BEDFORDSHIRE, an inland county of England, bounded on the north-east by Huntingdonshire, on the east by Cambridgeshire, on the south-east and south by Hertfordshire, and on the west by Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. In form it approaches a long oval; but its outline is very irregular. It is about 35 miles in length from north to south, and about 22 miles in its greatest breadth. It has a circuit of about 145 miles, and comprises an area of 462 square miles, or about 295,582 acres. It is one of the smallest counties in England, three only containing a less area, viz., Huntingdon, Middlesex, and Rutland. It is situated between 51° 49' and 52° 21' north lat., and between 0° 10' and 0° 42' west long. This district of South Britain was included, at the period of the Roman invasion, in the territory occupied by the tribe of the Cassii, probably the same as the Cattyeuchlani. Under the dominion of the Romans it formed part of that division of the country which was called by them Flavia Caesariensis.
Three roads constructed, or probably adopted and improved, by the Romans, crossed this county: Watling Street, Iknield Street, and another leading out of Hertfordshire into Cambridgeshire. Watling Street passes across the south-west corner of the county, through Dunstable, to Fenny Stratford, in Buckinghamshire, and coincides here with the line of the great road from London to Chester. Iknield Street runs in a south-westerly direction from Baldock, through Dunstable, to near Leighton Buzzard.
During the long struggle between the Britons and Saxons a battle was fought in the neighbourhood of Bedford, in 571, in which the former were totally defeated by the Saxons, under Cuthwulf. This county, at a later period, formed part of the kingdom of Mercia. It suffered greatly from the incursions of the Danes in the 10th century, and was comprised within the Danish jurisdiction (Danelege) under Canute. Except the events connected with the sieges of the castle of Bedford, which are related in the article on that town [see BEDFORD], this county has not been the scene of any important historical event since the Norman conquest.
The surface of Bedfordshire is agreeably diversified with gentle hills and fertile plains. It is only in the south-east part of the county that any considerable eminences appear. There it is crossed by the Chiltern hills, a chalk range, in a direction from south-west to north-east. These hills form the Luton and Dunstable downs. Skirting them on the north-west is a tract of clays, or chalk-marl. To this succeeds a belt of iron-sand, extending from Leighton Buzzard through Woburn, Ampthill, &c., into Cambridgeshire. The surface of this sandy tract, which constitutes a remarkable feature in the physical character of Bedfordshire, is generally hilly. It varies in breadth from 1 to 5 miles, and is now mostly enclosed and brought under cultivation. It contains beds of fuller's-earth and much fossil wood. North of this tract is the Vale of Bedford, in which the dark-blue clay, called Oxford clay, prevails. It is a corn district of great extent and singular fertility. The northern part of the county is generally level. Woods and plantations are pleasantly interspersed through the county, frequently clothing the sides of the hills.
With the exception of the bleak downs in the south, there is scarcely any waste land. Extensive and pleasing prospects are commanded from many points on the hills, especially from the downs between Streatley and Barton, on the edge of Hertfordshire, and from Millbrook churchyard, near Ampthill, over the Vale of Bedford.
The principal rivers are the Ouse and the Ivel. The Ouse enters the county from Buckinghamshire, at Turvey, flows northward along the boundary a few miles, and then by a circuitous course of 45 miles passes Bedford, where it becomes navigable. It then continues its course by Barford and Tempsford, where it receives the waters of the Ivel, and enters Huntingdonshire, near St. Neot's. The Ivel has its source on the northern slope of the Dunstable downs near Baldock, in Hertfordshire, and flowing northward joins the Ouse at Tempsford. The Lea rises near Houghton Regis, on the south slope of the downs, and runs by Luton into Hertfordshire, falling into the Thames below London. The Ouzel, which rises near Whipsnade, runs by Leighton Buzzard, forming, for some distance the boundary between this county and Buckinghamshire. Besides these rivers there are many small tributary streams, most of them falling into the Ouse.
The mineral productions of Bedfordshire are few and of small importance. Limestone is obtained in the Vale of Bedford; freestone at Totternhoe, where also "clunch" (the local designation of the chalk-marl) is quarried and burnt for lime. Traces of coal have been observed, and fuller's-earth is found in great abundance. Fossil shells of nautili, anemonites, &c. have been discovered, and in the neighbourhood of Bedford, a large skeleton of the plesiosaurus was disinterred in 1833.
The climate is mild and genial, the greatest cold prevailing in the chalk hills in the south, and the chief moisture in the clay districts. The soils are very various, embracing almost every hind from the heaviest clay to the lightest sand, and as each sustains its appropriate vegetation, the botanist finds here many rare and interesting plants. Along the river valleys is found a rich loam, the fertility of which is kept up by annual inundations. In the country north of Bedford there is much poor and wet land. Gravel beds occur along the course of the Ouse, beneath a bed of very rich earth.
The agriculture of the county has been much improved through the energy of the Duke of Bedford. The principal crops are wheat, barley, beans, turnips, &c. There are numerous dairy-farms, from which large quantities of butter are supplied to London. In the neighbourhood of Sandy are extensive and valuable market-gardens, the produce of which is sent to distant markets many miles round. The farms are generally of small extent, not often exceeding 200 acres and are let on yearly tenancy.
Bedfordshire is divided into nine hundreds and the liberty of Bedford borough. The names of the hundreds are Barford, Biggleswade, Clifton, Flitt, Manshead, Redbornstoke, Stodden, Willey, and Wixamtree, all which, with the names of several half hundreds since incorporated with them, are mentioned in the Norman survey. The number of parishes is 123, of which 10 are market towns, viz.:-Bedford, the county town and a parliamentary borough, Ampthill, Biggleswade, Dunstable, Harrold, Leighton-Buzzard, Luton, Potton, and Woburn. There are two extra parochial places and many large villages.
