Friday, July 22, 2011

7. Bedford Town Bridge

Bedford Bridge, J. H. Matthiason, 1824
The current Town Bridge was designed  in 1813 by the architect John Wing. The bridge completed the classic aspect of the town - the spire of St. Paul's rising up behind the new Bridge and the Swan Inn, itself recently rebuilt in 1794 by Francis Vth Duke of Bedford, replacing the medieval inn that had stood on the site.  The bridge was doubled in width in the 1940s, with care taken to preserve it's appearance.

The Chapel on the bridge
It is not recorded when the ford river crossing was replaced by a bridge in either stone or wood but it is possible that the stone bridge dates from the 12th century when then resident of Bedford Castle, Simon de Beauchamp, had built a chapel on the bridge. By 1311 this had fallen in to disrepair and was replaced by one dedicated to St. Thomas - a change that caused such dispute between the people of the town and the sheriff that violence broke out.


St. Peter de Dunstable
The ancient bridge is believed to have been strengthened in the 1500s with stone from the demolished church of St. Peter de Dunstable which stood opposite St. Mary's on Bridge Street or the High Street. The southern part of the town at that point had a sparse population and the parishes of St. Mary's and St. Peter de Dunstable had been merged in 1448 after a hundred years of alternating churches each week the parishioners were granted a licence to dismantle St. Peters and use the stone for the bridge, expanding St. Mary's, and other public uses.

The Town Gaol or Lock-up
The town lock-up on the bridge was first established in 1589 when the chapel of St. Thomas was converted. For many years it was believed that John Bunyan conceived The Pilgrims Progress in the Town Gaol on the bridge, but it is now thought that this more likely occurred during his imprisonment in the County Gaol on Gaol Lane, now Silver Street, where he would preach to the 'congregation' of the 60 or so other prisoners. By 1661 it was recorded that the prison was in a state of disrepair and not fit to hold prisoners in. In 1663 it was washed away and had to be rebuilt in 1665. It wasn't until the late 1770's that the town prison was moved to a site at St. Loyes - by 1824 the town and county prisons were merged.

Woodcut of Bedford Bridge with gatehouse and prison.

The gatehouses on top of the bridge were removed by 1765 and the old bridge was demolished in 1811.
The Bridge in pictures
Bedford's Town bridge has been the subject of numerous paintings and drawings. The most famous artist to have depicted it being J.M.W Turner, who in 1831 featured a view of the Bridge in his Picturesque Views in England and Wales. Whether Turner came to Bedford or not to make the picture is open to speculation due to the slightly fanciful layout of Bedford's key landmarks which gives it the feeling of a montage of other artists' views of the town.

Demolition of Old Bedford Bridge, photograph  c. 1811

'Bedford, Bedfordshire' Etchingby J.T Willmore after J.M.W. Turner

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