“Am in Bedford. Why?” This anguished telegram, apocryphally sent by G.K. Chesterton, came to my mind last Friday evening as I set out from Bedford station to walk across the town. The initial impression is discouraging: you don’t want to linger long in Midland Road. But once you have reached the old Bedford Modern School – its Blore façade now politely hiding the shopping centre behind it - things rapidly improve: St. Paul’s Square, the town bridge and Henry Holland’s Swan Hotel, which Pevsner describes as “the noblest hotel of the age, very severe and classical” all raise the spirits. Then the Embankment beckons.
“The best thing visually about Bedford is the way the town has treated its river. Few English towns can be compared” (Pevsner again). He’s right, and others before him have said much the same. In 1712 Lady Celia Fiennes described the scene:
The river runs twineing about and runs into several notches of ground which is sett full of willows, and many little boates chained to the sides belonging to the people of the town for their diversion.
Bedford, indeed, was one of the first places in England to discover boating for pleasure. Punts, canoes, skiffs – all these and other craft could be seen enjoying the river between Duck Mill Lane and Newnham; and even last Saturday I saw a neat little Edwardian electric launch putt-putting past the Embankment Hotel. Nowadays, though, most of the activity is strictly athletic, as the Schools’ and Bedford Town Boathouses attest. The Ouse at Bedford is ideal for serious rowing, but an eight raising its stroke-rate while practising for the next regatta allows small margin for messing about on the river: pleasure boats of a sort are confined to Longholme Lake, an unregarded pond squeezed between the upper and lower river. In the days when we had serious winters, this lake used to freeze over, and then everyone turned out to go skating. The scene was Brueghelesque.
After a week of overcoats and raw
Red hands, the ice at last set thick enough
And out the skaters came: the adepts, sure
Of admiration from the young; the tough
Guys, humbled after showing off and then
Upending painfully; the novice boys,
Their ankles splayed about to fall again;
Sledges, and dogs excited by the noise.
These rites of winter need to be observed
To prove the season’s authenticity;
In images like these there is preserved
Our sense of what ‘real winter’ ought to be
But rarely is. Faced with this falling short
It’s good to see those scenes that Bruegel caught.
I wrote that in 1976, after living in Bedford for three years. (Looking at the sestet now, I think I must have been going through an early Philip Larkin phase: I was teaching The Whitsun Weddings at the time.) But I have known the town almost all my life, and it was good to be here again on Saturday. I was on my way to run a day school on ‘John Betjeman: poetry and architecture’* at the admirable Bedford Retirement Education Centre, where I have taught on and off for many years and have many friends. First, though, I wanted not just to enjoy a walk in the early sun along the towpath, but to photograph the town’s war memorial. It’s a remarkable and unusual memorial, which I shall be discussing in a lecture, ‘Memory, remembrance and memorials’, in Oxford at the end of this month.
Bedford by the river would have appealed strongly to Betjeman with its flower-beds, bandstand, Suspension Bridge and sporty schoolgirls at full stretch on the water, sculling with confidence, blades on the feather. The nearby streets are discreet and chestnut-lined; the shaded late-Victorian villas stand back behind privet hedges. They were built for military and colonial families who settled in Bedford rather than Cheltenham because the local Harpur Trust schools were less expensive and prepared boys for army and civil service careers. The artist Dora Carrington lived in Rothsay Gardens as a child and railed against the suffocating respectability of it all. But at least she learned to be an artist in Bedford, scandalizing the High School by cutting her hair short before going on to the Slade. (I’m looking forward to reading Pat Barker’s new novel, Toby’s Room, part of her new Great War sequence following on from Life-Class, about the Slade at the time Carrington, Gertler, Spencer, Nevinson, Nash et al were there under Professor Henry Tonks.)
One person who knew the river at Bedford all too well but would not recognize it now was the town’s most famous son, John Bunyan. He was imprisoned many times for preaching without a licence: according to tradition, the town gaol, which he called his ‘den’, was by the town bridge, and it was there he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. Bedford School sometimes claims Bunyan as a former pupil –rather improbably, I used to think – but I once amused myself by imagining him transported forward three hundred years to 1978 and turning up for an Old Boys’ weekend:
The old boy by the Ouse, dismayed at blacks
And skateboard boys, stood mute against the roar
Of juggernauts and wished he’d not come back:
Bunyan, returning, hated what he saw.
Here where his den once was he now could see
Little to urge the words “I knew this place”
Onto his lips: only above the trees
A spire still occupied its proper space.
Well, that at least was something. But there must
Be someone there, some face he knew? Just then
He spotted Talkative, that pair Mistrust
And Timorous (those too familiar men)
And all the rest.
So he was glad he came:
Bunyan began to feel at home again.
Walking along the Bedford Embankment last Saturday, knowing I should soon be back among familiar faces and oId friends, I too began to feel almost at home again, though it’s now all but thirty years since I actually lived in Kingsley Road, a minute’s easy walk from the river.
* Among the poems I discussed was ‘Potpourri from a Surrey Garden’, about which I wrote in a post earlier this year: John Betjeman and Windlesham.
[Illustrations: (i) The River Ouse at Bedford, with the suspension bridge in the foreground; the Swan Hotel and St Paul’s Church spire in the distance (ii) the Bedford War Memorial, by Charles Sergeant Jagger (1921)
Photographs © Adrian Barlow 29.09.12