Parish Paths Partnership
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|The Walk on the Wild Side|
|Walk notes are in italics.
Start at the Woburn Car Park (GR951333) opposite the parish church of St Mary the Virgin. The walk is about 6 miles and can take as little as 2½ hours.
We are going to walk through the Woburn deer park, past the safari park and then through the village. I'll pass on a few snippets of information as we go, but first I have to say that the Abbey, the park and the village are really a single entity. That entity has been, and still is, dominated and controlled by the Russell family, the Earls and Dukes of Bedford, and the family has lived here for an unbroken 19 generations since 1547.
Everything I say about the place will be prefixed by which Duke, or which of their powerful and extraordinary wives, built it, modified it or demolished it!
First, the church opposite, St. Mary the Virgin, was built by the 8th Duke of Bedford in 1865-68. The original, smaller, St Mary's is in the main street and we'll pass it on the way back here. The symbol or logo of Woburn, you will have noticed, is the double-church motif.
This church originally had a spire, but it proved unsafe and was removed in 1890. One of the stained glass windows in the church is a memorial to Mary, the 11th Duchess, known as the Flying Duchess (about whom more later).
St. Mary's is described as "in the Victorian mock-French-Gothic style". Note the gargoyles and other strange creatures peering from the tower. Note also the ha-ha.
Turn right out of the car park, through the footpath gate, and follow the path beside the lakes and through the woods to the estate farm.
There are no views of the abbey on this walk, but a public footpath (The Greensand Way) goes right past it.
The history of the house begins in 1145. A Norman, Hugh de Bolebec, founded a religious house for a group of Cistercian monks, with the monastic buildings laid out the traditional Cistercian pattern. 400 years later, in 1538, the Abbot, Robert Hobbes, was found guilty of treason (he made some rash statements about Henry VIII's attitude to marriage) and the monastery was confiscated. One legend states that he was hanged from an oak tree at the abbey's gate, another that he and two of his monks were hanged in front of the abbey from an oak tree below which "the grass still doesn't grow".
Edward VI granted Woburn Abbey to Sir John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, in 1547 in accordance with the will of Henry VIII, though it did not become a family home until 1619 when the present north wing was built on the site of the monastic church and the present courtyard was built over the site of the great cloister. Note for clarity that the 5th Earl became the 1st Duke in 1694. In 1747, the 4th Duke commissioned Henry Flitcroft to rebuild the west range, including the grand series of staterooms and, in 1802, Humphry Repton landscaped the park. The east wing of the house had to be demolished in the 1950s as part of the post-war restoration, but otherwise house and park remain virtually unchanged.
The front facade of the house is of local Totternhoe Limestone, which is very soft and has constantly to be replaced.
Humphry Repton, whose style can be seen in the natural use of the grounds, also landscaped the gardens at Woburn which contain many rare and champion trees. The private gardens and the Hornbeam Maze are open at certain times throughout the year.
Successive Earls and Dukes of Bedford have created one of the finest private art collections in England. Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Reynolds and Velasquez are just some of the great artists represented here. There are over 250 paintings which you can enjoy on the three-floor (£8) tour of the House. In the Private Apartments, the Venetian Room is one of the most beautiful dining rooms in the world, with 21 pictures of Venice by Canaletto which were commissioned by the 4th Duke while on The Grand Tour in 1731.
During the Second World War the abbey and park were taken over by the military. The abbey was used as accommodation for the staff at Bletchley Park and other clandestine establishments in this area. For example, the Scout Camp at Milton Bryant is the original home of a black propaganda operation run by the broadcaster Sefton Delmar and the outbuildings of Maryland Hospital on the Leighton road were used as printing presses for black and white propaganda leaflets.
Before D-day in 1944, some 200 Stirling bombers converted into glider tugs were hidden under the estate trees.
When the 13th Duke inherited in 1953, he found a derelict house, £4½ million of death duties and a maintenance bill of £165,000 per year. With his second wife, Lydia, he set about restoring the house, cleaning most of their possessions themselves, and it was they who opened the abbey to us.
The abbey is, of course, haunted. Doors at each end of the television room would open and close in turn, with just enough time for someone to walk between them. This was solved by converting the wing to bedrooms, with a corridor where the doors used to be! And the Flying Duchess, about whom more later, is said to haunt the Summer Pavilion
The Russell Family
This English noble family first appeared prominently in the reign of Henry VIII when John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, 1486ish-1555, rose to military and diplomatic importance. He was Lord High Steward and Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal under Henry VIII and Edward VI, was created 1st Earl of Bedford in 1550, and had a part in arranging the marriage of Mary I to Philip II of Spain. He died possessing great wealth and lands, which have remained in the family to the present day. These now include Woburn Abbey and large parts of Bloomsbury in London.
