Car-free in and aroundBedfordBedfordshire
Overshadowed by more famous destinations, like Oxford (50 miles west) and Cambridge (30 miles east), Bedfordshire is one of England’s smallest counties. But the county town of Bedford, just 35 minutes from London's St Pancras station, has beautiful riverside parks, great museums, fascinating military, industrial and literary connections, and a fabulous community rail partnership. From Bunyan's Pilgrim to Bletchley Park's cryptanalysts, from giant metal heads on the High Street to double-ended sweet and savoury pastries, a day trip to Bedford is an unexpected voyage of discovery. There's lots to see so you might need longer. Scroll to the end for more information on where to stay and how to get around.
1. Ride the Marston Vale Line
Through the green countryside from Bedford to Bletchley, the Marston Vale Railway passes reed-fringed lakes, country parks and the Grand Union canal. Look out for little muntjac deer in the fields beside the track. You can get 10% off tea and cake at the pretty station tearooms in Ridgmont, hear about the railway’s history in the heritage centre there, and visit the former intelligence HQ at Bletchley Park at a discount. Trains leave from Bedford station every hour and take 45 minutes to get to Bletchley.
- You can’t miss the grade II listed chimneys and kilns of the former Stewartby brickworks (if they’re still there – the chimneys are slated for demolition soon!) During its mid-twentieth-century heyday, this huge factory was the world’s largest brick producer, employing 2,000 people and making 500 million bricks each year. You can find out more about it in The Higgins museum (see 4 below).
- Millbrook and Stewartby are both handy stations for the Country Park. From Millbrook station, it’s a mile’s scenic stroll past reed beds and meadows to the Forest Centre, where your train ticket gets you 10% off in summer in the lakeside café. There are several routes nearby for walkers and cyclists – you can hire bikes or bring your own on the train for free.
- Two stops further on, at Ridgmont station, enthusiastic volunteers from the Marston Vale community rail partnership, can show you round the free heritage centre in a former ticket office. Next door, a lovely cafe in the old ladies’ waiting room serves up home made cakes and toasted paninis on flowery china. The station houses like this one, along the Marston Vale line, were built in the picturesque Victorian style known as cottage ornée.
- Marston Vale’s rail partnership suggests several walks in the area and even a pub crawl, following the Rail Ale Guide.
- Get off at Fenny Stratford station to explore the Grand Union canal – you can see it from the train window and the waterside Red Lion pub, serving real ales near the lock, is a two-minute walk from the station.
- Bletchley station is five minutes the secret wartime cryptology centre at Bletchley Park, now a major visitor attraction and growing all the time with new exhibitions about its interesting history. Read on!
2. Break the Code at Bletchley Park
With a valid train ticket and this voucher, two people can visit Bletchley Park for the price of one. Now famous for its once-top-secret work breaking enemy codes during World War II, when nearly 10,000 people worked there, Bletchley Park was the wartime home of the Government Code and Cipher School. Their mission was to read encrypted German messages, including those generated by the famous Enigma machine. Just turn right out of Bletchley station and you’ll see it on your left.
- You can see the original huts where the code-breakers worked, Alan Turing’s office and notebooks, a reconstruction of the Bombe, operated by hundreds of Wrens (Women from the Royal Naval Service), and more.
- As well as making military history, Bletchley Park pioneered crucial new technology. The cryptanalysts and engineers who worked there invented the earliest forms of today’s computers and launched the information age, changing the world in extraordinary ways.
- Visitors can also get 2 for 1 entry to the neighbouring National Museum of Computing. It’s open on Thursday and weekend afternoons with the galleries housing the Colossus (a reconstruction of the world’s first electronic computer, built to decrypt German messages) open every day.
3. Be a Pilgrim with Bunyan
Back in Bedford, there’s plenty more to see, including reminders of the town’s connections with Pilgrim’s Progress writer John Bunyan, who was born nearby, preached, was tried and imprisoned in Bedford. There is a museum on the site of his old meeting house. The brick Victorian church, with bronze doors illustrating Pilgrim’s Progress and stained glass memorials to the author, stands where Bunyan’s followers used to gather in a barn to hear him preach. The museum has a very early edition of Pilgrim’s Progress, dating from 1679 – the year after it was first published.
- Don’t miss the reconstructed prison cell at the far end of the gallery – there you’ll find Bunyan’s wooden flute, carved from the leg of his prison stool, and a stoneware jug with zigzag blue and white glaze that Bunyan’s daughter used to bring soup to her father in prison.
- There’s also Bunyan’s anvil – a tool of his trade as an itinerant tinker, which he carried with him on his shoulders – and an iron violin that he crafted himself.
- The Bunyan museum is open free 11am to 4pm from Tuesday to Saturday and is right in the heart of town behind The Higgins (see 4).
- Turn left outside the museum and right along High Street to find a bronze statue of Bunyan on St Peter’s Green.
- You can take a walk to sample some of the 77-mile John Bunyan Trail or a cruise on the John Bunyan community boat.