It may be the third smallest county in England, after Rutland and the Isle of Wight, but Bedfordshire offers multifarious delights. It’s a county of picturesque villages and historic houses, mills and farms, woodland and nature reserves, great views from the Chilterns escarpment and with well-established walking and cycle routes. In the Bedfordshire heartlands are to be found two of England’s leading animal attractions, Woburn Safari Park and Whipsnade Wildlife Park.
The Great Ouse and the Grand Union Canal, once commercial arteries, are finding a new role as leisure attractions, with miles of scenic walks or leisurely cruises to be enjoyed. The south of the county is dominated by the towns of Luton and Dunstable, while the central region of Bedfordshire is an area of ancient settlements and a rich diversity of places to see. Here is perhaps the most impressive dovecote in the country, with nests for 1500 birds, while just outside Sandy is the headquarters of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. At nearby Cardington, the skyline is dominated by the huge hangars where the R100 and R101 airships were built. Houghton House at Houghton Conquest is widely believed to have been the inspiration for the House Beautiful in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan was born in the village of Elstow, a little way south of Bedford, and many of the places most closely associated with the writer can be visited, in both the town and the village. Bedford, the county capital, offers a blend of history and modern amenity, all set against the backdrop of the River Great Ouse, which passes through the town and many pleasant villages on its journey across the county.
The largest town in Bedfordshire and perhaps best known for Luton Airport, Vauxhall cars – and, for those with long memories of radio days, the Luton Girls Choir. This large choir, with girls aged between 12 and 23, was for many years one of the most popular in the country, with frequent live and radio performances. The choir was disbanded in 1976, but the recordings are still in demand. Although the town has expanded rapidly from a market town in the early 19th century to a major industrial centre by the mid 20th century, it still boasts more than 100 listed buildings and three Conservation Areas. Luton first began to prosper in the 17th century on the strength of its straw plaiting and straw hat- making industries. These activities are amongst those featured at the Luton Museum and Art Gallery, housed within a delightful Victorian mansion in Wardown Park, a traditional town park with tennis and bowls. The park was opened to the public in the early years of the reign of Edward VII, but not the house, which was first a restaurant and then, during the First World War, a military hospital. It was not until 1931 that the town’s museum and art gallery, originally housed in the library, moved here. As well as featuring a re-creation of a Victorian shop and pub, the museum is also home to a range of collections covering the hat trade (including the Women’s Hat Industry Collection of more than 600 hats – viewing by appointment), costume, jewellery, straw-plaiting, fine arts, local history, archaeology and childhood. As lace-making was one of the two main cottage industries in Bedfordshire, visitors will not be surprised to learn that the museum also has the largest collection of lace anywhere in the country outside London.