Our study of John Bunyan begins where he spent his youth in Elstow, England. It’s the smallest of the towns we visit and reminds me of the little village in the movie Brigadoon because it’s so quiet and there’s never anyone moving about; it’s as if they are always sleeping. Bunyan was the bell-ringer for the parish church of Elstow, St. Mary and St. Helena. A beautiful stained glass window depicting Bunyan’s great allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, graces the gothic nave of the old church. His baptismal font and the original church door (some think he referenced it in the book) are still there. Down the short road of English Tudor and pub-styled cottages is a plaque attached to the property where his home once stood.
Fewer than ten miles away is the town more famously known as Bunyan territory, Bedford. St. John’s Church on High Street began as a Dissenter’s congregation led by John Gifford. It was he who taught Bunyan the road to salvation and discipled the young Christian. The church can be seen by appointment and the care takers are quite knowledgeable about Gifford’s and Bunyan’s connection even though the church is now part of the Anglican Parish. The small Norman style building is representative of its 16th Century origin. Note the crypts in the church floor, also a common practice through the 19th Century.
Gifford baptized Bunyan in the River Ouse, a few blocks’ walk from St. John’s. Following the path along the river’s edge leads to a small plaque above the rippling current inlet where he was immersed. Swans and ducks abound on the river which flows through the town and marks the natural boundary for the town center. On the other side of town is St. Peter’s Anglican Church, where one can view the large bronze statue of Bunyan, and a bronze marker is located in the pavement at the street corner.
Bedford is an active town with hotels, shops, restaurants, and good tea. I was intrigued by the name of the river, “Ouse” so I went to the OED and found that it is a very old Norse word meaning water. So the River Ouse is the River Water. Makes sense.