now within her although her co believers took a view that she would go onto give birth to Jesus, the second coming to be known as Shiloh.  No stables and donkeys this time round so when the money started rolling in they set up home in Bedford as the forerunner of The Panacea Society.


As a result of donations from rich followers (and the fact that members left all their assets to the Society when they died) the Society was worth millions. One of their tasks was to dispense “divine water” to correspondents who wrote in from around the world.  This was water in which a small linen square had been immersed – the linen was part of a batch breathed on by Octavia and so possessed of healing powers.  Between 1924- 2012 120,000 people from around the world had applied for a piece. 

I dug about in my own personal Box of Articles Which Might Become Handy One Day and found a newspaper clipping from 17.08.03 reviewing a programme about the Panacea Society called “Maidens of the Lost Ark” which was shown on C4 the night before.  The society was down to two people, one of whom was 90 years old.  The reviewer liked them personally, but the reader could tell that he thought they were barking.  One Bishop thought they were “on a hiding to nothing”. The final member, Ruth Klein, died in 2012 and that very effectively  finished the Panacea Society off.

Panacea box 2

Some of its considerable fortune was used to found the Panacea Museum, in the aforementioned “Castleside”. This was bought by the Panacea Society in 1930 and prepared as accommodation for the Bishops when they opened the box. It has fully furnished period room settings, with original documents, photographs and artefacts.  The gardens contain a chapel and room where members could listen to the “wireless”, as it was called back then.  At the back of the garden you can enter the rear of number 12 Albany Road, Octavia’s home.

The Museum opened on the second Saturday in April and opens on the second Saturday of the month until September.  I went in June – Mr S had some anarchist gardening to do, so he is going in July. On entering, I was handed a map of the layout.  This was just as well – I’ve never known anything like it.  You turn right and visit three rooms. Up a flight of stairs and the four rooms over.  Down the same flight of stairs and three rooms at the back.  Up a different staircase and the four rooms above.  Down that staircase and the final two rooms.  All the other visitors looked older than me, and like me were more interested in the social history aspect.  I deliberately avoided reading any of the boards in case my hoots of disbelief disturbed anyone.  My favourite parts were an ancient press, the scullery (complete with Sunlight Soap) and the kitchen, with its huge range. The Bishop’s meeting room has a replica of the Joanna Southcott prophesy box, and their sitting room is above. Neither room has 24 chairs; so some of them would have to sit on the floor or on each other’s laps.  You know what these Bishops are like!

THis and Hanratty! It put Bedford on the map. And John Bunyan. And Rolls Royce! And Bedford Bypass!

THis and Hanratty! It put Bedford on the map. And John Bunyan. And Rolls Royce! And Bedford Bypass!

I crossed the garden to visit the Chapel and wireless room complete with piano and other aids to entertainment including a well-used dart board (!).  A recording of some war time song was playing.  It goes without saying that all the members were too old enough to be called up.   

12 Albany Road, Octavia’s house was furnished in the Edwardian style – the members would have found that era more to their taste and the furniture the members donated would have been from that era. Upstairs was a box room where the servant slept (followers who couldn’t afford to live independently could earn their keep by being servants), and a steep ladder leading to the attic where one of the few male followers slept. I overheard an enthusiastic Steward telling a nervous-looking woman that he couldn’t understand why Mormonism had taken off in a big way, while the Panacea Society had died off.  Marching over, I pointed out that it might have something to do with the fact that Mormons have loads of children and pay 10% of their income to their church; whilst the Panacea Society consisted mainly of women who were beyond child-bearing age. He agreed! It’s called “built in obsolescence”!

The bathroom had its original Edwardian bathroom suite, complete with straight-sided lavatory and roll top bath shaped like a coffin; narrower at the foot end.  There was a helpful sign aimed at any interested children, stating that until the 1950’s many people in Britain would have had an outside lavatory and no plumbed-in bathroom. 

On the way back, I pass the “refreshment kiosk”, which looked like a converted garden shed open to the elements and where I bought a piece of home-made cake from a frozen-looking woman. (Me: ‘did you make it?’ Her: ‘no, but it was made in a home so it still counts’) ‘Hot drink?’ she said hopefully, clutching her cardigan around her. ‘Better not’, I said; conscious of effect the cold was having on the number of times I needed to “go”.

Albany Road is spick and span – large immaculate Victorian houses and front gardens, the ones owned by the Society and rented out with all-white paintwork and a name picked out in black above the storm porch.  I found this sameness rather creepy, but that Sunday in the local paper a rarely available house was up for sale for a cool £550,000. 

I can’t get it out of my head that Peter Cook referred to the Panacea Society (or Joanna Southcott) in one of his programmes – I’ve tried Googling the two but nothing came up.  If someone can enlighten me, I’d be most grateful.

As for the box, Southcott’s history shows that her writings and prophecies were given to a William Sharp who placed the original box in a larger case and sealed it before taking it from Exeter to London for safekeeping, at this time Joanna Southcott would have been 50 or thereabouts. While the list shows a reasonably accepted line of keepers the Panacea society claim to have bought the original box in the 1920s, Harry Price of Borley House spooky ghosts fame publicly opened an original box on stage in London in 1927 and the British Museum also held and opened the original box having obtained it from the same person who gave another original box to the Panacea Society and found it to contain meaningless scribbles.

The Original Box: Not guaranteed. No refunds!

The Original Box: Not guaranteed. No refunds!

The real original box may or may not exist. It may never have been in the possession of the Panacea Societymk if they were sold a dud as seems possible, fallout from mistrust between the new Southcottians  and some of the older ones. Having been told not to open it their faith was assured but their whole existence depended on their being the guardians of the keys to the future so without “the box” the whole rationale behind a group of elderly believers would have vanished into vapour long before the deaths of their final member. Ruth Klein died in 2012, the Bishops never saw fit to be entrusted with the contents of the box. Part of the Panacea Estate is now the museum, presumably to prevent it being split and the archive being fragmented. One glimmer of hope was the occasional reference to Bedford as being the new Glastonbury, the story suggests that there is a cutting from the Glastonbury thorn growing in one of the gardens so all we need is some local farmer to build a pyramid in a field and away we go!

Harry Price opens THE box. Price was a master of self promotion and there is no record of wher this box originated!

Harry Price opens THE box. Price was a master of self promotion and there is no record of wher this box originated!

Footnote! The Panacea Society also exists as a rough and ready experimental band that features Andre Stitt, Belfast born Cardiff resident, he of kicking a curry can down the High Street fame and their cacophonic offerings are pretty good! However as we all like conspiracy theories and stories of intrigue the surname Stitt also features in the Soutcott story so maybe Andre knows where THE original ORIGINAL box is!

Panacea Society: The Next Degeneration!

Panacea Society: The Next Degeneration!










June 2013: In which Debs gets fit, communes with nature and talks about light industry!

Today is the first of Flaming June, the thermals are packed away and serious consideration is being given to the fact that my jeans are tighter than they were this time last year.  Time for some exercise.