His son, Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford, 1527ish-1585, was an influential Privy Councillor under Elizabeth I and President of the Council of Wales. He was also the godfather of Sir Francis Drake. Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford, 1593-1641, was the most important opponent of Charles I in the House of Lords and was the brightest hope for reconciliation between King and Parliament when he suddenly died in 1641. He also began the draining of the Fens. In 1694 the 5th Earl was made Duke of Bedford, a title that had been held in the 15th Century by John of Lancaster, brother of King Henry V. William Russell, 1613-1700, 5th Earl/1st Duke of Bedford, fought first for Parliament and then for the King in the Civil War.
John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford, 1710-71, was one of the politicians who attacked Robert Walpole and served in the cabinets of Henry Pelham, Duke of Newcastle, Lord Bute, and George Grenville. He was the leader of a faction of Whig politicians, known as the Bedford group, which had considerable electoral power. Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, 1765-1802, was a follower of Charles James Fox and one of the friends of the Prince of Wales (later George IV). His criticism of Edmund Burke's pension elicited Burke's Letter to a Noble Lord (1796). The 5th Duke of Bedford was a notable racehorse owner and stockbreeder.
One of the most outstanding members of the family was the 5th Duke's nephew, John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, a founder of the Liberal Party. His grandson, the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, became 3rd Earl Russell.
John Robert Russell (1917-2002) became 13th Duke of Bedford in 1953, followed by Robin (14th) in 2002 and Andrew (15th) in 2003.
The 13th Duke once commented that his family "thought themselves slightly grander than God"!!
One of the most talked-about Duchesses was Mary, the 11th Duchess who died in 1937. When she moved to the abbey when her husband, Herbrand, inherited, she found she was banned from any involvement in the running of the estate or even in the upbringing of her own children. So she turned to the looked-down upon profession of nursing and built her own hospital in Woburn. She also became an enthusiastic flyer of Tiger Moth aircraft, and she broke the air record to Capetown in 1934. She died in 1937 when, having apparently set out for Cambridge to view the floods, the wreckage of her aircraft was found in the North Sea.
One who I am keen to research is Geogiana Byng, the 6th Duchess, who was described as "a passionate lady" and known in gossip circles as "The Mistress of the Arts"!!
For anybody with time, there is an interesting sub-plot. The wife of the 3rd Duke was Lady Elizabeth Keppel, daughter of the Earl of Albemarle. She had been a bridesmaid to Queen Charlotte and in the abbey is a painting of her on that occasion. She had three sons in three years of marriage after which her husband died! She died 18 months later of "a broken heart" aged 28.
But, her son the 4th Duke married Diana Spencer, and Elizabeth Keppel is an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales.
The sub-plot, of course, is that Alice Keppel, mistress of Edward VII, is the great-grandmother of Camilla Parker-Bowles. Alice was described variously as "having the sexual morals of an alley cat" and "raising adultery to a fine art"! Elizabeth died in 1768 and Alice in 1947, but were they related and, if so, are Diana and Camilla?
The farm buildings beside which you are standing house the Woburn stud farm.
The Deer Park and Grounds
The 3,000 acre Deer Park was landscaped by Humphry Repton in 1802. . The splendid range of farm buildings on the right, designed by Robert Salmon and Henry Holland and built in 1780 house the Bedford Estates Office and the Bloomsbury Stud. To the left you will see the Dairy completed in 1900.
The Bloomsbury Stud
The Bloomsbury stud was registered in 1966, named after the area of London built and owned by the Bedford family.
The 5th Duke was the originator of the family's interest in racing. He bred and raced three Derby winners, Skyscraper in1785, Eager in 1791 and the only unnamed horse to win the Derby, called Son of Fidget, in 1797, as well as winning the Oaks three times.
In 1975 the stud bought a mare called Mrs Moss. She had 15 foals, 12 of which were winners, including Pushy (winner of the Queen Mary Stakes at Royal Ascot), Precocious (the unbeaten winner of six races including the Gimcrack Stakes), and Jupiter Island, winner of 14 races including the Japan Cup, in which he broke the track record and became the only British bred horse in the world to run one and a half miles in 2minutes and 25 seconds.
A bronze life-size statue of Mrs Moss by Philip Blacker stands outside Henrietta, the Dowager Duchess's, present house in Woburn.
The Bloomsbury Stud, still using the 5th Duke's racing colours, is a successful breeding and racing operation and won the Grade 1 Ascot Gold Cup in 2001 and 2002 with Royal Rebel.
Walk to the left of the lake beyond the stud, and follow the footpath which parallels the road as far as the cattle grid at the end of the park.
Before 1914 the collection of deer at Woburn was without doubt the largest and most unique ever brought together, from the standpoint both of numbers and variety of species, with over 40 different types of deer roaming in various parts of the Park. Red and Fallow deer have existed in the Park from the time it was first enclosed, which may have been in the reign of Henry Vlll, although precise details are not known.
