Monday, 16 February 2009

Without the children

It had been an unusual fortnight at Hailey Hall after we returned from Denmark. The amount of snow meant that school was cancelled on Monday and Tuesday. Some of the students were able to make it back in on Wednesday and Thursday but the appearance of more snow (and some really bad ice forecast for the roads) meant that the boarders were sent home Friday morning and most of the staff were either unable to make it in, or were sent home upon their arrival. There was uproar in the media about how badly England coped with snow, and particular focus was made of how schools made life harder for parents by closing. Of course, if a school had stayed open and someone had been killed trying to get to school (as happened earlier in the year when a teacher was killed because her car skidded into the path of a train) the opposite would have been said, but that is the media for you.

Monday saw another closure, but the weather started to clear later that day and things returned to normal for the final week of half term, until Thursday night. Once more enormous quantities of snow were forecast to fall. This was potentially terrible news for Quinn, as he was scheduled to leave the following morning for a trip to Italy to go skiing with the school over the week off for half term. However, the snow did not eventuate and we were able to get Quinn to the bus on time Friday morning and wave him off on a big adventure (he has been told that he needs to write a blog entry for us about that week, he is quite intimidated). Consequently, come Sunday morning with Brock busy on the computer preparing for a couple of days of his holiday where he was to go in to school to complete coursework, Meg and Wayne decided to get out of the house by themselves.

It had been a while since we had gone off without the boys, so that was exciting in itself, but we needed to fix on a destination. We wanted somewhere new and different, but not too far away because Meg had been unwell for most of the previous ten days, and had not been to classes since the Wednesday of the previous week. Looking at the counties around Hertfordshire; we had been to Essex, Cambridgeshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Kent, and Berkshire. Bedfordshire was the obvious place to go, and if we were going to go to Bedfordshire, we might as well go to the town for which it is named, Bedford. It is just over 40 miles away, so would take about an hour to drive, so at about 10:30am off we went.

We drove up through Stevenage then turned on to the A1 heading north through Baldock and Biggleswade. Having seen most of the snow around our area melt over the previous week it was fascinating to see that much of this area, not that far north of us, was still blanketed in white. At the delightfully named Sandy, we turned onto the Bedford Road (or the B1042 as it is less attractively named). This took us into Bedford through Mogglehanger, Willington and Cople and meant that we got to see both sides of the river and the central campus for Bedford University as we passed into the main part of the town.

As is frequently the case in every town in Britain of any size (Bedford has approximately 80 000 residents, while the wider borough has 153 000 in total) parking anywhere near the centre was a significant issue. We had hoped to be able to find somewhere near the Bedford Town Bridge, because much of the interest in Bedford is to be found in this area, but it looked like we were to be unsuccessful. However, as we swung around St Pauls church and headed out to the north Meg spotted a free Council Car Park just near the Great River Ouse. We had timed our run perfectly, because driving around the cars that were double parked or otherwise parked illegally a gentleman was just pulling out and we swung smoothly into his place.

We had previously crossed the river on our trip to Sandringham, where we had seen the lower part of the river as it approached the sea through the fens in Norfolk. The river has always been the centre of Bedford, even providing the name (Beda - the Saxon who provided the Ford - a means of crossing the river). Sometime before the 1180’s the ford was replaced by a bridge, which even had a chapel built upon it, at least in part to encourage people to contribute to the upkeep. By 1671 there was also a prison built upon the bridge, for after a damaging flood it was agreed that the prison should be rebuilt. The current bridge was built in 1810 and it had a toll on it till 1835 to help pay for its construction. On the day of our visit the water level was very high because of the recent snow thawing and there was no sign of boats out upon the water despite the fact that it had been navigable since 1689. We walked along the river bank (through a light drizzle) up to the bridge.

Right in the centre of town we encountered Bedford's principal church, St Paul's Church, Bedford, in the square of the same name. The spire atop is one of the main features of the town and can be seen from a considerable distance in all directins. There was a church on the site by 1066 and work on the present structure began in the early 13th century, but little remains from that period unlike the other main churches (St Peter’s and St Mary’s) which have remains which date back to Saxon times. However, the famous preachers John Bunyan (of whom more will be said) and John Wesley both preached in St Paul’s. More importantly, during the Second World War (from 1941 to the end of the war) the BBC's daily service was broadcast from St. Paul's.

It certainly is an impressive structure, although it was a little disconcerting as Australians to see a statue of John Howard at the front of the church. We were greatly relieved to note that this John Howard (having been high sheriff of Bedfordshire) was so disturbed by conditions in the prison that he became a nationwide campaigner for prison (and health) reform and was responsible for improvements in those areas; almost the opposite of the Australian experience. He wrote a book called ‘The State of Prisons in England and Wales’ which pushed this cause along. At a time when travel was not the (relatively) easy experience that we have had, Howard travelled nearly 80 000 kilometres, including trips to Scotland, Ireland, France, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden and Russia, to research imprisonment in other parts of the world. Indeed, it was while in the Ukraine that he contracted typhus and died in 1790. In 1866 the Howard League for Prison Reform was founded in his honour.

Speaking of John Howard, his son James, having had experience in the foundry business, set up the Brittania Iron Works manufacturing the ‘Champion Plough of England’ and attracting other industries to the town, prompting a boom in manufacturing in the 19th century. In 1832 Gas lighting was introduced, and the railway reached Bedford in 1846. The first Corn Exchange was built 1849, and the first drains and sewers were dug in 1864. Many of the lovely buildings and decorations from this period remain and we were able to admire some lovely features, including a golden bull over the clock in the High Street.