On the way to the bottle bank, I decide to go on a walk I haven’t been on since I came back to Bedford seventeen years ago.  North Bedfordshire is one of the flattest places in Britain, but next to the cemetery at the top of Foster Hill Road is a public footpath that would give Cooper’s Hill a run for its money (of cheese rolling fame).  At the bottom I glance up hopefully, thinking I should be able to see the end of it.  I can’t.  I ascend, remembering to keep my back straight and to lock my knees.  On the right, runs the redbrick Victorian boundary wall of the cemetery, stepped to take account of the gradient.  On the left, the comfortable post-war estate of Manton Heights, known for its hilly roads named after British painters and a house covered in lights every Christmas.  Half way up, I pause to take a breath.  Two pensioners jog past me.  The path ends at the leafy, landscaped and light industrial Manton Lane.  Checking my pulse, I think about back in the day when Bedford used to make stuff.  I am standing opposite the site where Texas Instruments stood, internationally renowned electronics firm and maker of my first calculator.  It was the size of a paperback and had limited functions, but a sign of the future. 

Yellow Road to Texas (instruments)

Yellow Road to Texas (instruments)

Unfortunately, Texas Instruments in Bedford hadn’t and in its place stands Bedford Heights Business Centre, along with 21st century staples, the conference facility and Travelodge. There were other internationally known companies.  South of the river stood Tobler Meltis, later to become Tobler Suchard; once the biggest producer of Turkish Delight in Britain and the second largest producer of liqueur chocolates.  Heaven knows Bedford was a backwater, but every time we bit into a Toblerone, or New Berry Fruit (jellies with a liquid centre) and read “made in Bedford” on the packaging; we were filled with a quiet pride.  The turbines for the Titanic were made at W H Allen’s engineering works in Bedford, and the R101 airship in neighbouring Cardington.  Both of these came to a sticky end, but at least no cynic has suggested they were doomed because of a Bedford connection.

What has Bedford got now? The largest employers in the town centre are public sector institutions like the Council, Hospital and College. The outskirts are fringed by warehouses, or Distribution Centres as we now have to call them.  Engineering came to Bedford because of its closeness to London and good transport links, but these haven’t kept it there. 

Places of employment give way to mass produced housing!

Places of employment give way to mass produced housing!

A Morrison’s supermarket is being built on the site of the old Camford Engineering in Ampthill road, to compete with all the Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s.  The largest brickworks in the country were situated south of Bedford, and after downsizing for years finally close a few years ago with very little publicity.  There is a brewery, in an area which now has a large established Muslim population; the vast majority of whom are presumably teetotal.

Charles Wells: Made in Bedford and much tastier than Greene I hear!

Charles Wells: Made in Bedford and much tastier than Greene King…so I hear!

Turning back, I realise that going down a steep slope is no picnic either.  The same pensioner couple jogs past me again.  In the time I have spent staggering up the path and pondering the decline of manufacturing in Bedford, they have managed to reach the top, go back down and come back up again.  I realise why I have avoided this part of Bedford for seventeen years.  Reaching the bottom, I have a brainwave.  If the bollards were taken out, Foster Hill road was cordoned off, the parked cars removed and crash barriers put up, the path (it doesn’t have a name, but I suggest Bastard Slope) could become an artificial ski run.  Or what about an alternative cheese-rolling venue? Especially seeing that Health and Safety have it in for Cooper’s Hill.  Bedford doesn’t make its own cheese, so I suggest a specially commissioned wheel of Dairy Lea or The Laughing Cow. It would bring in the tourists and some much needed cash – just don’t let the Council have anything to do with it.

Turning right, I visit the Hill Rise Local Nature Reserve.  This is owned by the Council, and jointly managed with local residents.  It forms part of a wildlife corridor between Bedford Park and the neighbouring village of Clapham. The first time I went there, I came face to face with a Muntjac Deer, which made its exit with an unnecessary amount of noise considering its size.  Mr S still maintains that he saw a Hobbit, but I think it was one of Bedford’s many unattractive and unsavoury characters up to no good.  Seeing a deer in your local park or back garden is not unusual in this part of the country, and for that we have Herbrand the Eleventh Duke of Bedford to thank.  Decades before Woburn Safari Park was thought of, the Duke imported Bison, Wallabies, Cranes, Rheas and eleven different species of deer to fill his 3000 acres.  Some of the smallest deer, the Muntjac, escaped and breed like, well, deer, adding to the variety of animal found by the side of the road or nibbling your plants.  The locals regard the Muntjac in the same way they regard the grey squirrel – cute, but not indigenous, and destructive to the local habitat.  (They are not cute; they’ve got tusks for chrissakes).  There is a woman sitting cross-legged next to one of the ponds, staring into space.  Stifling the urge to push her in, I leave. 

I have a choice of three terraced streets to walk down on my way home, I choose the middle one.  Propped up against the front wall between two houses, is a long narrow mirror almost full length; with a Post-It note attached stating “free to a good home”.  I look around to see if I’m being watched.  The glass is in perfect condition.  I begin to sweat.  Have I got a good home? Is this a trick – if I remove it will I be squirted with some foul substance?  Have I really got a good home? Am I being filmed and if so will I be followed? Why didn’t I pick one of the other streets to walk down?  Looking around again, I tuck the mirror under my arm and walk off.

Poets in Motion!

Apparently The Bedford Diary is one of the most popular pages away from the daily Bedford Bypass blog front page! Are you ready for another random ramble around and about Bedford? If so, read on! My two Bedford Diary entries from January had left me a spent force, but I’ve bravely rallied round for another outing.  Mr S suggested I pulled my finger out, and when I asked him what I could write about that (a) didn’t bore everyone rigid and (b) might be one of the few things I knew something about; he suggested something about the Poet’s area of Bedford.  The article was originally going to be this:

The Poets area is a residential area in west Bedford with streets named after poets.  The end.

Even I knew that wouldn’t do, and as the temperature is finally above freezing point I told Mr S that I would be taking a walk around.  He suggested I carry a notebook to write down my brilliant observations, but I declined as people might think I was a journalist for the Beds on Sunday and ask me why their house had been turned down for an extension. 

Named after Shakespeare! You didn't know that did you!

Named after Shakespeare! You didn’t know that did you!

I don’t have fond memories of the place – my childhood Doctor was based in Chaucer Road and he used to ping my knicker elastic.  At this point, Mr S will be screwing up his eyes and saying ‘I thought after the last two entries I told her to be less personal – this is a serious anarchist blog, not Loose Women’. (This is a bit rich coming from someone whose last blog was on a dream he had about Arctic Roll, the girlie – at least the knicker pinging HAPPENED)  Anyway – apparently the Doctor did this to “put me at my ease” and to “bring me out of myself”.  Yup, that’s going to work, isn’t it, ladies? My Mum thought it was hilarious – in fact, she encouraged it. He’s dead now (natural causes, not murdered)

You won’t find any photographs of the Poets area in the books published by local historian Richard Wildman.  In the introduction to Bygone Bedford (1974) he states:

……the public collections’ greatest lack is of contemporary photographs of Bedford’s Victorian suburbs, the Villenviertel (residential quarter) with which enterprising and taste-conscious developers and builders ringed the old town centre from the late 1860s onwards……presumably at the time they were thought to be too ‘modern’ to be worth photographing.

On the eastern side, we start at the top of the main road, Shakespeare Road appropriately enough.  For road bores, this is the A5141 which links the A428 to the A6. It is wide, tree lined, clogged with traffic and architecturally a mish-mash. Mainly large two and three storey Victorian dwellings of varying shapes, a few interwar houses and modern houses and low-rise flats. 

Poets area famous resident Sft Wilson!

Poets area famous resident Sft Wilson!

