BEDFORD ARCHITECTURAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL & LOCAL HISTORY SOCIETY
BEDFORD LOCAL BOOK REVIEW
BOOK REVIEW by Alan Cox
BEDFORD 50 YEARS AGO:
The architecture of a County Town
By the late Victor J Farrar RIBA, PPFAS, FRSA.
Edited by Peter Boon, Paul Middleton and Richard Wildman
Illustrated with the author's original photographs.
Additional photographs by Alan Crawley.
Available from local bookshops priced at £12.00
Reproduced by permission from the Eagle News
(The Old Bedford Modernians' Club magazine)
The architectural writer Ian Nairn (1930-83), who was born in Bedford, cruelly dismissed his birthplace as 'the most characterless county town in England.' OBM and conservation architect Victor Farrar utterly refutes this jaundiced view, by presenting a splendid celebration of Bedford's architectural heritage. Bedford may not be Bath or Cambridge or Stamford, but, as Victor shows, it still has a rich variety of historic and interesting buildings, old or not so old, even if sometimes one has to search them out or look above modern shop-fronts.
This book is based on a thesis written in 1957 while Victor was training to be an architect, and has been published by the OBM Club, following his death in 2006. Peter Boon, Paul Middleton and Richard Wildman have shown great tact and skill in amending and updating the text, without losing its original character and period feel, and in integrating the photographs into the text. The result is a seamless and attractive presentation.
An introduction by Richard Wildman pays tribute to Victor and his achievements. Bedford's architecture is then described and discussed in seven chapters, beginning with the Saxon and Medieval period and ending with the first half of the 20th century. There follows a walk around the town centre, as it was in 1957. Richard Wildman concludes with a postscript, which chronicles what has happened since 1957.
Some 85 black and white illustrations complement the text. Most are photographs, mainly taken by Victor in 1957, but supplemented by modern ones specially taken by Alan Crawley, plus a few from other sources. Those by Victor are particularly evocative and recall the Bedford of my schooldays. In some cases, buildings gone, but certainly not forgotten, are shown: the Christie Almshouses in St Loyes; the western half of the Dame Alice Street Almshouses; Sell & Willshaw's quaint fishmonger's shop in the High Street; the distinctive busts of the architects Palladio, Wren and Inigo Jones on Dust's shopfront, also in the High Street; the two Nonconformist chapels in Cauldwell Street; St John's Station; the Town and County Club, latterly the County Library, on The Embankment; the Granada Cinema in St Peter's Street; and the amazing 'Hiawatha' in Goldington Road, a Victorian villa characteristically overloaded with ornament and detail, so that it resembled a house from a Hammer horror movie. This book is also a lament for so many lost buildings, destroyed in the last 50 years.
But in the same period, there have been some outstanding successes in preserving and conserving Bedford's older buildings, and these are rightly celebrated here. In the 1970s, the Blore Facade of the old BMS was kept, to retain a very useful open area in the heart of the town. Again in the 1970s, thanks to Victor's efforts, Priory Terrace was renovated instead of being demolished. St Mary's, Holy Trinity and St Cuthbert's Churches, after being made redundant, have been put to sympathetic new uses. Most recently, the gateway to Britannia Ironworks has been retained as a distinctive feature, the rest of the factory having been demolished to make way for new housing.