Bedfordshire full circle - Tour displacement therapy - CycleBlaze

Bedfordshire full circle

Note the last 5km on this are a phantom of the GPS's imagination!
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Now the virus advice was getting serious and it seemed wrong to put the bike on a train. I needed circular routes, and while the weather didn't look great, the wind was unusually in the east and this suggested a trip out to cross the (narrow) width of Bedfordshire county and back. 

Bedfordshire is a tall and thin slice of a county, with our base at its very eastern extremity jutting into Cambridgeshire. Bedford, the ancient county town and once (but no more) one of the principal towns of England, is bang in the middle. At the western end are the small, old towns of Ampthill and Flitwick - before you cross into Buckinghamshire and the huge (and not always fairly) maligned new town of Milton Keynes. 

My plan was to ride through the countryside south of Bedford this time, a route I'd done a few years back when riding to Luton. Instead of heading south, I'd turn north through Flitwick, round the hilly escarpment at the west of the county containing the weird middle-class holiday camp of Center Parcs, and then work my way back up to Bedford via the suburb of Kempston. From Bedford it'd be an easy ride back via Sandy as before.

Unfortunately, and contrary to the weather reports, the day started out rather overcast and dim - though it did brighten up later (the exact opposite pattern to what had been predicted). It was surprisingly chilly as I set off. 

The first part of my route would take me down to the neighboring town of Biggleswade, through the familiar off-road way along the Greensand ridge and then down through the headquarters of the RSPB, which as well as being a major bird-watching destination, has a bridleway through the middle so you can traverse it by bike. This takes you to Biggleswade common, a nice expanse of genuinely common land stretching over the Ivel valley floor to the extensive new build estates in Biggleswade. I crossed the town and exited to the west, following tracks and crossing under the A1 highway via the large drainage tubes (duck!) - a shortcut that is not exactly official, but is also conspicuously not prohibited and gets heavily used by local ramblers.

(Unfortunately I fell back into old habits, and having done this route maybe a hundred times failed to take any photographs.)

Leaving Biggleswade I spun over fields and past the old quarries, and entered the grounds of the Shuttleworth estate. This is a pretty huge setup including a manor house, agricultural college, and airfield hosting historic airshows. It's a really nice patch of countryside, with my only gripe being they can be a little too eager to close all the rights of way through it (ostensibly for safety, though the cynical might suspect this has more to do with people sneaking in and watching the air shows for free).

Somebody's private helicopter on the Shuttleworth estate
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Coming into the estate
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I left the estate to the south, with the wind behind me, and popped out on the very quiet roads that weave through this underpopulated bit of Bedfordshire. Heading for Southill and the incongruously-named Ireland I weaved through woodlands, most of which are still owned by the estate. There were virtually no cars about at all, but far more joggers and other cyclists than I'd usually expect (which would be: none) - people really are taking to wholesome exercise as a justifiable reason to get out the house.

Obelisk in the woodlands near Southill
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Welcome to ... Ireland?
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I cut down to the outskirts of Shefford, and then made my way to the John Bunyan trail that cuts into the woods north of Chicksands. John Bunyan, author of the Pilgrim's Progress, was imprisoned in Bedford for many years - apparently in a gaol cell that was incorporated into the stone bridge. Chicksands is now home to an impressive mountain bike course - for more agile bikes than the long-based 'Shift (and more agile riders than me on it) - as well as the local government offices for all of Central Bedfordshire.

It was still really quite gloomy and cold, but I thought the woods were a good spot to have lunch (and keep my social distance from any others).

Lunching spot in the woods near Chicksands
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There's some impressive, if somewhat sinister, wood carving all over the forest
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Some of it has a frankly pagan aspect. This totem is monikered "hope" and carries a design of the cycle of butterfly, to caterpillar, to chrysalis. I like it!
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Cool dragonfly bench
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From Chicksands I crossed the main Ampthill road, the A507, to Campton and then made my way via the lanes up some steep hills to Upper Gravenhurst. There were quite a few other cyclists about, many of them in full lycra get-up. I'd like to say I reeled them in and sped past them, but unfortunately the reverse is true. One interesting thing is that everyone was really quite proactively friendly, saying hello as they passed and (generally) commenting on the weather. Bedfordshire's a pretty friendly place by southern English standards, but this sort of conspicuous gregariousness doesn't come naturally to us as a people. One silver lining of the virus is it bringing out community spirit in this way. 

A very undulating field to have to plough
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From Upper Gravenhurst I knew there was a great byway all the way through the Wrest estate, a stately home converted partially, and slightly bizarrely, into an industrial estate. 

The entrance to the byway to Wrest park. I love the idea of someone getting a few miles down here, bumping over the dirt track, while still trusting their SatNav
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The byway to Wrest park. This is a great route, and I started to feel a lot more chipper, despite the continued cloudiness
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The country-house bit of Wrest Park. Sadly I didn't photograph the industrial estate part, which will do you an MoT (vehicle maintenance check) on your car, amongst other incongruous light-industrial services
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Wrest Park
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From Wrest I continued to the West, creeping past to the outskirts of Flitwick. I'd managed to find a route through the lanes that would take me away from the town centre, which I thought more justifiable in the limiting-infection-exposure stakes.

Restored water wheel just outside Flitwick
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From Flitwick the idea was to cut across country to the north, to get to the extensive hills and woods surrounding Ampthill which hosts Center Parcs. Center Parcs is a very odd place - it's a kind of holiday camp, a sort of inland Butlins but very much geared to the middle classes. In this season of the virus it would certainly be closed (and I don't much see the appeal myself anyway) but I was still curious to see it. The OS map promised there would be good bridleways and byways all around the perimeter.