There is an Independent School, Rushmoor, which isn’t and never was top drawer.  Back in the days of selective education, it was basically a private school for boys who’d failed the 11 plus, so couldn’t go to a local Harpur Trust Grammar School.  Their parents didn’t want them to go to the local Secondary Modern in case they might pick up bad habits from the nasty rough common boys.  The school is now mixed, but doesn’t have a sixth form; which says it all.  I’m sure the parents would be happy to defend the fact that they’re getting the worst of both worlds – spending thousands of pounds a year on fees, while at the same time their children don’t attend the top (now) private schools of the Harpur Trust and so don’t get the kudos.  I used to work with a woman who went to the female equivalent of Rushmoor, St Andrews, (now also a mixed Independent School since comprehensive education was introduced).  When I looked staggered after she told me that she had been privately educated, she stated (on the defensive) – ‘I might not be very bright, but if I’d gone to a Comprehensive like you did I’d be even thicker’.  Somehow I doubt it. 

Nearer the bottom of the road lies one of Bedford’s more established and pricier hotels, the imaginatively named Shakespeare.  As these houses are large and the days of all middle class families having at least one servant have long gone, they are considered too big for one family so many of them have been turned into multiple-occupied dwellings.  These attract the sort of tenant the new way of classifying them would call the “precariat”. When the Beds on Sunday publishes the stories of all the beatings, stabbings and shootings for the previous week, a high proportion of them seem to take place in Shakespeare Road and the parallel Chaucer Road. 

There are no shops in the Poets area, and virtually no facilities apart from a Social club backing onto the railway, a nursery for pre-school children and on the northern edge the University have their sports hall.  I think I spotted a letter box.  This is no hardship as there is a Sainsburys superstore close by, and a bus stop at the southern end to take the residents to the town centre one way or to the heady delights of Northampton or Milton Keynes the other way.  Plus everyone seems to have a car.  Half way up Spencer Road I paused to look up to the first floor of one of the houses.  This is where I spent the first year of my life, while the parents were saving up to get a mortgage so they could buy a house in a nearby village.  It still had the encaustic tiles that paved the path from gate to door, but the door frame was aluminium and the window frames were PVC.  Obviously I don’t remember living there, but I felt disappointed and strangely cheated; especially as the neighbouring houses still had the original features.  Moving west, the area is bounded by the railway line – never considered a good thing if you live nearby, but traditionally good enough for people on low incomes – and sure enough in Sidney Road builders have squeezed in a couple of cul de sacs of meanly proportioned modern two bedroom terraces.  One of them is has the word Mews in its name. Either the person naming it didn’t know what a mews was, did but didn’t care, or assumed the rest of us wouldn’t know (or care).   The area was quiet, with a few teenagers mooching about taking in the relative warmth, Eastern European- sounding people lounging in the doorway of one of the houses sporting multiple doorbells and wheely bins; a man washing his car.  Another man said hello to me as he walked past.  Having had enough of all this normality and wanting to get back to my home in the relative urban grit of the Prime Ministers area (wait for it – a residential area in north west Bedford named after Victorian Prime Ministers) I left.

Visitors to the Poets area during wartime!

Visitors to the Poets area during wartime!

From leaving the house to getting back took a total of one hour and 20 minutes, and that was with me dawdling.  This also includes a detour to talk to a neighbour who was taking her pedigree cat for a walk, in his smart new Burberry harness.  I thought to myself, how eccentric – it’s like being in the Castle Road area, Bedford’s very own Notting Hill.  Castle Road is a residential area in east Bedford NOT named after castles, although Bedford used to have a castle back in the olden days, and the mound is still there.  For those of you still reading and who haven’t lost the will to live, these areas will be covered at a later date. 

A Visit to the Pictures!


As a child, there were still three cinemas in the town centre.  The Century, on the Embankment (some will know it as the Plaza), held the least significance for me and was a totally unremarkable building.  However, I remember seeing some iconic films there including Fantasia.  We went to see it, Mum, myself, Mum’s friend and her two sons who were both younger than me.  As soon as the lights dimmed the two boys fell asleep and stayed asleep until the film ended, then got shouted at for wasting their Mum’s money.  They only bit I enjoyed was the bit with the hippos in their swimming costumes, but at least I managed to stay awake.

Century or Plaza, take your pick!

Century or Plaza, take your pick!

  The Century was later turned into a night club, the Nitespot.  I went to see Gerry and the Pacemakers there in1980 and queued up afterwards to get his autograph.  A bit pathetic, considering they hadn’t had a hit since 1965; but when you’re from the sticks you’ll take anything going.  He still had nice teeth, but I towered above him; which didn’t impress me at all. The building was torn down and there is nothing in its place, just a view of the castle mound.

The Empire was smack bang in the town centre, in the top end of Midland Road.  My parents wouldn’t take me there because it was a FLEA PIT.  So I went with my Gran!. The film was a western and of no interest to me, but I didn’t care.  I was at the Empire, and if I had been watching someone read from the telephone directory I would still have been happy.  When the British film industry collapsed in the early seventies, like cinemas all over the country it tried to stay afloat by showing adult films; and those strange and very British sex comedies that were neither sexy nor comedic.  Next door was that sixties icon, a milk bar – Kelly’s Milk Bar to be precise.  I wasn’t allowed in there because it was full of common people who might be a bit rough. (Fleas optional).  As I didn’t know any common or rough people, naturally I wanted to go and see for myself.  Sadly, by time I was old enough to make up my own mind it was demolished, along with the Empire.  Our branches of H Samuel and Game stand there now until they too breath their last! .

Inland Empire!

Inland Empire!

Ah, the Granada.  Everyone who remembers the Granada gets misty eyed at mention of its name. The Beatles played at the Granada just before they became famous, the Rolling Stones also graced us. There was uproar when it was announced that it too would be torn down. The locals tried to stop it, but to no avail.  Again, nothing special from the outside apart from being very tall but inside it was fabulous to us.  I find it hard to believe that it wasn’t significant enough to save.  Although it had only been there since 1934, it seemed to have existed forever. The queue to get in was legendary.  It snaked down St Peters Street, then through a tunnel between the cinema and the neighbouring building, across the cinema car park and down Lurke Street.  The pavement through the tunnel had a hand rail for you to rest on, which was just as well by that stage.  The large foyer had two people selling tickets, sitting back to back in an enclosed booth.  There was a counter where you could buy crisps and sweets.  I think this counter was also part of a shop which had its own entrance, in case you got the munchies going down St Peters and the cinema wasn’t open – maybe someone can enlighten me.  Incidentally – one of the reasons why there was very little obesity in the sixties and seventies was because when you went to the cinema, you could buy single person- sized packets of crisps and bags of Revels, not like today where it’s all family- sized.  It costs so much you have to eat it all, just to make sure you’ve had your money’s worth.  Just an observation.


Ticket in hand, you proceeded to the next bit; which was the best.  A room of vast height, with a wide red carpeted staircase and huge window straight ahead.  To the left, two doors leading to the stalls.  Again, forbidden because that’s where common people sat.  Also, you were “on top” of the screen, which meant certain eyesight and hearing loss, so we climb3d the stairs to get to the circle.  To the right, a long counter serving Kia-Ora (horrible stuff– and what did it mean?) Also, those exotic American foods popcorn and hotdogs, a taste of democracy.  I never badgered my parents for those because they made sure I had eaten beforehand.  Climbing those stairs – you felt like you were one of the film stars – you headed left or right.  When the Granada was built, it had its own restaurant (right) and it was still there when I was very young.  I ate there a couple of times,  a glass of orange juice was a luxurious starter and all part of the evening out, two showings so you had to get the timing right or you saw the last half of the film first.  Incidentally, that’s where my Dad took my Mum when he asked her out for the first time; so it has a lot to answer for.

