Sometimes called “the gateway to the Midlands and East Anglia”, Bedfordshire is delightfully rural, considering it’s just 30 miles from London. Two traditional nicknames for people from Bedfordshire are ‘Bedfordshire Bulldogs’ and ‘Clangers’, the latter deriving from a local dish comprising a suet crust dumpling filled with meat or jam or both. Um… yum?
But regardless of potentially dodgy cuisine, the county has a lot to offer. Bedfordshire is known for its walking, cycling and horse riding trails. There’s the internationally known Icknield Way trail, as well as shorter, family-friendly circular walks.
A great place to get to grips with the area is the Bedford Museum, which is situated within the grounds of Bedford Castle (more on that in a minute). The museum, housed in the former Higgins and Sons Brewery, explores the history of Bedford and the surrounding area. Highlights include medieval relics, such as the tile pavement from Warden Abbey, and a number of fossils unearthed in the area. There is also an extensive section on industry that has been particularly important to the area, such as lacemaking.
Next door, you’ll find the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, a Victorian mansion the interiors of which have been recreated to look like an 1880s home. Highlights include a Gothic-style room containing works by William Burges, and rotating exhibitions of watercolours, prints and drawings from the gallery's collection, which includes the likes of Gainsborough, Cotman and Turner.
Bedford Castle is a large medieval castle built after 1100 by Henry I, which now lies in ruins. Henry III besieged the castle in 1224 following a disagreement with a former soldier who had gained high office. After the surrender of the castle, the king ordered its destruction. Today only part of the motte still stands, forming part of an archaeological park built on the site between 2007 and 2009.
For a more intact bit of history, Woburn Abbey is a historical home dating back to 1145, when it was founded as a religious house for a group of Cistercian monks. In 1538 the Abbot, Robert Hobbes, was found guilty of treason and the state confiscated his monastery. Legend has it that Mr Hobbes was hanged from an oak tree at the Abbey's gate – a fun game for youngsters is to try to guess which one! (We’re kidding. Well, it depends on the youngsters…) The abbey became a family home in the 1600s and that is the condition in which visitors can tour it today.
For some more modern history, head over to the 306th Bombardment Group Museum in Bedford. Housed in one of the few remaining buildings on an original airfield built in World War II, the museum showcases artefacts to recreate the life and atmosphere of the airfield and surrounding area during the war years. Multiple units are commemorated within the museum, though the 306th are featured, with a large collection of memorabilia, photographs and displays.
For an even more contemporary experience, the Bedford Creative Arts Gallery is an educational charity that promotes contemporary visual arts. While the gallery itself showcases changing contemporary art exhibitions throughout the year, the charity also provides studio space to artists and takes on public art projects throughout Bedford. Check out their website to see what they’re up to. http://www.bedfordcreativearts.org.uk/index.php/current-programme/
If you’re looking for a more outdoor experience, you can’t go wrong with the Woburn Safari Park, which offers a drive-through experience where visitors can see lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) Other exotic animals in the park include white rhinos and giraffes. There are also talks and demonstrations, where you can find out more about the animals or watch feeding times. In the high season, don’t miss the birds of prey flying demonstrations.
The ZSL Whipsnade Zoo is another great spot for animal lovers. This zoo is made up of acres of English countryside and contains many diverse animal species, including lions, tigers, elephants, hippos and giraffes.
Adjacent to the zoo is the Dunstable Downs and Whipsnade Estate, a 510-acre parkland and Area of Special Scientific Interest. The Chilterns Gateway Centre, located at the top of Dunstable Downs, will provide you with all the maps and information you need to take the extensive number of walks available throughout the parkland. Walks offer panoramic views over the Vale of Aylesbury and along the Chiltern Ridge. Other highlights include the Five Knolls Bronze Age Burial Mounds and Norman Rabbit Warren. Keep your eyes on the skies as well, as the London Gliding Club has its base on the Downs and the area is very popular with gliders, hang gliders and paragliders.
A more manicured approach to Bedfordshire’s outdoor spaces can be found at the Swiss Garden, an ornamental garden with plantings in the style of the 19th century in Old Warden Park. At the centre of the ten acres of plantings, shrubs and trees sits a tiny Swiss cottage.
Train enthusiasts visiting Bedfordshire will love the Leighton Buzzard Railway, a steam railway that runs round at Stonehenge Works station in the Bedfordshire countryside. There are special displays about the railway and its 90-year history, as well as activity sheets for children.
There’s more than enough to keep you busy in Bedfordshire for a long weekend or more, even if you spend most of that time trying to avoid those jammy-meaty pies…