The 120ha (360 acre) Grange Estate, bordered to the north by the River Great Ouse and purchased in 2006 by the Forest of Marston Vale Trust, lies at the heart of Bedford River Valley Park. The Estate has an interesting recent history. Until the mid-Twentieth Century, its flood plain meadows and fields were farmed and were no doubt an attractive part of the landscape. However, in the 1950s, Bryant & May bought the land and planted poplars on a large part of it for use as matchsticks. Unfortunately for them, the industry moved to Scandinavia and what had become known locally as ‘Matchstick Wood’ was felled in the 1980s to make way for gravel extraction. The pits were filled with inert waste and restored to farmland. Purchase of the Estate was made possible through funding from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (as was).
The Forest of Marston Vale Trust has created a 2 mile multi-user route around the south bank of the River Great Ouse, and built a new bridge over the Elstow Brook at the confluence of the two waterways. In 2009, works were completed on a north-south connection that bisects the site, creating an excellent 4 mile figure-of-eight route for walkers and cyclists. More recently a grass path alongside the Elstow Brook has been added to the Trust’s grass cutting schedule and provides pedestrians with a beautiful walk by the meandering brook where Kingfishers are often seen.
Since 2006, much has been done to enhance the Grange Estate for people and wildlife. As well as the new access routes, over 10,000 native trees and shrubs have been planted in a new woodland. Wetland areas and back-channels have been created off the river and existing woodlands restored to more natural condition. Grassland areas have been managed and improved for wintering waders and wildfowl. There’s a diverse mix of habitats to explore and enjoy – look out for regular visitors including kingfisher, lapwing and buzzard.
The Estate lies immediately to the north of the now-disused, Oxford-Cambridge railway, nicknamed the Varsity Line, which opened in 1862 and saw its last trains in 1968. At this point, Route 51 (see below) uses the old track bed. As well as woodland and riverside paths you will enjoy open fields, grazed by sheep and lakes that are fished by local anglers. There is a huge amount of historical information about the River Valley Park, including the Grange Estate at www.bedfordrivervalleypark.org/heritage
The site can be reached easily on foot or by bicycle via Route 51 of the National Cycle Network. This connects Oxford and Cambridge, but locally, brings people from Bedford, Priory Country Park, Blunham and Sandy.
Please note, there is no vehicular access to the Grange Estate. We advise using the Route 51 cycleway or public footpaths.
Planted on land belonging to Bedford Borough Council in 2011 and 2012, Octagon Wood is 6 hectares (15 acres) of woodland and open space that straddles Route 51 to the west of the Grange Estate. Although the trees are still fairly small, it is worth stopping here for a wander and perhaps a rest.
Working in partnership, the Forest of Marston Vale Trust and Bedford Borough Council have planted over 18,000 trees with the help of corporate partners, Willington Lower School and the hundreds of local people who attended tree planting events in 2011 and 2012.
Ash and alder form the heart of the planting mix, with birch, willow, oak and hazel adding diversity and interest. This mix of trees mimics what would naturally occur, which means that it’s good for wildlife and enhances the landscape. The mix of trees being planted also has the potential to be managed sustainably to produce a natural supply of woodchip, or “biomass”, for use as fuel. Ash and alder are both naturally good for burning, as their wood is relatively dry when freshly cut, especially ash, which can famously be burned ‘green’.
There is a large, free car park at Priory Country Park in Bedford, from where it is about 1.5 miles to Octagon Wood and the south- west corner of the Grange Estate. If you aren’t able to walk or cycle, please park considerately and bear in mind that Danish Camp’s car park is for use by their customers only.
Danish Camp is an excellent cafe on the banks of the Ouse, accessed from Chapel Lane, Willington. They offer a wide selection of refreshments as well as events, activities and river boat trips www.danishcamp.co.uk