The current collection consists of 1200 animals made up of 10 different species that roam in the parkland of some 3000 acres. These include Père David, Red, Fallow, Sika, Barasingha, Axis, Rusa, Chinese Water Deer, Muntjac and Hog Deer.
The most interesting species of deer at Woburn is the Père David, originally discovered by a French missionary, Père Armand David, in the Imperial Hunting Park in Peking. The 11th Duke of Bedford brought the last eleven members of the deer herd to Woburn in the early part of the 20th Century where they have bred successfully, saving the species from extinction. In 1985 the Bedfords gave 22 Pere David deer to China, where the herd is now established in its natural environment and numbers several hundred.
Cross the main road through the park at the cattle grid, and follow the signed footpath through the deer reserve.
When you reach a house (Trussler's Lodge), cross the cattle grid, turn left and follow the signed path downhill.
You reach the Safari Park entrance. Leave the entrance gate on your left and the quarantine farm on your right, and turn left on a signed footpath beside the Safari Park perimeter fence.
The Safari Park
Woburn Safari Park was opened in 1970, but the history of animals at Woburn goes back to the eighteenth century. A menagerie at Woburn is first recorded in 1811, during the time of the 6th Duke, built in the Pleasure Grounds in accordance with Humphry Repton's plans.
In the early years of the menagerie there are references to llamas and antelope, pheasants, canaries, pigeons and other birds. Later it is known that there were European bison, Przewalski horses, giraffe and zebra.
The Russell Family's interest in the collection continued, and the 11th Duke was President of the Zoological Society of London from 1899 to 1939. He was an expert on parrots, and there are also records of animals being sent from Woburn to other zoos, including eland and Thar goats to New Zealand.
Climb the ladder stile beside the elephant enclosure, go downhill through the wood, turn right past the wallabies and monkeys, follow the road round to the left and emerge onto the A4012 at Crawley Lodge.
You can cut the walk short by turning left here and going directly back to Woburn.
To continue the walk, cross the main road and join Horsepool Lane. The first gate on your left leads to a footpath, but it is best to stay on the lane, cross another footpath junction and then turn left onto a footpath on the north (furthest) corner of the wood.
Follow this path past the elegant Birchmoor Farm. 400m on, at a path junction, turn left towards the Birchmoor Green cottages. Immediately after the cottages, turn left on the Bedford road (A5130), cross the Crawley Road (A4012) and you are back in Woburn.
Woburn is recorded as a Saxon hamlet from 969, when the name is said to derive from the Saxon 'wo' meaning crooked and 'burn' meaning a small stream. It is recorded as a hamlet in Doomsday Book of 1086.
After the foundation of the abbey in 1145, the hamlet grew to become a village and then a town with a market three days a week. Woburn stood on the crossing point of the roads from London to the north and from Cambridge to Oxford.
In 1290, the body of Queen Eleanor, consort to Edward I, rested overnight in Woburn as it was being carried from Nottingham to London.
The village was twice besieged in the civil war - probably because the 5th Earl/1st Duke fought on both sides!
A fire in 1720 destroyed most of the town, which was rebuilt in the Georgian style you will see today. There are over 200 listed buildings in the village, most of the Georgian period.
During the coaching era of the early 19th Century, Woburn became an important staging post. There was the only 24-hour post office outside London, and 27 inns! The old coaching arches can still be seen between the pubs, shops and houses on the main streets.
In 1851 the population of Woburn was 2,100. During the 20th century it fell to 700 and is now about 1,000.
There is an excellent heritage centre in the old St Mary's church on the main street. This old parish church became a mortuary chapel when the new St Mary the Virgin was built by the Bedfords in 1868. It fell into disrepair, and was given to the town in 1978 by the Bedfords. In 1985 the Woburn Heritage Centre Trust was formed to save and use the building.
The Tudor building beside the church has been the village school continually since 1582. It's thought that the base of the separate tower is the remains of original church. The building in front of the school, now the head teacher's office, was built in the 18th century as the firehouse. Opposite the school, the specialist car bookshop at No14 is on the site of the Goat Inn which housed the 24-hour post office.
The town hall was built in 1830 to a design by Sir Edward Blore, who designed the frontage to Buckingham Palace. The cobbled area, known as The Pitchings, was the site of the town market and probably once the site of an Eleanor Cross, although all trace of that has long disappeared.
On the road to Leighton Buzzard is the cottage hospital which was built by Duchess Mary, the Flying Duchess, who designed it (with no right angles to harbour dirt) and who worked there throughout the First World War as a theatre sister and radiologist. It's currently called Maryland College, and it's for sale.
Turn left at the town hall crossroads, and you are back at your starting point.
This guide supplied by Dick Denton, March 2004