The Granada

The Granada

When cinema receipts nosedived, it was turned into Granada 2, a mini cinema showing art films, anything not mainstream. These sophisticated offerings included  Grease there in 1979 and you couldn’t get less arty than that, but that’s Bedford for you.  Anyway, you turned left for the main screen. Another large area with red carpeting, chesterfield-type red sofas (I wonder what happened to those when the cinema was knocked down) and the feeling of that nothing was too good for the cinema-going public of Bedford.  Echoes of Nye Bevan there and hey… I managed to shoehorn some politics in.  I never explored this hinterland – I was too eager to get to my seat, but I was told it led to the fire exit.  With the lax security typical of the time, the fire door was usually open, and if you could manage to avoid an adult who looked vaguely in charge and dodge the usherettes, the streetwise child could get in for free. 

The Beatles came to Bedford!

The Beatles came to Bedford!

The seating capacity of Granada 1 as it was later known was vast.  The organist had already been got rid of when I was a child, but no matter.  There were plenty of glamorous usherettes in red uniforms (a bit hard on you if you were a redhead), who stood at the front with a tray round their necks selling choc ices, lollies and ice creams. At Upper School, I was part of a team of projectionists who showed films there one Friday evening a month, like a School Film Club.  Each film had three or four reels.  The first two were loaded, and after the first projector was switched on it was pretty uneventful until it looked like the first reel was coming to the end and you had to watch with bated breath for the dot in the top right hand corner.  As soon as it appeared – BAM – you turned on the second projector then turned off the first, like a 007 James Bond moment and could relax again.  The first reel was rewound, returned to its tin and the third reel was threaded in its place.  There were arguments as to whether the dot was the dot or a speck of dirt and although the projection room was supposed to be soundproof, if we saw people gawping at us through the window we would know that our “full and frank exchange of views “was perfectly audible.  As far as I know the changes were seamless, but if they weren’t I don’t think anyone would have noticed or even cared. One of the girls at the school was the daughter of the head projectionist at the Granada.  One evening we went on a visit behind the scenes.  We met the Manager, silver haired, suave, done up like a band box, a veritable Captain Peacock, seems like each cinema had a similar character.  We met the projectionist, who was the total physical opposite, but had a far better job. We crept through a secret door, up a narrow steep staircase and into the hallowed room itself.  Why were projection rooms always so tiny? The local paper must have been short of news that week, because a local photographer was there to capture it all and an article was published.

Lidl is now on the site of the Granada cinema and is also vastly popular.  Its patrons and those getting a free visit to the High St park their cars on roughly the same site as the Granada car park.  Aspects cinema is perfectly fine – there is a larger car park (you have to drive there as it is on the edge of the town and there is no bus service) a far greater choice of films, you can book in advance, the seats are more comfortable, there is far less noisy snogging and of course no more cigarette smoke.  But – no more inching forward in the endless queue in all weathers feeling the excitement build, no red carpet, no sweeping staircase, no glamorous usherettes with trays around their necks (this would now be considered demeaning, so we now have people of either sex in “practical” uniforms and baseball caps) no tiny bags of Revels, no Pearl and Dean, no raucous cries from the common lot in the stalls, or stuff thrown on them from the front row of the balcony, no feeling that you’ve had a bargain because in those days you saw two films, the main feature and the, um, other one.  Do I sound like a nostalgic old fart? I suppose I do.  Do I care? Not really.

Part of the “reinvention” of Bedford town centre will see us slip back in time as a new cinema is planned and as commented below the Parking Enforcement Specialisation Team (PEST) will have you if you transgress as no one’s thought of the logistics of having to get into and park up in town!

Long gone! The Palace!

Long gone! The Palace!

Walking Through Time!

The Saturday taxi into town!

The Saturday taxi into town!

I’m one of two contributors to Bedford Bypass that can claim to have Bedford roots since birth, I know the town, I wouldn’t say I love it and I lived away for over decade, but I know the streets. You could have knocked me down with a feather when Mr S of the Bypass collective, who knows Bedford better than most native Bedfordian’s told me he hadn’t heard of Church Street! Mind you, neither had I until I was 16.  At that age, I decided to explore all the terraced streets that had eluded me when I was a child.  I discovered a tiny street linking Alexandra Road with Brereton Road, behind Midland Road – Church Street.    On one side, there was the usual higgledy-piggledy arrangement of back entrances to the various establishments of Midland Road that you get in terraces.  On the other side, between the back yards of the end houses of Alexandra and Brereton Road; the builders had managed to squeeze in a couple of terraced houses.  They are dated 1866, one of the few remaining examples of mid -Victorian pre bye- law working class housing that exist in Bedford and surprisingly little reference is ever made of them.  I couldn’t believe it – why did I know nothing about this? Was I dreaming it? I had to know more, a psychogeographical explorer who had discovered a new place, like a doorway to a previous Bedford.  I went to see my mum, like me born in Bedford, After grilling me about what I thought I was doing in such a dodgy area (translation: seen better days and with a high immigrant population) and had I been chatted up by any unsuitable men (‘well, yes, but it would be rude to ignore them and you’re always telling me to be more sociable’) she told me that I hadn’t discovered it or imagined it.  In fact, she worked with someone whose son used to live in one of those two houses.  I was immediately jealous of him – why couldn’t we live in an artisan’s cottage in the town centre, instead of a modern house in a village where you have to get on an infrequent bus to go anywhere interesting?  Somehow, I knew I was wasting my time.  My interest in the subject was considered peculiar, a daughter taken to wandering round obscure bits of the town centre.  Obviously, my parents were glad I wasn’t the kind of teenager who spent her evenings drinking cider in bus shelters. Chance would be a fine thing – the money I earned babysitting wouldn’t have covered the cider, and the Parish Council didn’t see fit to supply bus shelters so we just had bus stops.  Times were tough in the rural villages round Bedford.

Prebend St, where you are allowed remain motionless!

Prebend St, where you are allowed remain motionless!

Very close to Church Street, on the corner of Midland Road and Alexandra Road was an artist’s materials/stationers shop called Stannads; which is remembered with great affection by everyone who used it.  I used to go there to buy cow gum – an adhesive in a red and white tin that was very thick and gloopy and peeled off really easily.  In fact, you could let some dry out and use it as a rubber ball.  This was the stuff to use back in the days when cutting and pasting meant literally that.  It’s not made any more, I suppose the computer has made it redundant.  Anyway, the shop closed its doors, it was pulled down and nothing since has been built on the site.  A great shame. I suppose it became uneconomic – there was already an art shop in the town which in a short space of time moved from Greyfriars Parade to Lime Street to a large place in Howard Street.  I’ve tried googling Stannads it to see when it closed down (I was living in Liverpool then) but nothing came up.  If any reader still awake knows the answer, please let me know.

The area is a place in transit, the structures remain to a degree but the people change. The shops on Midland Road are a moving feast of who lives there, few shops have stayed more than ten years. Michaels Cycles was the emporium of all things bike for decades, now a kebab shop and no doubt in thirty years people will fondly remember that shop that sold lovely fast food. Look up at Great Western St and see one a few surviving fresco type adverts not have been painted over (as an equally attractive one next to the Irish Club a few minutes away was. Others have been lost either deliberately or through just plain neglect.

