When travelling around Bedfordshire last year, on the trail of John Bunyan, there was one place I overlooked. Harlington in Bedfordshire is a tiny village but was the scene of one of the most dramatic episodes in Bunyan’s story. It was here that he was arrested and put on trial.
In order for us to fully appreciate what a momentous event this was, I have to express, again, what a hugely important book Pilgrim’s Progress is in the canon of English Literature. It was so influential to later generations of writers that many of our greatest works of Sci-Fi and fantasy fiction owe their existence to it and it should be on the ‘must read’ list of anyone interested in Sci-Fi, fantasy and the picaresque. The story of a simple man lost in a strange world influenced Lewis Carroll, JRR Tolkien, and Douglas Adams. (Incidentally, the protagonist of the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent, is named after a sixteenth century preacher and writer, who was a known influence on Bunyan) and this is just one of the 60(ish) books he wrote.
Bunyan was a preacher in an age when to preach was an act of subversion. When the monarchy was restored following the collapse of the Commonwealth in 1660, some attempt was made to control the religious factions that grew up during the civil war were controlled. The ‘Act of Uniformity’ stipulated that a licence, issued by a bishop, was needed to preach. This had the added benefit that royal sanctioned preachers were less likely to spread seditious ideas through the population.
Bunyan, in defiance of the law, preached his sermons. He became something of a minor celebrity: known as Bishop Bunyan, he travelled throughout the county, attracting large crowds wherever he went. He came to the village of Harlington in 1660, to preach to the assembled masses. After his sermon, he was arrested and taken to the local manor house, incarcerated overnight to stand trial the following morning. Sir Francis Wingate presided over the trial; after sentencing Bunyan, he summed up by saying “I strongly suspect that we have heard the last we shall ever hear from Mr. John Bunyan.”
Harlington Manor, the house in which Bunyan was incarcerated and tried, is now a very nice, upmarket B&B. I was recently lucky enough to be shown around by the owner, David Blakeman. On arrival, I was conducted to the kitchen, given coffee and asked to wait. “I’m waiting for a lot to come up” David explained. “I’m very interested in eighteenth century porcelain and I’m bidding on some at auction”. His love for antiques is clear: interesting objects adorn every room, hiding in nooks and crannies throughout the large, sprawling building; bowls, jars, sculpture and devotional figures. There is a stuffed bird or two and musical instruments are everywhere; this is clearly a musical household. The furniture is beautifully eclectic and a diverse range of artwork adorns every wall.
We looked around the ground floor and David showed me, with some pride, into the dining room. “This is the room where Bunyan’s trial took place” he told me. A striking, atmospheric room in the heart of the house; wood panelled and beamed. It was set for breakfast being the main dining room for guests at the b&b. I can think of few places I would rather breakfast, with its views out on to a bright sunny garden. You can stay here for around seventy five quid which, for a decent sized en-suite room in a property of this quality, with a cooked breakfast thrown in as well, is ridiculously cheap.
In the study there is a large piano (and various other musical instruments) and a magnificent stone fireplace, featuring a large oRyal coat-of-arms, which David told me about. “we can’t really work it out” he explained “although the house does have royal connections, there were none in 1881 when the fireplace is dated, so we don’t know why it bears the Royal coat-of-arms”
We looked around upstairs, through some marvellously furnished bedrooms: lovely high beamed ceilings and wood panelling. “The room where Bunyan was incarcerated is out of order at the moment” David explained apologetically “it’s being used as a store room” I couldn’t be too disappointed; I was getting a personal tour of a building that played such an important role in Bunyan’s life story. David really is one of the nicest people I have met. Yes, he did tell me to say this but it genuinely is true! We chatted about history, literature, music and all manner of things for a good while until, promising to share a pint in future, I left and went in search of the oak tree where Bunyan is supposed to have given his sermon.
Bunyan’s Oak is an ancient tree, set in the middle of a field not far from the Hall. I parked up and went for a walk. A very pleasant walk away from the road with some beautiful views over the Herts and Beds countryside. A very gentle slope through a sheep field, and the path becomes difficult to follow, but there are signs here and there. You will see the ancient oak long before you reach it. It is a very distinctive tree: ancient and gnarled, the hollow trunk forms a natural pulpit from which, a preacher would be able to address a large crowd. The tree is long dead, the ancient grain has dried and opened, forming fascinating intricate patterns. Here and there, a rusted metal staple is visible, or an iron band, keeping the structure together. The only green visible is from a whitebeam that now grows from the hollow trunk.