Situated a mile or so east of Bedford town centre, Priory Country Park consists of 360 acres of green space, filled with lawns, lakes, tree lines and a serious number of dog walkers. Though it is surrounded by channels and branches of the River Great Ouse, the park's most obvious feature is a large fishing lake, around which runs a 1.5-mile footpath. In addition, the park includes a conservation area around the smaller Finger Lakes, beyond which it is possible to head downstream on a much longer tour of the area. Use of the park is free, though fishing requires a permit. Parking in the main car park is free and available throughout the day, and it is also possible to reach the park by bus1 or bicycle2.
The land now occupied by the park was, quite unsurprisingly, once home to an actual priory – Augustinian, to be precise. Built in the 12th Century, it eventually fell victim to the Protestant Henry VIII's quarrel with Catholicism, the effect of which was the dissolution of over 800 monasteries. Little evidence remains on site, save for a 'Priory Wall' constructed from the stones left once the original priory had been destroyed. The wall now acts to separate the park from the neighbouring leisure centre.
Similarly, an 11th-Century mill once stood on the banks of the Great Ouse opposite Cardington Lock – it was once a hub of activity, valued at as much as £2 and 100 eels. Though it was rebuilt during the 1470s, the mill lasted for some 850 years, ending its life as a steam-powered Victorian contraption. By 1936 it had become a derelict site, leading the Bedford Corporation to purchase and demolish the building. The only remains are those of a narrow sluice channel which runs around the site; this is visible to those crossing into the park from the nearby Priory Business Park.
The Cambridge to Oxford railway used to run across the north side of the parkland, the nearest stops being Willington to the east and a previous incarnation of Bedford St Johns to the west3. This harked back to the mid-19th Century when rail travel was slower, and it made sense to allow freight to head cross-country rather than forcing it to contend with London's busy yards. The advent of diesel locomotives put paid to this, with the Bedford to Cambridge section closing in 1967 – it now lives on as a concrete cycleway as far as Sandy. Alongside it runs the New Cut, a waterway added in 1870 to help prevent flooding of the line.
It goes without saying that such a park is suitable for walking, with or without dogs, but its design lends it to a number of other uses:
Cycling – the most obvious route for cycling within the park is the cycleway that begins on Cardington Road in Bedford, running through the park and then off into the countryside.
Fishing – the central lake is connected to the River Great Ouse and has a number of swims easily accessible from the surrounding path. Day tickets can also be bought for fishing in the fast-flowing New Cut, parts of the Fingers Lakes, and in the shallow Riverside Pond in the northeast of the park. Night fishing is possible, but strict rules and regulations apply.
Kite flying – an open meadow east of the Barkers Lane car park is billed as the kite flying area.
Watersports – the park includes a canoe slalom, and the large open areas of water are an invitation to sail.
Birdwatching – aside from the conservation area and the many mute swans and diving ducks to be found upon the water, there is a bird hide on the south side of the Priory Lake, next to which the path is diverted during the colder months to allow the wintering birds some peace. A second hide, the Kramer Hide, lies on the southwest shore of the Finger Lakes. The park provides an extensive list of birds that have been spotted at some time, ranging from blue tits, robins and wood pigeons to harriers, sandpipers and bittern. There is a guided walk about once a month, often with a bird, bat or flying insect theme, as well as evening wildlife talks for those generally interested in nature.
Volunteering – the park has a volunteer day each month, when keen individuals can help with conservation work aimed at maintaining the park and encouraging wildlife.