First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
In Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan modelled his sinner-snaring ‘Slough of Despond’ on the Bedfordshire morass of Marston Vale. All through the 20th century the Vale was still a waste landscape, though of an industrial nature – its sticky clay expanses encompassed the world’s most active brickfields, and thousands of acres were stripped and dug for the raw material of brickmaking. Since the 2008 closure of the Stewartby brickworks, though, a green transformation has been wrought in these unpromising flatlands.
We set off from Marston Vale Forest Centre, at 9 am already lively with youngsters gathering for a wet and mucky day out. The Centre is the hub of the Forest of Marston Vale, a community forest that has already seen a million trees planted across the old brickmaking wasteland. There are lakes, ponds, trails and woods where the clay was dug, and fantastic enthusiasm for their use among local people.
The 13-mile Marston Vale Timberland Trail leads across enormous cornfields towards the undulating greensand ridge that Bunyan used as the template for his ‘Delectable Hills’. The path switchbacked through the woods on the ridge slope. From behind a leylandii screen rose ominous noises – howls, screeches, rumblings and whinings fit for one of Bunyan’s demons. They came from experimental vehicles speeding up the gradients and round the circuits of Millbrook’s huge proving ground, tucked away from prying eyes among the trees.
Up on the open heights of Ampthill Park stands a memorial cross to Katherine of Aragon, wronged wife of King Henry VIII – she was incarcerated here while Henry wrangled to divorce her. We stood looking out north across many sunlit miles of the Bedfordshire plain, before skirting the tall and haunted ruin of Houghton House – Bunyan’s ‘House Beautiful’. From here the cornfield paths returned us to the model village of Stewartby, flagged by the four mighty chimneys that remain at its redundant brickworks.
In their 1930s heyday the works produced 500 million bricks a year for the London Brick Company. Now the grey brickfields are going back to green once more, and Stewartby’s chimneys stand smokeless and gaunt over a beautiful lake where the giant clay pits once lay in all their desolation.
Start: Marston Vale Forest Centre, Marston Moretaine, Beds MK43 0PR (OS ref TL 004418)
Getting there: Train to Millbrook or Stewartby (1 mile on foot). Bus 68 from Bedford.
Road: M1 Jct 13; A421 towards Bedford. In 5 miles, ‘Marston Moretaine, Sports Centre’ signed to right. At T-junction in Marston, left; right at Co-op and follow ‘Forest Centre.’
Walk (12½ miles, easy but long; OS Explorers 192, 193, 208. NB: Online maps, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): Outside Forest Centre, fingerpost points to Marston Vale Timberland Trail (TT). Follow excellently waymarked TT for 5½ miles to Katherine’s Cross, Ampthill Park (025384). To visit Ampthill village, continue on TT. To bypass village – 250m past cross, fork left off TT by dog bin (028385). Follow Greensand Ridge Way through Laurel Wood to B530 (032387). Left for 100m; right (cross with care!) on farm track, passing top of drive to Houghton House ruin (040393). Continue to gates of Houghton Park House; right over stile; footpath down 3 fields to plank footbridge (039401). Don’t cross; turn left on TT and follow it for 4¼ miles back to Forest Centre.
NB sticky clay underfoot – mucky after rain.
Lunch: picnic; café at Forest Centre
Accommodation: Black Horse, Ireland, Shefford, Beds SG17 5QL (01462-811398; blackhorseireland.com) – excellent restaurant with rooms