I cut to the north on a bridleway that passed a farm, and then had to enter a field right by a cattle mud wallow. It was very deep and squashy, but the bike sort of floated along the surface (while my shoes sunk ankle-deep) and I soon got through it. Then the surface dramatically improved and I popped out near the village of Steppingley. I could then pick up a tiny lane that became narrower and narrower, eventually becoming a dirt-surfaced byway. 

The going was good, though, and when I saw a rather epic barbed-wire fence I knew it was the perimeter of Center Parcs. 

A good bit of surface, before hitting the very muddy cow-wallow beyond the farm ahead.
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Soon the lanes narrowed to a dirt-track byway
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Lots of pheasants around. They really are birds of very little brain.
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The going was sandy at times, but generally good. Quite a few other riders were about, including one that surprised me as I was, er, refreshing myself.
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The perimeter of Center Parcs. They seem to be going for the Colditz vibe. What else says "holiday camp" than barbed wire, CTTV and dog patrols?
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I rounded the holiday park, passing quite a few walkers who flung themselves aside at my (extremely slow) approach. In my experience there are two kinds of ramblers on these kinds of tracks - those that can't hear you talking directly behind them, and those that apologetically throw themselves to one side as if you have right of way. Don't worry guys - I don't have priority, I'm not in a hurry anyway and I'm not going to run you over!

North of the Parcs I crossed the main Ampthill road again, and picked up the path along the side of a golf course. The landscape around here is really quite hilly, with sharp escarpments down to the Marston Vale that links Bedford and Milton Keynes.

Cutting up past the golf course
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Looking down the escarpment to the road weaving around below
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Sometimes round here there are just too many options to explore
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I had an exciting descent down into the vale, through the villages of Lidlington and into Marston Mortaine. Hidden in the hills around here is a curious circular formation of roads, which apparently is a "vehicle proving ground" - some kind of test track for car manufactures. I kept an eye out for any sign of its presence to the east, but sadly couldn't spot anything that might give it away.

After M. Mortaine I crossed under the Bedford-MK road (A421), and began something of a hack through a series of villages in the vale against the wind, eventually reaching Wootton just outside Kempston and Bedford.

Impressive cartoon renderings on the subway under the highway. Somehow I get the impression whoever did this wasn't a true member of the youth, given the vintage of Mutley (and, I suppose, Bart Simpson, though that makes me feel old)
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You'd feel pretty silly if you got mugged down here
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Just visible in the distance are the huge chimneys remaining from Stewartby brickworks, just outside Bedford. The brickworks were, at the turn of the 20th century, the world's biggest kiln, and produced 20% of all bricks in England. Amazingly production continued until 2008. There is currently a tussle over whether to demolish the chimneys (they are potentially structurally unsafe) or preserve them as a historic monument.
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A really jarring architectural mixup in Wootton
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I am always reminded here of the famous statement that "the NHS is the closest thing the English people have to a religion" (it certainly has a better claim than the CoE). People tend to forget the quote is from Nigel Lawson, who spoke in frustration at his attempts to "reform" it. A lesson from history, perhaps, there.
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Passing into Kempston, a suburb of Bedford, I picked up a few supplies and then continued to follow the signed bike paths through the slightly down-at-heel housing estates. Bedford is an ancient town, of previous great importance - prior to the middle ages it was the last Saxon town on the principal river of East Anglia, the Ouse, before entering territory controlled by the Danes in their territory of the Danelaw - and its prominence was kept up throughout the middle ages. But in the last decades of the twentieth century it suffered some post-industrial decline, and can feel a little neglected.

But more recently, particularly in its attractive riverside parks, it has been looking more and more prosperous and self-confident. While there are still rough areas, it has an interesting and lively centre. It's also quite a quirky place. It's home to the Panacea Society who believe Bedford to be the location of the Garden of Eden (no, really) and who kept a (small terraced) house in Bedford ready for Jesus' return upon the second coming. It also has the biggest Italian population in the country by proportion, which means great ice-cream, coffee and pizza are never far away. You can't hold it up to Cambridge, but I've developed a bit of an affection for the place now.
 

Passing through Kempston, five old bike wheels just layed out on a piece of waste ground. Weird!
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Kempston Barracks - a nineteenth centry barracks built, as everything around here, from brick. Now available for wedding receptions.
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Old facade to the Britannia Iron Works
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The riverfront in the centre of Bedford. I can follow this cycle route all the way back to Sandy
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The familiar way home back to Sandy passes through the extensive country park around the flooded gravel pits to the Ouse, and is completely off-road. Half way is Danish Camp, so called because there are remnants there of the Viking settlement furthest up-river from the North sea. The moat and dock are still visible. Sadly it's all closed currently, but I did get some nice shots on the way back, and climbing back up the hill to Potton.

The weather had really brightened at this point
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I spied a little deer in the undergrowth
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Heathland outside of Potton. That magical light does wonders for my mediocre photography.
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Not a bad way to come home
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Today's ride: 86 km (53 miles)
Total: 441 km (274 miles)

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Scott AndersonI’m really enjoying this journal. The outings are great, but I’d read it just to chuckle at the town names.
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3 months ago
Jon AylingFunny town names?! Next you'll be telling me that "Wrestlingworth" or "Pidley" are amusing! Chuckling at "Horton-cum-Studley"? I suppose "Shingay-cum-Wendy" is a funny name as well? What about a solid, no-nonsense name like "Moggerhanger"? I just hope you never have the misfortune to go to "Ventongimps"!

(with apologies to Michael Palin in The Life of Brian) :-D
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2 months ago