Tuesday, 13 May 2014

In the beginning was Bedford

End of terrace in quiet side street, suit Messiah?
Bedford, as you are doubtless aware, is the Garden of Eden. You didn't know that? Neither did I to be honest but according to The Panacea Society it is and the end of terrace house, No18 Albany Road known as 'The Ark' was maintained by them as a residence for The Messiah after the second coming.
We've spent a couple of days wandering around Bedford and found this and more than a few other interesting things out about a town that I can't recall ever having visited or, more to the point, even wanting to visit. Yet it's home to more than 100,000 people.
The old park boat ramp is now a hydro-electric plant
It is, in footballing parlance, a town of two halves. Broadly speaking, east of the town bridge is a delight. The tree lined riverside embankment with its ample Edwardian houses is one of the nicest city riversides I've visited and the long park between the upper and lower rivers are wonderful – particularly at night when the yellow street lamps and green illuminations under the bridges give it an almost Riviera like elegance. Incidentally these lights are powered by a hydro-electric plant in what used to be a Victorian boat slide that moved small craft on rollers between the upper and lower rivers. The plant uses an Archimedian screw principle to drive an electric generating system that produces 160,000kwH a year.
Glenn Miller was a wartime regular here
Sadly, west of Bedford bridge things go downhill fast. The town's genteel old stone buildings were surrounded by 1960s concrete blockhouse architecture and the main shopping centre slides away into side streets of fast food outlets and nail bars quite quickly. Away from the river, it doesn't seem to be a wealthy town – another tale of traditional industries like engineering, brickmaking and brewing that have fallen away and not been adequately replaced.
The independent school buildings are now entrance to a mall
On the positive side, the council does seem to have got a grip on the problem. Some of the '60s horrors are being demolished and there is an ultra-modern new arts quarter that embraces the recently rebuilt Higgins Gallery and Museum – a mix of old Victorian home and modern extension. A shame that it has such a haphazard layout and a collection of exhibits that leave one coming away with more questions than answers about Bedford.
Victorian house and brewery with modern addition form town museum
 Another and particularly ingenious marriage of old and new is that the handsome classical facade of the old Bedford Modern School now opens into a covered shopping mall.
Sadly we couldn't visit the Panacea Society's museum as it only opens on Thursdays and Saturday mornings but Wikipedia as ever comes to the rescue. It all begins with the 18th century 'prophet' Joanna Southcott who left a mysterious box with instructions that it should only be opened in times of national crisis and in the presence of all 24 bishops. Needless to say, the bishops have never felt the need to get together for this purpose.
Home of Mabel Barltrop and her apostles
At one time Southcott had over 100,000 followers but gradually faded out until The Panacea Society founded by one Mabel Barltrop and her twelve apostles at 12 Albany Road Bedford was all that was left. For some reason - and I had hoped the museum would tell me - they believed Bedford was both the Garden of Eden and the site of the Second Coming.
Bonkers as all this might seem to you and me, the Society had some wealthy supporters and by 2001 was worth a reported £14million. Yes that's £14m! The last member died in 2012 and the Society has now become a charitable trust supporting various religious and anti-poverty projects in the area.
I reckon that  museum could well be worth a return trip to Bedford!
And finally...what would the town's famous son John Bunyan, firebrand preacher and author of 'Pilgrim's Progress' make of this....

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