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By Annalie |

Visit ‘Bedford’s Evolving High Street’ celebration as four-year programme to revitalise Bedford’s High Street completed

A new display celebrating “Bedford’s Evolving High Street” has opened to mark the completion of the £1.76m Bedford High Street Heritage Action Zone Programme.

The programme, run in partnership by Bedford Borough Council and Historic England, has seen:

  • Six buildings repaired and restored
  • Two new traders investing in long-term vacant shops on the High Street
  • The length of the High Street transformed
  • Bedford Corn Exchange listed at Grade II and Bedford Shire Hall upgraded to Grade II* listing
  • A community programme featuring walking tours, residents’ stories, a celebration of local industry and more
  • A vibrant cultural programme bringing local people and visitors back to the High Street
  • An increase in footfall to the High Street by 32.5 per cent.

Exhibition – Bedford’s Evolving High Street

(1 March to 1 April at The Higgins, Bedford)

Free admission

Offering a fascinating journey through the decades, ‘Bedford’s Evolving High Street’ showcases the transformation and vitality of the beloved Bedford High Street.

Visitors have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the rich history of the town centre, seeing a captivating array of archive photographs, artwork and information which chronicles the evolution of Bedford’s High Street.

The exhibition shows the remarkable restoration efforts and vibrant community events that have shaped the High Street Heritage Action Zone over the past four years and presents artwork created as part of the scheme’s community engagement project. These artistic renderings offer a glimpse into the future, envisioning what Bedford’s High Street might become in the years to come.

Transforming Bedford’s High Street

The Bedford High Street Heritage Action Zone has been a joint project between Bedford Borough Council and Historic England, in partnership with BedfordBID and the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership.

A programme of restorative building works has seen the transformation of six prominent shopfronts – All Ears, The Blue Monk; Sundae’s Gelato; the former Goldings building; The Medic Clinic; and the Salvation Army building – in the town centre, preserving and enhancing Bedford’s rich architectural history. The façade of the Corn Exchange was also improved as part of the High Street Heritage Action Zone. Maintenance and debranding work is also underway at the former Debenhams building.

The High Street Heritage Action Zone programme has funded a number of impressive public realm improvements. Silver Street (around The Faces) has been re-paved with stunning York stone, and the High Street’s pavement has been widened, creating a more positive shopping environment.

Partners across the town have come together to deliver an engaging programme of community and cultural events, including a walking tour of Bedford High Street, residents sharing stories of past events and former shops, and a look at Bedford’s important lacemaking heritage. Cultural activities have included vibrant 3D art produced by a world renowned illusion artist, and the chance for people to create their own mini versions of high street buildings.

Through the work of the High Street Heritage Action Zone, the magnificent Bedford Shire Hall was upgraded to Grade II* listing, recognising its high level of special architectural and historic interest. The elegant Bedford Corn Exchange was listed at Grade II and new information was added to the list entry for the Grade II* listed Harpur Suite, giving more detail on the history of this impressive public building. List entries throughout the High Street Heritage Action Zone have been enhanced to better explain the building’s history and the reasons why it is listed.

As part of the High Street Heritage Action Zone, the council brought forward an £4.5 million proposal to reduce traffic on the High Street. This was part of a wider re-organisation of the traffic flow within the town which, by restricting the High Street to one-way traffic, has increased the size of the footpaths along the High Street and created a new area of the public realm.

The total funding for the High Street Heritage Action Zone project was around £6.5 million, including, from Historic England, £1.7 million capital projects funding and £80,000 cultural programme funding, £2,728, 255 funding from Bedford Borough Council and over £2 million in match funding.

Tony Calladine, East of England Regional Director, Historic England, said: “This remarkable project is exactly what Historic England envisaged when developing High Street Heritage Action Zones – bringing places to life economically and culturally through their history and their historic buildings. It’s been such a pleasure to work in partnership with Bedford Borough Council and many other partners and to see the transformation of Bedford’s town centre. The restored shopfronts in particular look stunning. I’m looking forward to seeing what is next for Bedford and how this regenerative energy continues into the future. It truly is an attractive and engaging place for people to live, work and visit. The Bedford’s Evolving High Street display shows how the town centre has changed over time and how we can look to the past to influence our future direction of travel.”

Councillor Andrea Spice, Portfolio Holder for Town Centres and Planning, said: “We are thrilled to present this exhibition, which serves as a testament to the dedication and collaboration of all involved in the High Street Heritage Action Zone programme,” “It is a celebration of our heritage, our community, and the ongoing revitalisation of our High Street.”

“Thanks to the High Street Heritage Action Zone programme, we have also seen business relocate to the town centre due to new office space created, walking tours and videos created to bring the heritage of the High Street to life, over 400 children involved in community activities through the ‘Colour your High Street’ project and five community engagement grants awarded to engage people with heritage through music and art. Between January 2020, just before the project started and the pandemic, to the latest figures of January 2024, footfall has increased on the High Street by an impressive 32.5%!”

Christina Rowe, Director, BedfordBID, added, “BedfordBID has a history of capital investment into the town’s prosperity and sustainability. The latest collaboration to which BedfordBID is delighted to lend its support, has provided further opportunities for the essential enhancement of High Street and regeneration of beautiful historical buildings whilst repurposing premises to match the evolving changes of high streets. BedfordBID is also pleased to fund the programme of community engagement projects including competitions and support for the occupation of temporary premises and help to further promote the historical heritage of town centre.

“These initiatives contribute to the shared value of investment both from central government, future investment into the town and new businesses helping partners to achieve aspirations for future proofing the town. The high quality of the structural works and finishes is also appreciated by neighbouring businesses and a testament to the expertise of the project team.”

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