Still visible! For how long though?

Still visible! For how long though?

Walk the streets that lead away from Midland Rd. Larger dominant properties now almost exclusively split into flats with tenants jostling for parking spaces.  Look over the river towards Borough Hall, images from the 1950s resemble the industrial north, there’s a good charcoal drawing as you enter the main council chamber, bleak, monotonous…and the paintings no different!

This might sound odd but one of my regrets is that I’m nowhere near old enough to know Bedford before the huge re-developments that took place in the fifties and early sixties (and all over the country), I’m not wishing my life away, I just would love to have had the opportunity to wander round the town before it was “planned” away by experts who knew how we were to live. Luckily thanks to huge amounts of archived images we can follow the changes and the losses. We can see the photographs in all the books of old Bedford that have been published particularly those by Richard Wildman and an hour or so getting to know the Archives at the back of Borough Hall can be enlightening. But it’s not the same and that’s where these remnants like Church Street come in, three dimensional reminders, Those of a certain age will remember the old cattle market on Horne Lane.  Standing roughly on the site last week,  I recall going into some sort of ramshackle shed and seeing loads of rabbits for sale – hutches and hutches of them, all stacked up on top of each other. Consigned to memory, I’ve yet to find any records of this,  everything now is nice and tidy.  I do remember the Charles Wells Brewery (now Wells and Young) at the top end of Horne Lane, before it moved to Queens Park.  Every so often it would emit these smells during the brewing process which reminded me of tinned carrots.  I liked it, but others found it unpleasant. From time to time a similar smell will take me back for a split second. Funny how that happens! We pixelate happenings to memory, years later they are triggered and I question whether they come back the same or whether time and fondness corrupts?

Midland Road, going nowhere fast!

Midland Road, going nowhere fast!

The entire housing area bordered by Prebend St, Commercial Rd, Midland Rd and River St, is perhaps the oldest untouched block of housing in the immediate town, intrigue seeps out from alleyways and architecture but you need to look at it through an older set of eyes, remove the cars, take away the satellite dishes. Take yourself to an earlier Bedford, if you will. Help is at hand through the Bedfordshire archive and a series of annual books called the Kelly’s Directory at which point I shall let slip that one of the Bypass teams has a full set of these and the minutes from Bedford Borough Council from 1897 to 1948 so a perfect picture of a developing town although you do wonder why any local authority would throw these tomes into the waste skip!

There are two maps available commercially from if I recall the Godfrey Editions of 1921, one for the north of the river so the town centre, the other showing the fields, allotments and railway sidings of London Rd, an area that will no doubt visit for a future Bedford Diary.

 The Rebirth of Bedford

There’s an old 1970s TV show called Chigley!  It was a village near Trumpton and Camberwick Green, the Mayor with a big red coat and chains would pop over from time to tim,e ansd sort problems out. Mayors can do this! There was a factory in Chigley that shut at 4.00pm. When the whistle went, all the workers in overalls would file out and instead of a huge crush to go pick the kids up or get the reduced stuff at the shop they’d go and have a bloody dance with a real band! Total rubbish filling kid’s minds up with chewing gum.  How kids viewed the factory system back in the 70s!

Dancing at the end of the shift!

Dancing at thye end of the shift!

We have a Mayor with coat and chins as well and he’s come up with a multi-million pound idea that conjures up images of dancing factory workers, or at least in my head it does! Now I’ve spent much of my teens and adult life laughing at naked emperors, always the first to shout out when I spot something that’s not quite right. To some it might appear that I’m always tilting at windmills, looking for faults that simply don’t exist but my own track record usually speaks for itself.

Bedford is an insignificant dot on the map, the sort of place you end up without really choosing. That’s how we ended up here, renegades from the north, a place immortalised on motorway signs, dark and forbidden…The North! But we came to Bedford in 1991. You’ll never leave! Around the core town centre are a number of distinct areas with, and it’s a statistical fact, some standout rates of social deprivation where at night, with police sirens you can easily find yourself in the subplot of some grim urban TV opera! People have been coming up with great ideas to stop the decay, each one dismisses or promises to learn from the last!

Like many towns that have been bypassed, Bedford’s feeling sorry for itself and the castle builders  of yesteryear become the whipping post for the current batch of new ideas to turn little old Bedford into the boom town that it’s never been!

Dave the Mayor is going to revive Bedford in conjunction with a developer called Coplan. There’s a series of designs been released by Coplan as part of the consultation process but the Mayor is keen to tell us that the end result will be different and nothing like those displayed, in which case they might as well have showed us a picture of an elephant.

Apparently Bedford has weathered the economic storm better than most and it’s down to, as Dave the Mayor suggests, “our great independent retailers”. Given that the town is littered with the carcasses of decaying  dreams, restaurants that lasted weeks, shops where the owners have to do cleaning jobs at night to keep going,  I’m not sure the feeling is totally mutual and a number of them seem to hold Dave the Mayor as totally responsible for the state of the town centre but then, as Dave mentions the number of false dawns he has seen the chances are he’s the next in a long line of people with ideas that will be blamed on someone that held perhaps the same belief in their vision.

Nice eh!

Nice eh?

If it sounds like I have a downer on such ideas I was sceptical about a number of big ideas that have been mooted over the years. The big Greyfriars development was going to draw in people from all over the region, boom town Bedford. Everyone either got up in arms or waved flags waiting for the allies to enter the town. All that really happened (top date) was that a small nucleus of reasonable flats were bulldozed and however many people that had lived in town and done their shopping there were shipped out. Don’t know where, don’t know when, but I’m sure…they look at the empty space where they lived and feel as though they were shat on!

The other white elephant was the Nirah site. Now I was one of the first to be told of this idea that would catapult us to the top of UK tourist destinations. Eden Project 2 was the first title. A huge futuristic series of domes on the former Quest clay pit. Now from the very start when councils were strong-armed into putting money into the project, I’d close my eyes and the words “De Lorean” appeared in my head. De Lorean was going to revitalise Northern Ireland and it ended up a financial disaster apart from that car in the Back to the Future films. Nirah itself kicked another project into the long grass this being the Milton Keynes to Bedford canal link. Like kids with new toys it was “canal, canal, canal, er bored”…ooh” Nirah, Nirah, Nirah” and now that Nirah which incidentally stands for National Institute (for) Research (into) Aquatic Habitats, seems to have gone the same way as the dinosaurs we need something else to get excited about.

Apparently (wow!) we are going to seven screen state of the art cinema in town attracting 300,000 people into town each year. Presumably the car parks will, like vultures on a corpse,  cash in on this and the traffic wardens will be out and about at night as well. The buses are sporadic at night as well and it’s easier to get from Bedford to Cambridge or Milton Keynes on public transport after 8.00pm than it is to travel three miles from town to village.

Wait, that’s not just it, those impoverished souls in Kingsbrook, Cauldwell, Harpur and Queens Park council wards will be able to escape the din of the police helicopter by taking a riverside wander into the town centre, no more fuzzy bootleg James Bond or Ice Age 8 DVD’s bought from the Chinese lady hanging around Lurke St car park competing with the smell of disinfectant. Save your money for the real deal, take in a film at the cine complex and then do as Dave the Mayor wants and round off the night with a meal at one of a range of high quality restaurants. Or maybe just a drink that’s three times the price of the same in a can from Londis, Costcutter or Raj’s Superstore on Cardington Road. So that’s £30 for the cinema, call it £60 for the wonderful food and £5 quid council tax for having a car, mind you the people from the deprived areas can just wander in. And that’s it. No money, then sod off but feel free to wander about, wander Out. Everybody wins! The price is right, the choice is yours and if you were wondering why I started this piece off with Chigley and polka dancing factory workers you might have twigged!

