Property Hot Spot: Bedford - Rural pocket with a cosmopolitan mix

Robert Liebman appreciates a town that can trace its history back a thousand years and still move with the times
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Indy Lifestyle Online
RICHARD WAGNER'S music is better than it sounds, quipped the humorist Mark Twain. An American critique of a German composer is an apt way of introducing Bedford, an ethnically diverse city which is usually ignored despite being ancient, attractive and convenient.

Richard Wildman, a local historian, surmises that Bedford's obscurity "is possibly because it is on the way to other places". Those other places consist mostly of Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Leicester, Northampton and Luton airport. Nestled in a rustic pocket between the M1 and A1, Bedford occupies a location that is enviable in more ways than one.

In an area in which bland dormitory towns and synthetic new ones are not unknown, Bedford has a history that pre-dates the 10th century, as well as boasting extensive period houses and a large river, the Great Ouse, the setting for glorious embankments with parks, gardens and waterside housing.

After the Second World War, brick-making came to Bedfordshire, attracting immigrants from Poland, Italy, the Ukraine and other parts of central and eastern Europe, soon followed by newcomers from the Asian subcontinent and the West Indies. According to the county council, Bedfordshire "is the most cosmopolitan county in the UK, with some 57 ethnic groups being presented".

The ethnicity of the area is embodied as well as confirmed by Anna Ward of estate agents Spicer McColl. Ms Ward, an area manager, says that "the various groups tolerate one another and live in harmony". As Anna Kuszlewicz, she was born and raised in the area, the daughter of a political refugee from Poland and an Italian mother. She still lives in the area and can't imagine ever leaving it.

"Growth in property prices has been good and steady. I would say that prices have increased 10 per cent since January, and this is a conservative estimate," says Ms Ward.

A not inconsiderable part of Bedford's appeal is its schools. "Bedford has a large number of Victorian suburbs, mainly because of the four Harpur Trust schools, an educational charity dating to 1566," Richard Wildman explains. "There are two schools for boys and two for girls. Bedford is still important educationally, especially in further education."

The buoyant market conditions that currently prevail cut across all sectors. "We are getting first-time buyers and also investors who buy to let or to do up and sell on, especially old Victorian houses and repossessions," says Peter Wallace of Taylors estate agents. "We also have people moving up a step, from three-bed semis to three-bed detached houses, for example. Many are doing part-exchange with builders. Business has substantially improved in recent years, with buyers having more confidence in general in their ability to commit to mortgages."

In Bedford, as elsewhere, the usual mass developers have mostly built the usual uninspired semis and plug-ugly modern apartment blocks. However, now many of these old, and some new, developers are also erecting interestingly designed family homes and highly specified executive homes.

The Low-Down

Transport: Mainline trains provide service to St Pancras and King's Cross Thameslink in 50 minutes, with a through service to the City, Gatwick and Brighton. Bedford also links with the West Midlands and Euston, with westbound service via Bletchley, Leighton Buzzard and Watford Junction. Northbound service is to Kettering, Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield. Bedford is 21 miles to Luton and 45 to Stansted airports.

Prices: One-bed flats sell for pounds 25,000-pounds 65,000. Two-bed luxury riverside flats can sell on either side of pounds 150,000, depending on location. The average Bedford property is a 3-bed semi, pounds 75,000-pounds 80,000.

Properties: Recent listings in the local property newspaper included a one-bed mobile home in Pavenham for pounds 17,995, a gigantic five-bed 1980 house with 1.2 acres in Chawston for pounds 315,000, and a Grade II listed lodge house. The area boasts modern barn conversions as well as country cottages with inglenook fireplaces and thatched roofs. At Great Denham golf village, Bovis is building detached houses with a hexagonal wing and conical dome.

New developments: Newberry Court (Fairclough Homes) is a 160-unit development of two- and three-bed homes of which 70 remain, from pounds 66,500 to pounds 86,950. Abbeyfields (David Wilson) in Elstow, 2 miles south of Bedford, has three- to five-bed homes, from pounds 89,995 to pounds 221,995. Cranbourne Gardens (Persimmon) has three- and four-bed homes at pounds 117,950 and pounds 137,950. Other developers active in the area include Beazer, Bellwinch, Connolly, McCarthy & Stone, Potton and Wilcon.

Bunyan the Ubiquitous: John Bunyan was born in Elstow in 1628, preached in Bedford and, for lack of a preaching licence, did time in the local slammer. The Bunyan Meeting House is the reconstructed barn where he preached - the famous door panels (1876) depict scenes from his Pilgrim's Progress and the parlour is the Bunyan Museum. The public library contains the Mott-Harrison collection as well as other books and pamphlets relating to the author. No fewer than 12 locations in Bedford and five in Elstow claim a Bunyan connection.

Festivals: Annual festivals and major events include the Olney pancake race (February), a beer festival and national apple day (October), Christmas lights switch-on (November), and Victorian Christmas fayre (December). The Philharmonia Orchestra presents ten concerts annually at the Corn Exchange.

Town and around: Bedford is home to the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, and the Cowper & Newton Museum in the Georgian home of the 18th-century poet William Cowper. The area's numerous houses and parks include Woburn Abbey and Woburn Wild Animal Kingdom and Safari Park, Howard House (home of John Howard, a name enshrined in the Howard League of Penal Reform), Stockwood Country Park (horse-drawn vehicles), and Chicheley Hall (a baroque 1719 pile with "memories of Admiral Lord Beatty and a unique hidden library".

Estate agents: Fairclough, 01234 328222; David Wilson, 01234 342008; Spicer McColl, 01234 217712; Taylors, 01234 351781.