Having done a little reading about the town before we left home, we had determined to eat lunch in the Swan Hotel, which was redesigned by Henry Holland for the Duke of Bedford in 1794. Part of the building is a staircase which came from Houghton House which was the inspiration for the ‘House Beautiful’ in John Bunyan’s famous allegory, ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’. The house was built by Mary Herbert, the Dowager Countess of Pembroke at nearby Ampthill at the end of the 16th century, and while living there she prepared the works of her late brother for publication. This brother was the favourite poet of Elizabeth I, Sir Philip Sidney, and he had received a state funeral upon his death. Houghton House was such a successful creation that in 1621 Elizabeth’s successor, King James I stayed there, but on the death of the Countess it fell in to disrepair with all of its fittings (including the staircase) being removed. You can still see the remains of the main buildings on the hill overlooking Ampthill itself.

The Swan Hotel is certainly an impressive building in it’s own right, not only functioning as a very elegant pub, but also providing accommodation and some very elegant function rooms. On the northern side of the Ouse it has some lovely views from it’s windows as well, but we were most impressed by the beautiful interior and the quality of the food. No doubt this has changed somewhat since an earlier version of the hotel acted as a prison in the late 17th century. It had chambers set aside for the judges when the County Assizes was in town (one of which could have been the room in which we ate, as it is clear that extra building on the hotel simply incorporated older parts of the building into the new). It was here, while imprisoned, that Bunyan wrote ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’, when he was not preaching, reading, or weaving shoelaces. We had a wonderful lunch (slightly more expensive than we would otherwise have had) in a beautiful atmosphere where, if we had been dressed in appropriate period costume, we could imagine sitting at any time over hundreds of years.

After lunch we walked a little in to the shopping district before exploring a little more of the history of this beautiful town on our way back to the car. One of the most fascinating buildings that we came across was the Old Corn Exchange which had a statue and plaque dedicated to the famous swing band leader, Glenn Miller. He and his band were based in Bedford during the Second World War and many of his recordings were made here at the Corn Exchange (no doubt the proximity to the BBC recording unit based at St. Paul’s contributed to this, or vice versa). Miller’s aircraft was lost before the war finished (on December 15th 1944) and Bedford has become a part of the tribute to this musician, hosting regular Miller themed concerts and tributes. Meg and Wayne found the whole town charming.

When we arrived back at the car, we admired once more the Great River Ouse (in which John Bunyan was baptised, Bedfordshire really does value his impact on history) and the notices which said we were not to feed the waterfowl. The older members of our readership might remember the 1970’s television show ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em’ starring Michael Crawford which was filmed in Bedford, whose streets and river occasionally played a prominent part in various episodes. This is not the only well known piece of filming to take place in the city, a number of scenes from the 2005 motion picture Batman Begins were filmed at the Cardington Hangers in Bedford and featured extras from Bedford. Last year the sequel, 'The Dark Knight', was also partially filmed at the sheds using the fake working name 'Rory's First Kiss' and members of the production cast stayed at various hotels around the town. It isn’t hard to come across people who had some sort of contact with the productions.

Indeed, for what is really quite a small town Bedford boasts its fair share of famous people. Harold Abrahams, the 1924 Olympic 100 metres champion and character in the film Chariots of Fire was born here (although his grave is actually not far from us in Hertfordshire. Others from Bedford include the late Ronnie Barker, actor and comedian John Le Mesurier. While British athletes Paula Radcliffe and Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards (ok, so we are using the term ‘athletes’ somewhat loosely here) are both associated with the town. Paddy Ashdown (the former leader of the Liberal Democrats) attended the Bedford School, while Christopher Fry (a playwright) and English cricketer Monty Panesar, both attended Bedford Modern School. As we were driving north out of the town we passed the house where Le Mesurier was born, on Chaucer Street, and noted the wonderful succession of street names which included Dickens, Milton, Spenser, Sidney and Shakespeare.

We headed up Paula Radcliffe Way (aka the A6) through Clapham and Milton Ernest to another place that Wayne wanted to show Meg, the town of Rushden in Northamptonshire. There is a football team in Rushden known as ‘Rushden and Diamonds’ (after a merger in 1992 between Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds) who played for a number of years in the football league but who currently inhabit the Nationwide Conference (the level just under). The merger of the two sides was the brainchild of Max Griggs, the founder of Dr Martens Boots, who bought the club in 1992. One of the stands is called the Airwair Stand (after one of the shoe types) and the club store used to be called ‘The Doc Shop’. Possibly the nicest part of the story is that, in 2005, Griggs sold the club to the fans for the amazing fee of £1, but despite this he continues to support the club and frequently makes donations to them.

Our final visit for the day (although we did not stop there) was the town of Kettering in Northamptonshire. Again, this was one of Wayne’s weird sport related obsessions because Kettering is the home of another football team from the Nationwide Conference, Kettering Town. On 24 January 1976, Kettering became the first British club to play with a sponsor's name printed on their shirts after signing a deal with local firm Kettering Tyres, however this created a furore in the Football Association which ordered them to remove the advertising or face a fine. The following year name sponsorship was legalised, partially thanks to Kettering Town. In another controversial move, since 2007 the players have had the words ‘Palestine Aid’ displayed on their shirts to increase awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Palestine. Kettering Town also saw the first foray into management of former England footballer Paul Gascoigne (although it only lasted 39 days). For those of you not interested in football, Kettering was also the hometown of a gentleman by the name of John Profumo, a British politician who was Secretary of State for War under Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1963 when the scandal broke which has been linked to his name ever since.

All that was left was a trip back down the M1 across on the M11 and the A414 to get back to Hertford and home. It was a lovely day out and, as always, we hope to return to Bedford and its surrounds another time. It really was a beautiful little place.

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