Apparently there’s also going to be more hotels. Renaissance Bedford! Sounds good! More hotels sound double good as well unless you are currently working or managing one. If you look on Late there’s some bargains for Bedford but sod all to do really and the consensus is that we have enough empty rooms already. We also have a cinema  for that matter out at the leisure park which seems to have been forgotten although it’s been there twenty odd years, Is that the life expectancy of a cinema. OK it’s in need of a bit of a titivate although you might like sitting on a musty cola soaked chair. At least you can park there for free (at the moment) and buy an overpriced watery drink in huge cup that’s mostly ice!

Burble burble burble!

Burble burble burble!

Oh and I can’t contain myself, there’s going to be even more coffee shops and in case those  yummy restaurants overload you. But this is where the latest dream falls down, the mistakes are already built in. Look at the king, he’s got nowt on! Take a wander along Tavistock Street, there’s no end of abandoned eateries where the lights have gone out and the bills pile up behind the door! Some were very nice, good quality food and we all work hard and there’s nothing like a curry on Friday but in a world of brutal Darwinian politic well its survival of the fittest, deep fried food and a plastic toy!

I’m going to end with a joke. What’s the difference between Chigley and Bedford. One’s run by plasticene people and the other is a……

Gracing Bedford!

Its 1961 and it’s the 28th of March, Harry Allen has travelled to Bedford, he arrives early  for a meeting with a Mr John Day the following morning. Just over a year later Harry returns to Bedford again arriving the day before. This time he meets James Hanratty at the same venue as his previous visit and helps Hanratty assume room temperature by snapping his neck. Three years later capital punishment is removed from the statute book and Prison staff get somewhere to store their bikes when it’s raining as Harry’s venue is no longer needed. Years later visitors to this bike shed look silently as its former use is described with a level of nostalgia for the old days. Harry Allen never came back to Bedford as far as records show!

Our obsession with “celebrity” is satiated by the presence of names that live on after their deaths or in some cases can still be seen on obscure TV channels or adverts. Ronnie Barker was born in Garfield St and stayed a resident for a grand total of four years. A plaque adorns the house but Barker refused to attend the grand ceremony and was quite dismissive about it. His cousin who clearly hadn’t had great contact with him officiated.  When Barker died he was lauded as a “son of Bedford…our Ronnie”. Over Clapham Rd, on Chaucer Rd to be exact Dads Army star John Le Mesurier first saw daylight in 1912 before leaving for Bury St Edmunds. John never got offered a plaque. Carol Voorderman still brings light onto the world, she was born down London Rd and did return to film some TV show where a house gets redecorated. Everyone went crazy as a native of Bedford returned to hallowed ground. “Our Carol”.

There are others who graced the streets of the town notably Paula Radcliffe who wasn’t born here and no longer lives here but as we search for reasons to be enthusiastic about this little bit of England she becomes “our Paula” and regularly graces the local papers! She might equally be (Our Paula” in Cheshire where she was born and get a blue plaque as well as Leicestershire where she now resides. Take That, Paul McCartney, U2 and others working out of the hangers at Cardington have stayed at the Swan Hotel aside the river and again column inches are filled as our tedious existence is enlightened by someone who is more in interesting than we are.  Take That seem to be regulars and the hotel is festooned with teenagers up to the age of 50 (personal observation) hoping for a glimpse, to be touched, graced to go home with a piece of the true cross! Watch the latest tour DVD (thanks Holly) and you see Robbie and one of the other’s that isn’t royal creep Gary being interviewed outside the hanger where the ill -fated airship the R101 set off before crashing in 1930 on its maiden voyage killing 48 people. We are proud of our history!

Meanwhile we return to Bedford’s prison, not the current structure dating from 1801 where notable chaps Albert Pierrepoint (who visited in 1935 and 1940 and Harry Allen) killed on behalf of the state and who’s real celebrity came after their death but the original one on the corner of Silver St and the High St. It was here that Bunyan wrote The Pilgrims Progress. Fighting under the flag of parliament under Cromwell and having religious views that challenged the orthodoxy he stood out as a radical, an anarchist of his time . If we can claim a famous son who’s legacy has survived and increased over time it’s John Bunyan. His birthplace at the side of a ditch between Elstow and Harrowden whilst hard to find can still be visited. There’s no plaque! No “Our John”. Bunyans way above this sort of fawning!

Local resident Joy Brodier propelled herself into the news close on 20 years back when Terry Waite was released from captivity. Joy had sent a postcard of Bunyan to him addressed simply Terry Waite, Lebanon. It actually reached him and he cited this as something that helped him get through his years of captivity, firstly the card told him he wasn’t forgotten and the image of Bunyan in his cell gave him hope. I’ve met Joy and Terry has been a constant supporter of the Emmaus homeless project out in the sticks. Cautious if not plain dismissive about religion, I can place this aside when need be and I like them both as they have social views and commitment. Like Bunyan they have constantly shouted their views (politely) when needed. As far as Emmaus is concerned I know a story of a trouble maker council officer who having been asked to write a cheque our for £500 he got confused and they got £5000. Look guv! Simple mistake anyone could have done it, can’t really ask for it back, beside Terry Waites coming!

Sticking to the religious, and somewhat earlier than Bunyan, George Joye is a name to revere if you like fantasy stories and he emerged into the day in a place called Renhold in 1492. Formerly a remote village as Bedford has developed a panache for mass produced housing that looks fairly monotonous Renhold is now well and truly joined at the hip as we squeeze more people in. Previously only available in hardback Latin from whatever book shop we had in Bedford in the early 1500s George was one of the first people to produce biblical bits in English particularly the Old Testament in which the main character God really does come across as having a real grudge and not being very nice at all! Look he drowned everyone and everything apart from Noah and his zoo.

Royalty likes Bedford. When the Queen visited in 2000 all the roads she used were tarted up. Or at least the bits that she would see, the rest was left broken and bleeding. Other royal notables include Charles 1st who skirted the town at the time of the Civil War which was neither civil nor a war in the sense of the word as most people tried to stay out of its way. In Bedford most of the population who are long dead and buried with no gravestones were mostly Parliamentarian but otherwise indifferent to either cause. The town saw skirmishes rather than fighting on the Naseby scale and family members found themselves fighting on different sides depending not on any support for their cause but tied allegiance to their lords and masters. Henry the Eighth visited for the much simpler pleasure of hunting through Sheerhatch wood that although much reduced in size still dominates the skyline as you head south from town.

To the West we have Bedfordshire’s lasting legacy to our generosity and ability to assist neighboring counties and London. It’s our landfill sites, home to decades of rubbish. Bedford was a manufacturing town. Engineering, tools, electrical goods, Crayola Crayons. All pouring out of town for a while with the balance, ying and yang, the very fabric of the universe being maintained by thousands of tonnes of rubbish coming in. Elstow has a wonderful street of Tudor buildings and close by a much loved cricket square. In the distance is the old landfill site. All manner of wonders rest beneath the clay. Bedfordshire Police made enquiries about the site relatively recently, there’s a child’s body in there somewhere. There’s no doubt about this as I was asked some years ago by Bedfordshire Police to try and work out where the active parts of the landfill site were at the time. The person responsible is on vacation courtesy of Liz. The actual task of recovery of the child’s body was deemed impossible so the landfill is also the last resting place of at least one cadaver.

