If you’re a Bedford resident and come to this blog to know more about the situation on the rails, you don’t need to bother with this post. But if you’re interested in the railway aspect and don’t necessarily know much about the town, here you go!
The settlement at Bedford pre-dates the Norman conquest, and was attacked by the Danes in 1010. The town’s Royal Charter was granted in 1166, and is the second oldest in the country to Oxford, possibly re-confirming an even earlier grant.
It’s always struck me as odd that for such a small place in the middle ages, Bedford gave its name to a dukedom. But it did: the first Duke of Bedford was Henry IV’s third son, younger brother of Henry V, John of Lancaster; he was created Duke of Bedford in 1414, and was later regent of France during the minority of his nephew, Henry V’s son, Henry VI. He died in 1435 and the title became extinct. But it was recreated, and became extinct, three more times in the fifteenth century alone! After a bit of a gap, a new Earldom was created in 1551, and the same Russell family holds both the earldom and the dukedom (recreated in 1694) today.
Bedford was on the Parliamentary side in the ‘English Civil War’ (let’s not get into the debate over exactly what it should be called – you know the one I mean); John Bunyan was imprisoned in Bedford, following the restoration of the monarchy, when he began writing Pilgrim’s Progress.
The River Great Ouse has been navigable from Bedford to the sea from 1689 onwards; Bedford’s River Festival, held every other year, was founded to mark the re-opening of the river to the coast in 1978, and is the second largest free open-air event in the country after the Notting Hill Carnival. Bedford was a substantial centre of lace production from the 16th to the 20th century; it has long had a substantial brewing industry, with local firm Charles Wells still surviving.
Despite the significance of the river for trade, Bedford like most places only really saw major growth in the 19th century – accelerated, but probably not initiated, by the coming of the railways in the middle of the century. There was substantial manufacturing and other heavy industry to the south and south west of the town – mostly now gone. Over the years, Bedford has been known for Simplex tractors, airships and, especially, bricks.
Today, Bedford’s shape on the map is something of a smear from south-west to north-east, though housing is gradually filling out the north-west and south-east corners. The population of the urban area is around 170,000 and 28.5% of the population BAME. The population is growing more quickly than England or the East of England region; the child poverty rate slightly lower than the national average, employment rate slightly higher; but community satisfaction slightly lower and crime rate slightly higher – though no massive variation from the averages on any scores.
The town is generally considered part of the ‘East’ of England (which in fact stretches surprisingly far west, as far as Northampton!). It is part of ITV’s Anglia region, and since 1965 has received its TV signals from the Sandy Heath transmitter, ten miles east of Bedford (near Sandy, funnily enough), which also broadcasts to Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. For some years the live background image of the ‘West’ edition of Anglia News was the main bridge over the River Great Ouse in Bedford, though this now seems to have been ditched in favour of the more iconic King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. Curiously, in railway terms Bedford was traditionally part of the ‘London Midland’ region, and not associated with the East of England at all. That’s changed more recently, with the Midland Main Line now dealt with operationally along with the East Coast Main Line.
Radio is one area where Bedford is poorly served: BBC Radio Bedfordshire lasted all of eight years from 1985 before being expanded into BBC Three Counties Radio. Local radio otherwise is a branch of Heart and a single community station, in2beats – with in truth positions itself as a specialist music station across the internet.
While Bedford has never been a major centre of TV production, it was used as a filming location on numerous episodes of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em – you can see Frank Spencer making a hilarious mess of his motorcycle test around the streets of the town if you want to track it down (filmed accurately on the road where motorcycle tests were carried out for decades), and in fact the training centre for all driving instructors across the UK is based at Cardington, just outside Bedford (though gradual creep means there’s now very little open countryside between there and the town – it’s on that south-east corner of town that’s gradually being filled in with housing). The hangar at Cardington that’s no longer used for airships has been used for many large-scale film productions, including both original and more recent Star Wars films. The other hangar is still in use for airships, and until recently was the base for the Airlander, the prototype of what lays claim to be the largest aircraft in the world; it was a familiar site on the Bedford horizon for a couple of years, and occasionally seen on test flights in the skies over the town in between its famous crash landing and eventual collapse after breaking free from its mooring. It’s still being worked on in the Bedford area.