John Bunyan and Bedfordshire

John Bunyan and Bedfordshire

 

John Bunyan and Bedfordshire
John Bunyan and Bedfordshire

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28th November is Bedfordshire Day, a date chosen to coincide with the birthday of John Bunyan -preacher, writer and one of our counties most famous sons. But I have long felt that the “powers that be” in Bedfordshire do not pay sufficient homage to, or give sufficient recognition to, one of our county’s predecessors who is known throughout the world – especially the Christian world – and whose most famous book “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is still in print almost 400 years after it was first written. It has been translated into more than 200 languages.

 

John Bunyan and Bedfordshire
John Bunyan and Bedfordshire – The Pilgrims Progress

When one drives into Warwickshire, one is greeted with “Welcome to Warwickshire, Shakespeare’s county” but when one drives into Bedfordshire, what do we get? Nothing!  So why don’t we shout loud and clear that Bedfordshire is “Bunyan’s county”?

John Bunyan was born in 1628 on the edge of the village of Elstow near the hamlet of Harrowden. As a boy, he received a very basic schooling, helped his father in the trade of tinker, and joined the Parliamentary army during the English Civil War at the age of sixteen. After his spell in the army, he returned to Elstow, married, and, like his father, also became a tinker. Influenced by his wife, he became a devout Puritan and preached in the towns and villages throughout Bedfordshire whilst also carrying on his trade.

John Bunyan and Bedfordshire
Place Of Birth; Bunyan Cottage In Elstow, Bedfordshire
John Bunyan and Bedfordshire
Bunyan Cottage in Elstow Bedfordshire. Demolished in 1968.

But, following the fall of Oliver Cromwell’s Republic and the subsequent Restoration of the Monarchy, he found himself in trouble for having extremist religious views. Eventually, he was arrested at Lower Samsell near Westoning, tried, and sentenced to imprisonment in Bedford Gaol. He could have been released after two or three months provided he agreed to “mend his ways”, but he refused to give up preaching and spent a total of twelve years in prison. It was during this time that he wrote his most famous book “The Pilgrim’s Progress”.

John Bunyan Cottage demolished 1968
John Bunyan writing The Pilgrim’s Progress while in Bedford Gaol

He was finally released but still spent further, brief, periods in gaol for his beliefs. However, his later life was reasonably successful both as a writer and lecturer/preacher and he died in London in 1688.

“The Pilgrim’s Progress” is an allegory and tells the story of how the central character, Christian, sets out from his home in the City of Destruction on an arduous journey along the Holy Way. Whilst on this path, he encounters both good, evil, and weak characters together with pleasant and horrific places. Each of the characters and places are fully described and Christian’s experiences are painted in graphic detail. The story is essentially a narrative of how difficult it is to be a Christian when beset with so many temptations which can woo the traveller from the straight and narrow path until eventually reaping the ultimate reward of reaching the Celestial City – namely Heaven.

John Bunyan Cottage demolished 1968
The Pilgrims Progress Or A Map Of Bedfordshire?

Although Bunyan was poorly schooled, he had a vivid imagination and a way with words and in “The Pilgrim’s Progress” he drew extensively upon his deep knowledge of the Bedfordshire countryside gained from many years of preaching and travelling around the county selling bits and pieces and mending pots and pans. And it is possible – with greater or lesser certainty – to place notable features in the book with actual, recogniseable, landmarks and places. Some of these places are unanimously accepted but others are subject to debate. For example, the City of Destruction (from where Christian sets out on his journey) is usually accepted as his home in Elstow or, perhaps, Bedford. But an alternative suggestion places it between Totternhoe and Dunstable!! Why on earth should Totternhoe have decided Bunyan (in the guise of Christian) to embark upon the road to salvation? Or was Dunstable such a wicked place in those days?

John Bunyan and Bedfordshire
Houghton House or House Beautiful?

Generating less argument is the Hill of Difficulty leading up to House Beautiful from where the Delectable Mountains can be seen. Most scholars accept these places to be the steep hill between Houghton Conquest and Ampthill at the top of which is the ruined Houghton House (which, in Bunyan’s day, would not have been a ruin but a very splendid building indeed) and from where one can look towards the Chiltern Hills (and Barton Hills in particular).

John Bunyan and Bedfordshire
Barton Hills or Hill Of Dufficulty?

Other recogniseable places found in allegorical form in “Pilgrim’s Progress” are such as the “Slough of Despond” through which Christian with his heavy burden of sins struggled. This could be the boggy ground known as Squich Fen near Harrowden or the glutinous clay pits at Stewartby.

John Bunyan and Bedfordshire
Stevington Cross

The “Cross” where Christian was forgiven his sins and lost his burden could be the cross in the village of Stevington to the west of Bedford.

The “Valley of the Shadow of Death” is thought to be the gorge at Millbrook to the west of Ampthill which would have been a very dark and gloomy and frightening place at night in Bunyan’s time without any street lighting.

The “River of the Way of Life” where Christian and his friend, Hopeful, came across beautiful sweet grass and flowers might well be the river Ouse east of Bedford where Bunyan remembered a happy childhood.

On a grimmer note, “Doubting Castle” where Christian and Hopeful were cast into dungeons and beaten by “Giant Despair” is thought to have been the former Ampthill Castle (where Catherine of Aragon was imprisoned in 1531 by her own Giant Despair, namely Henry 8th).

The wide, swift flowing “Dark River” with no bridge or ferry to the Celestial City on the other side is the final test for Christian and Hopeful and proves very difficult to cross. This river is generally accepted to be the river Thames in the former Middlesex.

Besides these few examples, there are many more; some of which are more easily recognised than others. But some, perhaps, are simply the result of Bunyan’s imagination and the desire to paint a sermon in words.

By Paul Heley


The Vine Dunstable - December 2018 - January 2019 - Issue 86

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John Bunyan and Bedfordshire

John Bunyan and Bedfordshire

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