A town alive with festivals, concerts, museums and art galleries, you’ll find everything from Picassos to kite-flying festivals in Bedford.
Culture in Bedford
If you only head to one art gallery, make sure it’s the Higgins Art Gallery & Museum. Situated on Castle Lane, its collection of watercolours and prints is truly world-class, with works from Turner, Blake, Picasso and Goya.
A Grade II-listed building that underwent extensive refurbishment in 2013, the gallery originally opened in 1949 under the direction of philanthropic brewer Cecil Higgins and is a short walk from our Bedford Town Centre (Riverside) hotel. With over 5,000 watercolours and hundreds of incredibly rare prints, it’s one of the finest art collections outside of London and is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 11am-5pm.
Located on Castle Road, The Eagle Gallery embraces a wide range of art, including prints, sculptures, ceramics, jewellery and photography and includes work from 45 local artists. Set up in 2005, the gallery aims to provide affordable art from local stars and features six rotating exhibitions each year in its informal and laid-back setting.
Higgins Art Gallery
It’s hard to know where to start with Bedford’s events, so varied are they – but we’ll start with the Bedford Park Concerts, just a six-minute drive from our Bedford (Priory Marina) hotel. Spanning pop, rock, jazz and classical music, the three-day festival brings together an eclectic line-up every August at Bedford Park, three miles from the train station to the north of town.
A relaxed, family-friendly affair, past guests have included Billy Ocean and Lesley Garrett as part of the Bedford Proms line-up. There are plenty of food and drink outlets around the park, while guests are encouraged to rock up with a picnic and a bottle of wine and make the most of the music and the park life, which sounds pretty good to us.
Attracting over a quarter of a million guests over two days in the middle of July, the Bedford River Festival is one of the must-attend events on the calendar. Held on the scenic Bedford Embankment, the 48-hour party includes a funfair, raft races, fireworks, live music and a parade.
Staying down on the river banks, the Bedford Regatta is one of the largest boat races in the country and takes place every May. Founded in 1853, the River Ouse is turned into a 1,200-metre course with hundreds of races taking place across the day spanning a wide range of rowers, from beginners to Olympic-level experts.
Held every June at Russell Park, the Bedford International Kite Festival pulls in high-flyers from across the world with kites of all shapes and sizes. A two-day festival that attracts 25,000 guests, there is a range of food stalls, funfair rides and arts and craft stands, as well as a fully stocked bar. The free festival runs from 10am-5pm and also includes kite-flying demonstrations, workshops and plenty of opportunities to fly your own kite.
Bringing together social history and archaeology, the Higgins Art Gallery & Museum provides a fascinating insight into Bedford and its growth over the centuries. The museum is split into three main categories, looking at its growth from a medieval market town, famous Bedfordians and a look at the town’s archaeological history dating back to the Bronze Age.
Bedford might not have immediately struck you as a hotbed of religious fervour but in the early 20th century, it was home to the Panacea Society, a religious community of over 2,000 members based in the town for nearly 90 years. The Panacea Museum is based in Castleside, a Victorian house that was part of the headquarters. Inside you’ll find out about their worship, their interpretation of God and why they thought their method of healing using water could cure all illness.
Delving even further back into Bedford’s religious history is the John Bunyan Meeting House and Museum. As a pastor and preacher from Bedford, the museum takes you back in time to the 17th century when he was a controversial preacher and author of The Pilgrim’s Progress. One of the most popular books in the English language, over 1,300 editions have been printed since 1678. The museum showcases a series of reconstructed rooms and events from his colourful history, including his life as a soldier and his 12 years in prison.
Another fascinating chapter in Bedford’s history is covered by Twinwood Airfield and the Glenn Miller Museum, an eight-mile drive from our Bedford South (A421) hotel. With Bedford used as the top secret base for the BBC during WWII, the nearest airfield – Twinwood – was used by actors and entertainers including Glenn Miller, the famous big band leader. Tragically, his plane mysteriously disappeared while en route to France to entertain British troops. The museum is open on Sundays and bank holidays, while the airfield also doubles up as the site for the Twinwood Festival in August, a vintage music and dance festival.