Illustration of  book cover

BOOK REVIEW by Alan Cox,
formerly a senior editor of The Survey of London.

by Richard Wildman with Colour Photographs by Alan Crawley

The History Press (2011), Hardback in colour with dust-jacket, 95 pp,
ISBN 9 780752 463216, RRP £12.99.

Nobody knows more about Bedford’s past, especially from Victorian times until the present day, than Richard Wildman. He has a positively encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, so any book by him on the town’s history is to be warmly welcomed. His latest offering consists of a fascinating selection of double-page spreads, with a larger old sepia photograph (or, in a very few cases, an old drawing or watercolour) and a smaller up-to-date colour photograph. Here I must pay tribute to Alan Crawley’s sparkling modern images. They reflect tremendous patience on his part, not only to wait for a suitable sunny day, but also to stand until a rare gap occurred in the incessant stream of traffic. As you turn the pages, Richard takes you on a leisurely guided tour around Bedford, as it was and is now.

For Old Boys of my era (1955-64) at Bedford Modern School, two buildings, now gone but illustrated in the book, are reminders of that period. One is the Liberal Club, which stood in Midland Road next to the BMS Junior School, which held its morning assemblies in the Club’s large upstairs room. For the rest of the day it served as an extra classroom for the main school. Smelling of stale cigarette smoke and beer, it was a most incongruous setting for such functions. The other building is the Star public house, which stood where the Harpur Street extension to Marks and Spencer is now. At the end of lunchtime, one would often encounter a group of BMS staff wandering out, usually led by Mollie Kingston, cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth.

In his short introduction Richard bemoans the wholesale clearance and redevelopment which took place in the town after 1945, and which reached a crescendo in the 1960s. Many of the photographs in his book illustrate the bitter fruits of those times, and show very clearly how all too often characterful old buildings have been demolished, to be replaced with the modern buildings which at best are boringly banal and at worst are positively ugly. Thus, where the former George Hotel (later Murketts car showroom) stood in the High Street, next to the Swan Hotel, there stands Swan Court (built 1959-60), its ‘vacuous façade’, as Richard rightly calls it, now looking positively tawdry. For me the saddest loss is Dust’s drapers, ladies’ hats and clothing shop at No. 75 High Street. As the old image in the book shows it was a gloriously idiosyncratic, over-ornamented Victorian confection. As a boy I was always fascinated by the busts of three famous architects – Palladio, Wren and Inigo Jones – which, for some reas on, adorned the ground floor, beside the shop windows.

On a happier note, Alan Crawley’s present day photographs show in vibrant colour just how attractive are those old buildings that survive. There are still plenty of older facades above modern shop-fronts. This is particularly true of the High Street, where the Borough Council have plans to improve the current run-down state of many of the buildings, with the help of Heritage Lottery funding. It is to be hoped that these plans come to fruition and that gradually more appropriate shop-fronts can also be introduced, restoring what was Bedford’s premier shopping street to its former glory.

My one criticism of this book is the fact that many of the old sepia photographs are spread across the centrefold – an irritating practice which breaks up the unity, and spoils the integrity, of the image. Despite this, I really enjoyed looking at the photographs and reading Richard’s always informative captions, and I warmly commend it.
(This review also appeared in the January 2012 issue of Eagle News, the OBM Club magazine.)