The site itself was deemed of such importance that 15 years ago a Susan Webb recorded the history of where the rubbish had come from and what had gone into the clay void. The final report was so good the County Council opted to discard all the records and revere the large volume of information. Then they threw that away as well. Easy come easy go!

If royalty likes Bedford then Bedford seems to like royalty. As I write, we have become obsessed with the royal family again for the jubilee and people that look to be struggling to pay the gas bill are parading about with badly painted union jacks on their faces and cheap lead enriched plastic union jack hats imported from China! Again it’s an obsession that is hard to explain, are we celebrating 60 years as Queen or just 82 years without her dying. Bedford(shire) loves a chance to celebrate royalty with the last big group hug being when Diana’s body came up the M1 to her final resting place, on her own private island rather than in a polythene bag under rubbish but I guess the effects over time are pretty much the same. Crowds of well wishers dropped roses onto the royal corpse carriage and aerial views showed a surge as people moved from one side of the motorway bridge just for a glimpse of the coffin.

It’s certainly a very busy year and, we are on the edge of the Olympic hullabaloo and the torch is coming to Bedford. The actual act of having the torch tour the host country seems to have become one of those traditions like morris dancing, it’s not half as old as you are told and in this case it was devised as celebration of one countries emerging strength, Germany under one Adolph Hitler.

The torch actually misses the town centre and more to the point ignores the fact that Harold Abrahams (the source of the film Chariots of Fire) was born in Rutland Rd in 1899. There’s a plaque dedicated to Harold. You can see it by walking up Midland Rd, getting on a train and going to Golders Green. His Bedford birthplace was demolished in the 1930’s. There was talk about a plaque on whatever building now stands there but as probably the most famous athlete to be born in Bedford he’s not wanted on the happy bus.

Stalking the town’s dark alleyways and cut thru’s is none other than Hagrid. The tall bloke from Harry Potter. Not Robbie Coltrane but six foot ten ex Policeman Martin Bayfield who being pretty bloody huge when you see him was much bigger than Coltrane and played Hagrid in some scenes. He’s now on Crimewatch and for legal purposes he doesn’t stalk alleyways at all, he’s actually a nice chap and deserves a plaque. Kids with round glasses love him!

On a supernatural note the ghost of John Wesley can be seen quite regularly screaming as he runs down the High St. When Wesley visited in earthbound form to preach he is recorded as being impressed with the purity of Bedford, there was no swearing and no-one flouted the ban on Sunday trading. This bears no resemblance to the current state of Bedford as vomit and puke trickle away in the gutters on a Sunday morning and the nail bars prepare for the day ahead! This explains the screaming ghost although to be fair I made this up!

We have a smattering of new famous visitors, an ex Banshee can be spotted as can Richard Jobson from The Skids. Samantha Janus can be seen not too far from the famous Hangers and if you get the timing right you may just spot her in the same pub as the bass guitarist from forgotten group Argent!

The first idea when this piece was started was to have all of our famous and infamous residents and visitors meeting up in St Paul’s Square. It soon proved both funny (top me) but unworkable as a finished piece so this Bedford Diary entry is just a ramble round our streets and history. But just what would they say to each other if four people plucked at random from gravestones across the last three centuries were to find themselves coming face to face in 2012. Coming soon!

Ring a round the houses!

At the bottom end of Bedford are the moors. Elstow brook forms a natural dividing line. Not that long back this small sometimes culverted stream was the effective boundary of the town, beyond that a wilderness of inaccessible land lasting all the way to Wilstead and thence on to Luton and beyond that the lights and allure of London. Hundreds of years back Bedford townsfolk would walk. Today there’s the A1, the M1 and two train lines depending where you live.

The moors themselves have been pushed back, their snarling edge-land now bordered by the Bedford bypass and its incessant roar of traffic too busy to visit the town. On the edge of the moors is Shortstown, originally part of an RAF base and overshadowed by the monolithic Cardington Hangars. Hundreds of new houses are springing up distorting the landscape and confusing casual drivers as new roads appear and old routes are closed off. Confusion aside new homes allow these “edge” of town urban fringe communities to grow. In this case the monolithic Cardington Airship Hangers, once impressively distant are now to be found at the end of peoples gardens.

Bumpy Lane, the local name for a once rural pathway to the tiny village of Harrowden can still be walked but those who remember it 20 plus years back, and I include myself here, will remember fields of orchids and other summer delights before the bypass gouged through the moors and signalling the growth of more houses. The wildflower meadows of Bumpy Lane live on in road names now, Meadowsweet Drive, Foxglove Way, Buttercup Close. Very ironic, maybe a unsubtle joke  and as far as a natural feel goes you have to wander down to the brook to see anything of interest, if your lucks in then caddis fly larvae can be seen on supermarket trolleys poking out of the water.

To the other end of the Moors you find the Wixhams, more housing on a scale unseen in Bedford’s history with a prospective 4500 new homes to be build in a single continuous settlement. Still in its infancy as of 2011, the need for housing has fallen foul of the need for property developers to make money so growth there has slowed but as you drive towards Bedford you become aware that something is stirring, a great beast is waking up and Bedford is once again changing shape.  The Wixhams has a school, shops and as of this year a multi purpose Reverend serving Anglican, Methodists Baptists and more so continuing a tradition of ensuring that people live their lives according to a 2000 year old legend.  A train station is planned for 2015 to add to the daily diaspora of city workers. Featuring crammed trains for two and a bit hours each morning and something less intense but still traumatic if you get the timing wrong each evening quite how the Bedpan (Bedford to Pancras line) will cope with the partial contents of 4500 houses as yet doesn’t feature in any literature. Nor does the effect of a commuter village on house prices but let’s just ignore this, the town and transport planners clearly have.  The nearby garden centre, once forlorn and abandoned has gone through something of a renaissance. They sell books, garden furniture, coffee, cakes and also if you look hard you’ll find they also sell plants.

The Wixhams isn’t alone. It’s the biggest by some distance but to the north west of Bedford lies a similar settlement grafted onto Biddenham in much the same way as the head on Frankenstien’s monster. The old thatched houses of the original village end abruptly and a series of houses well outside the financial reach of the majority can be found nestling around something called Deep Spinney, very exclusive it has its own access road and very active neighbourhood watch to keep the occupants safe at night. A good brisk walk and you are at Bedford Station and there they go each weekday morning purposefully striding into town. Or fighting for parking spaces in inclement weather!

With the lower classes in mind to the north east, with fond memories of the old MFI building in mind there’s a morass of confused uniform social housing and pretentious balconied properties that aspire to be somewhere else. Possibly away from the social housing I imagine the residents think as the new build gives way to the deprived wards of Goldington. No train station here for these good folk so it’s either the meagre public transport system or sitting in the interminable traffic flow as it crawls into town.

This breaks the pattern of “concentric zones” of development as where once the industrial estates were dotted around the edge of the town, Bedford has burst its banks and we see this second ring of housing spreading onwards.

The small village of Renhold, to the east, once separated by fields is now part of the town, a linear mass of property. The same for Elstow. Bedford has two cemeteries, the one in the town itself next to Bedford Park is a wildlife wilderness. The town’s dead spend their own individual eternities fairly quietly and on the edge of Bedford just up from the old MFI building the new (comparatively) crematory and crematorium gets on with the job of disposing of our mortal remains.

