Patrick tackles ten Bedfordshire greenlanes with a little help from some locals
Sarah Baxter recently wrote a piece in The Telegraph titled ‘The hidden wonders of England’s most boring county’. Which county was she referring to? Bedfordshire, the place I have called home for the last seven years since moving to England from Africa. I think we should send Sarah to Mogadishu or Kinshasa for a few weeks, then she will wish she was in boring Bedfordshire.
According to a 2018 YouGov poll, in which 42,000 people participated, Bedfordshire is the most unpopular county in all of England. I wonder how many of those 42,000 people have actually been to Bedfordshire?
I am obviously a fan of the place or else I would not have ended up staying here for so long and I have no plans whatsoever of leaving. People say it’s flat which probably explains why they host an annual walking festival here. I find the place fascinating, despite the fact I have been lucky enough to travel the world with work.
Some of the lanes are so wide that you can either straddle or drive in the ruts
I genuinely love the Bedfordshire countryside. There are adventures to be had everywhere. A few weeks ago, we did a family walk at the Sharpenhoe Clappers, the beauty of the place just blew me away. I also regularly take my son for drives around the Woburn Safari Park in my Defender. It might not be the Serengeti but it is as good as anything else in Britain. In fact, I would go as far as saying that it is one of the best safari parks in England. Plus, they use Defenders. We also often explore new sections of the River Ouse in our big green canoe. So, calling it boring is a cop out by people who are most probably lazy and lead unmotivated lives.
Where does the current darling of the nation, the 100-year-old war veteran Captain Tom Moore, come from? Bedfordshire of course. Tom, as you are probably aware, recently raised more than £32m for NHS charities by completing 100 laps of his garden.
Piggy the dog rides shotgun
As we gradually ease our way out of lockdown I decided to go laning in my home county with a little help from two local Land Rover fans. When our offices were still at the Thurleigh Airfield I used to drive past the house of Martin Wallace all of the time. Martin owns several Land Rovers including a Defender 110 with a 200Tdi engine. He tells a funny story of how before we met and became friends once he tried to keep up with me. He also thought I was in a Tdi but left him for dead. He recalls the day: ‘‘You were like a rat up a drainpipe, no match for me and my boost pins.’’ Only later would he find out I was in a straight-six petrol with more speed than most standard Defenders. Also, with us is Fred Bolton in his mini monster truck 1949 Series I, which he has owned for the past 40 years. Some of you might have seen it crushing other cars at shows, thanks to its 44 inch wheels and 4.0-litre Range Rover engine. ‘‘I bought it for the number plate which has my initials. It was standing outside since October, 2019, and miraculously fired up on the first start of the key this morning.’’ Accompanying Fred is Piggy, his loyal dog who has been laning with him for many years now.
Fred is a Land Rover man through and through
The north Bedfordshire lanes that we are about to drive today are all on or near routes that I have driven past or near while commuting to and from my old offices. Incredible to think that they are all literally right on my doorstep yet I did not even know that some of them existed!
Just after turning off the A6 and just before we reach Riseley, which is where our first lane (Hangmans Lane) starts, Martin calls a quick halt. We are on a rise (which probably explains the name Riseley) and the views to our right seem to go on all the way to the town of Bedford. Martin points to some fields and a forest and asks if we know what is in there? Bedfordshire’s only nudist colony. Still think the place is boring? I can confirm that he is telling the truth because I did a fact check on it once back home. The place is also known as the Blackthorns Sun Club.
Martin is a local and knows the lanes
In the distance we can also see the Thurleigh Airfield, where Martin’s dad did his apprenticeship at one of the two big wind tunnels. Local legend has it that it is home to one of the longest runways in the UK so in the past if things did go Pete Tong at Heathrow they would be able to divert planes to here. Look on Google Earth today and you will see that the runway is now covered in thousands of cars.
The blazing hot weather of the week that was, is gone and we are greeted by continuous sheets of heavy rain as we enter our first lane. According to the BBC Weather app there is a 98 per cent chance of rain for the next three hours. The mud and slippery conditions will be a good test for my new Davanti Terratoura all-terrain tyres. The surface of the lane is best described as non-technical grassy tracks. Hangman’s Lane is a gentle introduction to our day of off-roading.
From here it is a short transit to Little Staughton and our second lane, Scott’s Street. The intensity of the rain increases. There is a big mud hole at the start of the lane. I crawl through in first high while my straight-six just bubbles away. Massive trees line the lane, some of their branches reach out and intensely kiss my roof rack. I hope they are not scratching it or tearing the Front Runner awning. Poor Ali, my wife and snapper for the day, cannot get out and capture any of the magical lane as her camera equipment will get ruined. I tell her to just relax and take it all in. The weather will get better.
