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Mark Rutherford's Bedford, by Nick Wilde

The Birthplace Plaque and the Swan Hotel

Mark Rutherford was born William Hale White on 22nd December 1831.The plaque marking this is close to Bedford's only surviving independent new bookshop "County Town Books". The original building has been demolished but the Swan Hotel survives. This is where the Bedford Times Coach deposited and picked up its passengers to and from London. "It was horsed with four magnificent cream-coloured horses, and did the fifty miles from Bedford to London at very nearly ten miles an hour or twelve miles actual speed, excluding stoppages for change. Barring accidents it was always punctual to a minute, and every evening, except Sundays, exactly as the clock of St. Paul's struck eight, it crossed the bridge. I have know it wait before entering the town if it were five or six minutes too soon, a kind of polish or artistic completeness being thereby given to a performance in which much pride was taken". (Early Life of Mark Rutherford 1913)

Mill Street

Mill Street is to home of Bunyan Meeting and Howard Chapel, the latter now beautifully restored as a nightclub called "The Mission". Bunyan Meeting is well worth a visit with the Bunyan Museum behind it, small but well thought out and full of interest. In the church itself is the original stained window the postcard of which was sent to Terry Waite whilst he was in prison. If you have time, in the Bedford Museum entrance hall is a grandfather clock, which once belonged to William Hale White.

The River Ouse

"The water above the bridge was strictly preserved, and the fishing was good." You can walk as far as Kempston Mill following the river upstream on the town sides along a riverside path. If you have time it is worth going beyond the made up path and through the fields till you reach the site of Kempston Mill and then back down the other side re-crossing the river at the wooden bridge. You can really imagine the young Hale with his boat along this stretch. Going on to Kempston Church End and All Saints Church adds a pleasant extra if you have a whole afternoon.

The Terrace

In Bromham Road stands Priory Terrace which is probably where Catherine Furze's parents moved to in the novel of that name.

Oakley Bridge

Readers of Catherine Furze will remember the scene on the bridge and Catherine "tearing to pieces a water lily, and letting the beautiful white petals fall bit by bit into the river..." I am sure that this is Oakley Bridge since this is where he visited and stayed with Nurse Jane and it is also the site of the quotation from Notes on the Book of Job: "in one of the shires of this country stands, or used to stand, a tablet with a mark on it twenty or thirty feet above the level of the river which runs beneath, and on the tablet is recorded, incredible almost to the present inhabitants, that on a certain day the water in a great flood reached that mark." This stone, marking the great flood of 1823 still stands.

Is Bedford Eastthorpe, Cowfold or Fenmarket?

Many of the descriptions of the towns that form the subject matter for Mark Rutherford's novels are much like Bedford but could also pass as descriptions of many other small towns. Bedford is the small town he knew best so it may be safe to assume that it forms a basis for his novels. Catherine Furze is the most Bedfordshire of all with Oakley Bridge playing its part as well as the shop in the High Street and the Terrace nearby.

The Mark Rutherford Collection, Bedford Central Library

My interest in Mark Rutherford began when I opened two large leather suitcases that had belonged to him which contained an assortment to cuttings files, letters and notebooks as well as books and pamphlets. This discovery coincided with the 150th anniversary of his birth and it was agreed that we should mount an exhibition and run a one-day seminar. All this took place in October of 1981 with local historian Richard Wildman, David Keep and John Lucas. Subsequently in later years talks were given by Claire Tomalin, David Keep, again and Don Cupitt. Much correspondence took place with Charles Swann, Sally Ledger and other enthusiasts. Charles Swann, Catherine Harland, Mark Crees, and most recently David French made visits to the collection. Nick Jacobs launched his Libris edition in the library and all these people are part of that circle who appreciate Mark Rutherford.

With the help of a grant from the British Library all the original letters and much other material was re-bound or mounted and now forms what we call The Mark Rutherford Collection and it is visited by scholars from far and wide.

I had some correspondence with some surviving relatives and obtained and added to the material but subsequently as a result of an increasing workload and then a move to Luton lost touch. In semi-retirement I hope to pick up these people as correspondents again. Nick Wilde can be contacted at nickwilde@ntlworld.com