Bedford to Stewartby
We start off the tour at the stations of Bedford and Bedford St Johns, which, as their names suggest, serve the town of Bedford. Bedford is the County Town of Bedfordshire. Originally thought to exist in the Middle Ages, and achieving its Borough Charter in 1166, Bedford owed much of its initial growth to its status as a market town, but also because of it being a crossing point of the River Great Ouse (in fact one crossing, Beda’s Ford, is thought to have given rise to the name of the town). While it still retains the twice-weekly market, its specialities and claims to fame have much expanded in time, with independent schools and sporting achievement currently being Bedford’s forte. By crossing the river on the service, you may see this in action, with the river frequently being used by rowers from one of the two rowing clubs in the town.
Perhaps the town’s biggest claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of John Bunyan, author of A Pilgrims Progress, thought to be the second most read book in the western world. John Howard is another famous resident, who began the campaign for prison reform with his report The State of Prisons published in 1777. In more modern times, the town is home to Paula Radcliffe, champion marathon runner, and is the birthplace of late comedian Ronnie Barker.
Bedford is now a busy, bustling large town, and is the economic and social centre of northern Bedfordshire. Its many leisure facilities include theatres, a cinema, an international athletics track, and a professional rugby club, so there is always something to do. Bedford’s role as the County Town is likely to be strengthened, with significant housing and employment growth planned for the Bedford area over the next 20 years, as well as a significant redevelopment of both the town centre and the train station also in the pipeline.
After passing under the Bedford Southern Bypass, the train then pulls into Kempston Hardwick station. This station was notorious some years ago as the least-used station in Britain, mainly due to its very rural nature. But with significant employment developments near to the station in recent years, patronage has jumped. Shortly after leaving the station, a clear area of land to the south east of the railway signifies the site of the old Coronation Brickworks. The Marston Vale has a strong history of manufacturing bricks, and at one time the Coronation Brickworks was the largest brickworks in the world. In fact, if you have a house built in the mid-20th Century, and made out of London Bricks, chances are those bricks came from one of the many brickworks scattered across the Marston Vale.
A little further down the track the train passes the Forders Freight Sidings, and the old signal box marking their entrance. These sidings have seen significant increases in activity recently, which bodes well for the future of the line. Shortly afterwards, the train then passes through the yards of the Marston Vale’s last remaining brickworks at Stewartby, which closed recently. Passengers can view up-close the last 4 chimneystacks, visible from many parts of the Marston Vale.
The train then pulls into Stewartby station. Formerly known as Wootton Pillinge, Stewartby owes not just its name, but its very existence to the Stewart family. Owning the then London Brick Company, the Stewarts believed that good working and living conditions for the employees of their brickworks was essential. Their dream was to create settlements with all amenities included, with large houses with all the things that we take for granted today, such as electricity to every home, and good sewerage. Stewartby, which rose from a few farms and a handful of buildings in 1926, was born (although it was not actually named Stewartby until 1935). The results of this can be seen today, with brick buildings prevailing in a well-planned and picturesque village.
In the future, one of the areas most exciting leisure developments is planned to be built at Stewartby. The National Institute into the Research of Aquatic Habitats (or NIRAH) is planning to build a massive freshwater aquarium, with associated educational, research, and leisure facilities, on the edge of Stewartby. We are very excited by this development, and hope to encourage people to travel by train to the site once constructed.