Housing has now crept up to the crematory border and with our wonderful growth of warehouses, mass produced cavernous stores selling all sorts from camping equipment, DIY and more if you like monotonous work, identikit pretentious housing and stories of where the local shops and pubs once stood, you can live, work, die and rot roughly in the same square mile.


Looking at The Town!

Its an interesting new term, psychogeography, so new by standards that you might not have heard it before. How best to describe it? Well its best covered by our ability to discover and explore urban environments for what they are, if you look at towns and cities as living and breathing extensions of the people who live there or those that have lived there and left their mark in what remains you are some way there.

There’s a train of thought that associates psychogeography with big cities, following an interesting 15 year period wher my partners job took me as a co-driver all over the UK I found myself quite often taken to a new city’s streets with a fiver and no map just wandering aimlessly but often reaching the same conclusion, which in my case was nothing more than an intrinsic appreciation of Newcastle, Dundee, Cardiff, Edinburgh or a host of other places. You can apply it to any community with a decent urban “scape”, a variety of social areas, and those that adhere to the Burgess theory of concentric rings which echoed Freidrich Engels opinions on social structure. You need industry, and often its decline manipulates the landscape and negatively influences all aspects of a towns decline.

There’s a passive side to psychogeography, sitting about at home or in the excellent local studies section upstairs of Bedford library digging all those nuggets out about Bedford’s history, there’s the option of numerous entertaining local history walks which take place in and around the town centre and then there’s the more “mystical” side of mapping the town, just walking through it, around it, going off down streets that you might have half seen, looking up at the tops of buildings.

Its a hard fact to get to grips with but if you live in certain parts of Bedford, statistically your life expectancy could be reduced by as much as seven years. Its not a simple case that living on a particular road has that affect its a whole whost of social and demographic issues that bring people together into key locations.

In the wider picture, in some parts of the urban core of Bedford and the nearby streets of Kempston, there are distant sirens and kids running away down alleys even though the sound is from an ambulance. Going back to the concentric zone theory that sees the most deprived areas clustered in a ring around the core of a town, Bedford ticks the box although some outlier areas conform equally. Two distinct forms of housing can be seen, modern new apartments and the older housing stock. We could all choose to live behind a remote accessed security gate if we had one simple asset, resonable secure wealth like the big city bonus bonanza boys. There are areas that have tried with varying degrees of success to emulate the boom, areas of London but for the most part we have been left marooned in a landscape influenced by police camera action programmes where the bad guys always seem to have the last laugh. We have a control room securely hidden in the bowels of Queen St Car Park where close on 100% of the town centre is kept under surveillance. Further out on the margins of the centre and into the residential parts we can hide behind our imaginary gates which come free and all we need is wait for the sound of breaking glass.

Behind our security blockade we can amuse ourselves with a wide variety of TV shows that seem to suggest our lives revolve around hidden cameras, where 24 hour observation is the norm and we can fill our heads with dreams of houses we can never afford and cooking for people we don’t know again in the presence of a camera crew.

Bedford Town is divided into electoral wards, the boundaries are fluid and without moving house you can sometimes ened up living in a different ward and with a different gang of people extolling the virtue of voting for them. The urban core of Bedford can be summarised as Castle, which swallows up much of the retail heart with the saught after Castle Rd urban village on one side and some of the oldest and dispirited housing stock on the other.

Over the river there are Kingsbrook and Cauldwell Wards, vast areas of a homogenous mix of private housing and social housing. Bedford was a sedate little town during the Edwardian period, wealthy families returned following the dismantling of the Empire, splendid town houses were constructed, a network of private schools grew and then geology and several million years of sedimentation spoilt it all when the clay pits were discovered. The population grew, Italian and then Indian migrants arrived to fuel the growing industrial landscape, and the green field around the Kings Brook or the Kings Dytch were filled with street after street of identical houses. The first wave of council houses avoided the town centre and were built in Sharnbrook and other rural outliers. We made up for this later on. Bedford’s aura of gentlemanly refinement which you get a whiff of around the top of De Parys Avenue was replaced by at first brick manufacture, then engineering and manufacturing industry with a growing population specifically moving to Bedford because of the prospect of secure work if which more later.

To the North West of the centre there is Harpur Ward named after one of Bedford’s great worthymen. To the west itself and really only reached by going over the main railway is Queens Park Ward, culturally its one of the most liveliest and entertaining areas of Bedford and for all the negatives i.e. crime failing housing stock, unemployment and so on, Queens Park has a sense of purpose and identity. Its various cultures have formed a level of cohesion and if there’s a note of dissappointment the Sikh temple at the top end (the biggest in the UK) which looks fantastic at night really should have been built on a mound then we could have competed with Sacre Cour on the edge of Paris, I digress….

Not something to really boast about but we need to get our heads around this for this diatribe to make sense, parts of Castle, Cauldwell and Harpur Wards figure in the top 10% of the most deprived aread of England, a futher seven sub areas feature in the top 10 to 20%. Its not staggering, if you appreciate Bedford in its wider sense, i.e. if you know your geography, its no great shock to find that almost 20% of children raised in the town are from income deprived households with this increasing to 50% in parts of Castle and Kingsbrook. That’s the kids who might just  form our collective futures. At the other end of the age spectrum, the ones that have dug the clay, shaped metal or whatever, almost 16% of the Boroughs pensioners are classed as income deprived, over 30% by the time you look at parts of Castle Ward and again with our old friends Caulwell, Harpur and Queens Park cropping up in the list of places to spend your remaining years.

This page is ongoing and will be continued, come back now y’all!


6 Responses to “The Bedford Diary”

  1. Pete March 15, 2012 at 11:34 pm #

    I have fond memories of trying to net sticklebacks in Bumpy Lane stream ( we never knew it as Elstow Brook)!

    Those were the days!!

  2. garyB January 14, 2013 at 9:52 pm #

    i watched the bypass being built in the ’90s as a young teen, the demolition of the tiny old old bridge on bumpylane to redirect the brook around the newer graffitti’d subway was the worst part for me.

  3. Barry Richardson March 29, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

    Nice piece of work, very interesting and insightful Thanks.

  4. Steve. Macaulay. July 30, 2013 at 3:57 am #

    Legs dangling over the old brick bridge…
    I can still feel the hot sun on my face as the sound of the hovering skylark mingles with the babbling brook, not another sound to be heard.

  5. Alan Armes May 6, 2014 at 11:24 pm #

    I was born in Kempston Barracks in 1953 and moved to \south Queensferry, Scotland in 1966 when Hewlett Packhard relocated. Have been back to Hastings Road where my nans pre-fab is long gone. Baliol Road and Robert Bruce Schools are happy memories. It was wonderful to read about Bedford and the area.

  6. Thumper September 8, 2014 at 6:02 pm #

    I too caught Sticklebacks with a net in the wee stream on Bumpy Lane. I lived in the AMQ’s at Shortstown (3 Stirling Road) in the mid 1960’s and went to Shortstown school, my first school. The headmaster was the wonderful Mr. Evans and I had two teachers while I was there, Miss Careless and Mrs. Hardcastle.
    We would wander down Bumpy Lane to the fish & chip shop and eat chips on the walk back home, they were wrapped in newspaper back then.
    Our doctor was on London Road, a good man, Mcnamara was his name, then there was his wife, I hated her. Dr. Mary Fitzmaurice, she used have her Poodles in the surgery with her.

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