There is a lane at the nearby Keysoe Row but it is heavily overgrown and I don’t fancy anymore scratches to my Defender so we make our way to Sandye Lane which starts near Swineshead. Our third lane is the longest one of the day so far. It starts out as a tree-lined sandy track that gradually makes its way into a forest where it becomes a grassy track. The byway, which is open to all traffic, splits into two and we go left towards the finish at Upper Dean.
We did two short sections of the Three Shires Way
From here it is a very short transit to the village of Shelton where our fourth lane (Yelden Lane) starts. The lane runs along a small section of the Three Shires Way, the 37-mile-long bridleway from Grafham Water in Cambridgeshire to Tathall End in north-east Buckinghamshire. It’s popular amongst walkers and cyclists but due to the inclement weather we don’t encounter any of them. Towards the end of the lane the track becomes lumpier and bumpier. There are also ruts everywhere. Due to the wide nature of the lane one can either straddle the ruts or drive in them. I decide to drive in them because I can, plus I have new rubber that needs testing. They are not too deep and we all safely make it to the end of the lane. I bet Fred doesn’t even feel the ruts in his mini-monster truck.
I love short transits between lanes and just over a mile later we find ourselves at Newton Bromswold where our fifth lane, Newton Lane, starts. This 2.2 km-long lane is once again characterised by bumpy sections and ruts as we make our way south to the finish near the village of Knotting. Many moons ago the rector at the picture postcard church in Knotting was defrocked for cock fighting. According to Martin this no longer occurs in the churchyard. I take his word for it.
Soon we are on the busy A6 again but not for long, just after Souldrop we turn off onto our sixth lane, which once again forms part of the Three Shires Way. When our offices were still at Thurleigh I used to sometimes take this short transit lane (officially known as Forty Foot Section 1) to get to Souldrop. Instead of turning left to Souldrop we head straight onto our seventh lane (Forty Foot lane Section 2), which is one of the most famous Bedfordshire lanes. Martin works on projects for the railways and so he calls a halt at the railway bridge at the Sharnbrook Summit, a local high point. While we can see the train lines running below us Martin says the Sharnbrook Tunnel is running alongside the lines we are looking down at. Nothing remarkable about that until he says that the tunnel is over a mile long, making it one of the longest in the UK.
This is how you have a BBQ and do social distancing
We move on and my son Isaac declares that he is feeling peckish. I stop under some trees in the Great Hayes Wood, not for the shade but for protection from the rain. We are still getting wet so up goes the Frontrunner awning. Soon the sound and smell of sizzling sausages fills our ears and nostrils. Martin recalls how in days gone by he used to get stuck on this lane for hours. He points to the parallel ditch and reminisces how someone once ended up in there. Today, like many lanes in the UK, it has been sanitised by local councils. They need to do what they have to in order to keep them open.
After our quick lunch we move on. The track is a little snotty from all the water but there is some blue sky and the sun has made its first appearance of the day. The lane finishes at the Santa Pod Raceway, which despite the presence of fair rides everywhere, is like a ghost town, due to the cancellation of summer events.
Paying our respects to American airman killed in WWII
Instead of doing Forty Foot Lance Section 3 we take a detour to the nearby memorial for the 92 Bombardment Group H of the Unites States Air Force who flew 274 missions from the raceway when it was an airfield during the Second World War. Many never made it back. We stand and reflect there for a few moments, the only sounds are the flapping of the American flag in the wind.
Our eighth lane is Farndish Road (UC279). It starts on the road between Podington and Wymington and takes us north-west towards the Irchester Road and Farndish. It was my favourite lane of the day and is best described as one nice long rutted drive with many hills and declines. Pick a rut, the deepest one if you dare.
After one of the declines there is a wooden bridge which Martin and I both take. Thanks to his superior clearance Fred is able to go through the watery gulley instead. He easily gets over the metal pipe where Martin once had to be winched backwards when his diff got caught on it.
I know our final two lanes well as I have cycled and run along them a few times in the past. White Lane is very rutted and during the summer the grass can hide the ruts so do take care when doing it. I have taken a tumble here before while on my mountain bike. My Defender has no such problem with the ruts. The lane ends very close to the Santa Pod Raceway and we turn right onto Yelnow Lane to continue our circumnavigation of the Odell Great Wood.
The lane finishes at the entrance to the Sharnbrook Golf Course. It has been a great day of laning, thanks to the local lads Fred and Martin. Today I have experienced many new lanes that I inadvertently drove past many times because I did not know that they were here.
How do you make a deep rut look shallow? 44 inch tyres
I’m sure many of you have also explored local greenlanes, BOATS and byways during lockdown. I know that when you read this places like the Lake District and Peak District are open again, but for now, I'm still going to keep it local or else explore places where I can be with a select few or just my family. For me that is the new normal. I encourage you to do the same and behave in a responsible manner.
Fancy a go yourself?
Look on the bedford.gov.uk site for the latest information on the lanes we drove. Bedfordshire is a summer laning destination as most lanes sensibly shut during the winter due to the potential damage that driving them in the winter can do.