History of Bedfordshire

The town of Bedford was founded by the Danes; they made a burh or fortified settlement north of the River Great Ouse by a ford. The burh was surrounded by a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top.


It is said that Bedfordshire was recaptured by the English king Edward in 915 AD. He then created another burh or fortified settlement south of the river. A ditch called the kings ditch surrounded it. Afterwards Bedford prospered, it was more than just a fortified settlement, it also had a weekly market and a mint. However Bedford was pillaged again by the Danes in 1010.


In the Middle Ages Bedford was a small market town with a population of probably no more than 1,500. To us it would seem tiny. Even by the standards of the time Bedford was small and unimportant town, however the Normans built a wooden castle to keep the people of Bedford in order. (It was later rebuilt in stone).  However in 1224 a rebellious baron held the castle against the king. When the king captured it Bedford castle was destroyed.  The remains of the castle can still be discovered in the town centre, near John Bunyan museum!


In 1166 Bedford was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). In the Middle Ages Bedford had a weekly market and an annual fair; in those days fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. People would come from all over Bedfordshire to attend a Bedford fair.  Guests today still flock to the town for the ever popular River Festivals!


In the 16th and 17th centuries Bedford grew in size. By the mid-17th century Bedford probably had a population of about 2,000. This was despite outbreaks of the plague in 1575-76 and 1578-79. (Like all Tudor towns, Bedford suffered from plague. However, although each time plague struck it killed many people, the population always recovered.


In 1689 the River Great Ouse was made navigable as far as Bedford. That was a huge boost to the town and economy. In those days it was cheaper and easier to transport goods by river than by road. Once the river was navigable, goods could be brought to and from Bedford much more easily. As a result Bedford began to grow more rapidly, a trait which continues today.


In 1801 Bedford was still a relatively small town with a population of 3,948. However it grew rapidly during the 19th century and by 1831 Bedford had a population of 6,959. In 1801 a new Bedford jail was built. Then in 1803 an Act of Parliament created a body of men called Improvement Commissioners to pave and light the streets. They also demolished some old buildings to ease congestion in Bedford.


During the 19th century amenities in Bedford improved. After 1832 Bedford had gaslight, in 1834 Assembly Rooms were built for balls and card games, in 1849 a corn exchange was built where grain was bought and sold and the Bunyan Meeting House was built in 1850.  Like all towns in the early 19th century Bedford was dirty and unsanitary as a result there were outbreaks of cholera in Bedford.  However conditions in 19th century Bedford did gradually improve; in 1864 a network of drains and sewers were built, in 1866 a water company was created to provide piped water. The first cemetery in Bedford opened in 1855, the Park was opened in 1888, Shire Hall was built in 1882 and a hospital opened in Bedford in 1899.  The town was growing!


Throughout the 19th century Bedford remained an agricultural market town; its main industries were brewing and making farm implements.


Bedford grew rapidly in the 20th century. In 1901 the population of Bedford was 35,000, by the end of the century it had grown to 74,000. In 1934 the boundaries of Bedford were extended to include Goldington and after 1945 new estates were built at Brickhill and Manton Heights.

However, throughout all the improvements, Bedford remained an agricultural town. Farm implements were made in Bedford, so were other machines.  In the 20th century bricks were also made in Bedford.  Conditions in Bedford continued to improve in the 20th century; the first public library in Bedford opened in 1935, Cecil Higgins Art Gallery opened in 1949, The Harpur shopping centre opened in 1976, furthermore Bedford Museum opened on its present site in 1962 and The Bunyan Museum opened in 1998.  A lot of these places are still striving and open to the public today, why not take a trip and visit our beautiful historic town for yourself.


The Barns Hotel a short history originally by Nicholas Redman, Company Archivist, Whitbread Plc.


The building that we know today as The Barns Hotel has a history that can be traced back to the 11th century when it was a monastic grange of Newnham Priory which stood about half a mile away to the North West, across the River Great Ouse. Newnham, one of two Augustinian priories in Bedford was founded C1165. The Priory is marked on Thomas Jeffery’s 1765 May of Bedfordshire, but nothing remains now, although a long wall, north of the Ouse opposite Fenlake, is said to belong to it.


Fenlake Barns, as the property was known, still belonged to Newnham Prior at the time of the dissolution of the Monasteries. It was valued then at £12-11-4d. It stayed in the possession of the crown until 1599 when it was sold. It then passed through the hands of several owners who leased it to a number of families, including in 1630 the Whitbread’s.


On 20th August 1720 Samuel Whitbread, founder of the great brewing business that still bears his name, was born in the house (our the Riverside Tavern). On 9th October 1779 Whitbread bought his birthplace for £720, and it remained in the family possession until the 1890’s. It then passed to Trinity College Cambridge in whose hands it remained until 1940. In 1987 Fenlake Barns was bought by Whitbread & Company Plc (as it was then) and permission for change of use to a hotel and restaurant was obtained.


Work began soon after on creating the Watersedge Restaurant, and constructing a 45 bedroom block that blended well with the original house (which won a building prize) it included a Solarium, Sauna and two function rooms the Northill and Southill Suites. The latter take their name from nearby villages, Southill the magnificent house bought by Samuel Whitbread in 1795, is still home to the Whitbread family today.


An inscription stone was laid in the west wall of the hotel on 3rd August 1988 by the Mayor of North Bedfordshire Mrs Elizabeth J Luder; the topping out ceremony was performed on 25th October 1988 by Samuel Whitbread, who was then chairman of the company, and who is great-great-great-great grandson of the first Samuel Whitbread. On the 21st February 1989 John Lee MP, then Minister of Tourism officially opened The Barns Hotel. A plaque commemorating this used to be opposite the reception desk until the great Easter floods in April 1998. A picture of the hotel surrounded by the river can be seen on the wall opposite the reception desk.

The oldest part of the property, the Riverside is to the left of you as you approach the house from the road. This dates from 1630, however was substantially altered in 1760. It was then that the bay window was added.


The Great Tithe Barn of timber frame, with red brick noggin and red tile roof, dates from the 13th Century. It is believed that at one period that people used to live in the barn roof with the animals below to keep them warm. During the 2nd world war the barn was used for people to store belongings if their homes had been bombed and during the last 30 years it has been used for storage of boats, nowadays we utilise its charm and beauty for our wedding and banqueting suite!


In 1998 Whitbread sold the hotel to the Regal Group which was rebranded in March 1999 to Corus hotels, after major changes in March 2004 Corus Hotels then sold The Barns to the hotel group Folio and in December 2009 was sold to start a new chain of Hotels called Sonoma, this was started by Sir Peter Michael who has a passion for excellent food, wine and the arts which can be clearly seen in the flagship hotel The Vineyard at Stockcross and reflected in the new hotel restaurant The WineGlass.  Sonoma was since brought out by Donnington Valley Hotels; the owners of The Vineyard still and has continued to run as a very successful and profitable hotel.