St Martin's Parish

There are a number of different aspects to the history of any Church of England parish. Often these aspects are interrelated in different ways. The housing and any commercial activity, as well as links with other areas, affect the types of people that live there, and hence the style of church life that develops. The architecture of the building and the nature of other churches in the area will also have their effect, especially in an urban area like Bedford. The town has a number of Church of England parishes, some of them quite close together. As a result it is easy for people to go to a church other than the one of the parish they live in. This has led to the various churches developing in different ways so they all have their own character.

Each represents part of the Church of England tradition, different from each other and so presenting a variety of styles of "being church". It is not that one style is "better" or "worse" than another but together we meet the different spiritual needs people have. These needs vary according to their own personal preferences and personality, and to where they are on their own spiritual journey. St Martin's has its own place within that mix which is the Church of England. It is a place and a style that has evolved over time - partly in response to some of the factors referred to on this page and other pages to which it will link. You can find out about some of these in this brief account of the church's history.

An overview

St Martin's church stands on the A6, which was the main road from London to the North-West of England (and beyond that to Western Scotland) until the M1 was built some distance to the West. Although the road is no longer regarded as part of the strategic road network it is still a major route for traffic from one side of the town to the other. The area was developed towards the end of the 19th century, having previously been farm land. When the land became available for development the Harpur Trust acquired a large parcel of it. Most of that has been used as a playing field for Bedford Modern School.

A triangular shaped piece, bounded on two sides by Clapham Road and Slade Walk, eventually became the site of Clapham Road, now Livingstone Lower, Elementary School. In other parts of the country School Boards were established under the Elementary Schools Act 1870, but not in Bedford. The existing commitment of the Harpur Trust to education in the town meant that they were given this responsibility. Only the Church schools of St Paul's and St Cuthbert's were outside their control. When a site for a church was required it was a smaller triangle from the (eventual) elementary school site that was obtained. This means that the church is relatively isolated for an urban parish. The school was built in 1892, after the church but before the creation of the parish, and has never had an official link with the church, though relations are close.

The houses on the opposite side of the road from the church are substantial, built for affluent families attracted to the town by the availability of the Harpur Trust Schools and/or the convenient train service to London. While most of the houses are no longer in single-family occupancy the schools and the railway still provide an attraction for many. Apart from the linear development on Clapham Road the parish falls into four distinct areas, each with their own character, the church not being identified with any one of them. There is a limited amount of commercial development along the edge of the parish, including a major supermarket, which serve a wide area. Perhaps the parish can be best described as the aggregate of a number of parts rather than a cohesive entity.

The Warwick Avenue area shows the greatest mix of development of the entire parish, or may be expected to when the former Lansdowne Road campus of what was De Montfort University (now the University of Bedfordshire) is redeveloped. Now that the university has concentrated its Bedford operations on the Polhill site a substantial area has become available for brownfield development. Plans have not yet been released but there is a clear need for family accommodation in this part of town. The rest of the area is occupied by flats (converted or purpose-built blocks), some of them especially for senior citizens in sheltered housing. Some of the larger houses are used for residential and nursing homes, doctors' surgeries or children's nurseries as well as the Day Care Hospice. There are also two educational establishments - the Stella Mann College, a performance college specialising in dance, and Polam School. Bedford High School, another of the Harpur Trust schools, has most of its boarding houses in this area.

The Poets Area off Shakespeare takes its name from the fact that the roads are named after poets. Rushmoor School is found here, as are some more residential and nursing homes. Most of the houses in this area are smaller and so more suited to moedern family life. It is a fairly compact area bounded by two main roads, the fairly busy Shakespeare Road and a railway line. Though it is tucked away as a small enclave without any community facilities it is, as an estate agent would say, conveniently situated for commuters and others.

The third area substantially developed about the same time as the church is sometimes called Prime Ministers because the streets are named after notable Victorians, a few of whom did serve as Prime Minister. Locally it is more generally, and less respectfully, known as Black Tom after the Victorian highwayman who operated in this area - and was buried here after his execution. The houses have a narrow frontage with a small yard in front but stretch back to give reasonable-sized accommodation. This area has two of the three pubs in the parish (the third being beyond the built-up area) as well as the only shops apart from the supermarket. As a result this is the one part of the parish which can be said to have a proper community feeling.

Finally we come to the Manton Heights part of the parish. This was developed substantially after the rest of the parish, the houses meeting more modern expectations in the way of size, gardens and (generally) provision for cars. Following the example of other parts of the parish this could be called the Artists Area since the streets are named after British artists. It is essentially a post-war suburban development. Although bordering the Prime Ministers area it is of a very different character with only one road between them and with different routes into the rest of the road network.