Ampthill’s connections with royalty began after Agincourt, when Sir John Cornwall built a castle here for his bride, Henry IV’s sister. Katherine of Aragon, the first of Henry VIII’s six wives, stayed here while Henry arranged to divorce her. The castle fell into ruin in the 17th century, its original site is marked by a cross with an inscription to Katherine of Aragon written by Horace Walpole. Charles II gave the Great Park to Lord Ashburnham who built Ampthill Park House in 1694 – it was formerly a Cheshire home.
The county town of Bedford has existed since Saxon times and is now a thriving commercial and industrial centre on the Great Ouse.
Cardington itself is an attractive little village that owes much to the brewing family of Whitbread (Samuel Whitbread, who founded the firm, was born there in 1720). On the edge of it are giant airship sheds which housed the R100 and the R101, which crashed at Beauvais in France on her maiden flight. Only 6 of her 54 passengers and crew survived. Nowadays, the premises are occupied by the Royal Aircraft Establishment and are devoted to research. In St Mary’s Church is a rare Wedgwood font, donated by Harriet Whitbread and several memorials to the family.
This small but growing town was listed in the Domesday Book. St Swithin’s Church (14th century) has a statue to Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel’s son, Captain William Peel one of the first men to be awarded the VC. Sandy Lodge houses the headquarters of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. A nature trail leads to the Bird Sanctuary.
Set in 500 acres of beautiful Chiltern countryside, Whipsnade Park Zoo was originally intended more or less as a convalescent home for sick animals from London Zoo. When it opened in 1931 the provision of large, open enclosures rather than heated cages was a revolutionary step; the experiment was successful, however, and the Zoo’s breeding record is so good that about 80 per cent of its 2000 occupants were born there. The conservation of endangered species is high on Whipsnade’s list of priorities; rare breeds on display include Black, White and Great Indian rhinos, North American bison and Przewalski’s horses.
18th-century Woburn Abbey, the seat of the Dukes of Bedford, is one of Britain’s most famous stately homes. The palatial house contains superb State apartments (where the newly married Victoria and Albert once slept in the four poster State bed) and a magnificent art collection which includes works by Gainsborough, Rembrandt, Reynolds and Van Dyck. Another attraction is the Wild Animal Kingdom and Leisure Park surrounding the abbey. Visitors can drive through the monkey jungle and the lion and tiger reserves, take a Boat Safari round the chimpanzees’ island, and visit the Dolphinarium.