The county, which has a population, according to the census of 1861, of 124,478, is divided into six Poor-law Unions and five County Court districts, the former being those of Ampthill, Bedford, Biggleswade, Leighton-Buzzard, Luton, and Woburn, and the latter the first five of the same. Bedfordshire returns four members to parliament, two for the shire and two for the borough of Bedford. The local government is vested in a lord-lieutenant, about 35 deputy-lieutenants, a high sheriff, and a numerous body of magistrates. Besides Bedford, where the elections for the county take place, there are seven polling-places, being the towns at the head of the Poor-law Unions, with Dunstable and Sharnbrook.
The county is in the Norfolk circuit, and Bedford is the assize town. It constitutes an archdeaconry in the diocese of Ely, and province of Canterbury, and is subdivided into six deaneries, comprising about 85 benefices. It was formerly a part of the diocese of Lincoln. Bedfordshire has no manufactures or trade of importance. The occupations of the people are more entirely agricultural than in any other county of England. The making of straw-plait employs most of the female and not a small proportion of the male population in the southern districts. The products of their industry, known as the Dunstable straws and the Luton plait, have a wide reputation. Lace making is carried on in all parts of the county, chiefly, perhaps, in the north, and employs, it is estimated, above 2,600 hands. Sedge mats are made in large quantities along the borders of the Ouse, near Bedford.
The antiquities of the county are not numerous. On a hill, near Sandy, is a Roman camp, enclosing an area of about 30 acres. It is usually called Caesar's Camp, and is of an irregular oblong form. On the low hills, near Dunstable, are two ancient entrenchments of a circular form, one at Maiden Bower, the other called Totternhoe Castle. They are supposed to be of British origin. The latter is a circular mount with two ramparts, one at the base and another a little distance from it. Near this mount is an oblong camp, with rampart and ditch, about 500 feet in length and 250 feet in breadth. This is attributed to the Romans. There are other circular works in the neighbourhood of Leighton-Buzzard and Bedford. The baronial fortresses, moat of which were destroyed by King John, have left no remains in the county. The sites of some of them are, however, marked by great earthworks, as at Arlesey, Bedford, Eaton-Socon, Ridgmont and other places.
At the period of the Dissolution, the monastic establish, menu of this county were numerous, and among them were six of the greater monasteries. These were Elstow abbey, near Bedford, Dunstable priory, Warden abbey, Woburn abbey, and the priories at Newenham and Chicksands. The moat considerable remains are those at Elstow and Dunstable. There are no traces of Woburn abbey. Several of the churches present interesting examples of ancient architecture. The Norman is exhibited, in combination with the early English style in the churches of Elstow and Dunstable, both of which were conventual. Other instances of the Norman style are seen in the churches of Paddington, St. Peter's, Bedford, Flitwick, and Thurleigh. Clapham church, near Bedford, is partly in the Saxon style. Filmersham church is a good example of early English architecture. The churches at Leighton-Buzzard, Luton, Biggleswade, and several others are also interesting.
The principal seats of the nobility and gentry in Bedfordshire are the following: Woburn Abbey, the seat of the Duke of Bedford; Luton Hoo, that of the Marquis of Bute, and the birthplace of Anne Boleyn; Oakley House, the seat of the Marquis of Tavistock; Wrest Park, of the Countess de Grey; Ampthill Park, of Lord Wensleydale; Hawnes Hall, of Lord Carteret; Melchbourne, of Lord St. John; Old Warden Park, of Lord Ongley; Battlesden Park, of Turner, Bart.; Chicksand Priory, of Osborne, Bart.; Milton Bryant, of Inglis, Bart.; Sutton Park, of Burgoyne, Bart.; Aspley, Aspley Guise, Bushmead Priory, Hexton Hall, &c. &c.
The Midland railway intersects the county in a south-west and northeast direction, entering a little to the north of Hitchin, in Hertfordshire, and passing by Henlow, Sheppard, Southill, Cardington, Bedford, Oakley, Sharnbrook, and Ilchester. The Great Northern railway crosses the eastern side of Bedfordshire, entering from Hitchin, and running by Arlsey, Biggleswade, and Sandy, to St. Neot's. A branch line, 10 miles in length, from the Bletchley station of the London and North-Western railway crosses the south-western part of the county, entering near Fenny Stratford, in Buckinghamshire, and running by Woburn, Ridgmont, Lidlington, and Ampthill, to Bedford. Another branch of the same railway runs from the Leighton Junction to Dunstable and Luton.
The great road to the north enters Bedfordshire at Baldock, and passes through Biggleswade, to St. Neot's. The road to Manchester and the north-west crosses the south-west corner of the county, through Dunstable, into Buckinghamshire. From Bedford, which occupies nearly a central position, roads diverge to Ampthill, Woburn, and Dunstable, or Leighton Buzzard; to Silsoe, Luton, and St. Albans; to Shefford and Hitchin, or Baldock; to Banford and St. Neot's; to Sharnbrook, Higham Ferrers, and Wellingborough; to Turvey and Northampton &c.
There is no canal in the county. The Grand Junction canal, however, approaches it at Leighton-Buzzard, on the south-west border. The Ouse is navigable from Bedford, and the Ivel from Shefford. They unite at Tempsford, and run through Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire, falling into the sea at Lynn Regis in Norfolk.
by Colin Hinson ©2013