The form of the county is a very irregular parallelogram, the sides of which are deeply indented by projecting, and in some instances nearly isolated, portions of the adjoining shires. The soil comprises every species commonly seen in upland districts, from the strongest clay to the lightest sand; although the various kinds are frequently found in remarkably small patches, and so intermixed that no accurate delineation of them can be given. The agricultural improvements that have taken place in modern times, but which have not been very extensively introduced, are mainly owing to the exertions of the fifth duke of Bedford. The county has long been noted for its abundant produce of wheat and barley, the Vale of Bedford being one of the finest corn districts in the country; rye and oats are cultivated only to a limited extent, as beans are thought more profitable, and on the clay soils are less exhausting than oats. The natural meadows on the banks of the rivers are distinguished for their richness, but the quantity of pasture land is not very considerable; in the southern part of the county, however, and in the neighbourhoods of Ampthill and Woburn more especially, are many large dairy-farms, the produce of which, being chiefly butter, is sent to the London market. The breeding and fattening of calves are carried on in the vicinity of Biggleswade. The woods occupy about 7000 acres, and are nearly all situated on the slopes of the hills, which consist of cold wet woodland clays; various extensive plantations have been made by the principal proprietors. The high chalky downs, which constitute a large portion of the southernmost part of the county, comprise about 4000 acres of bleak and barren land, in many parts consisting only of a mass of hard chalk, called hurlock, or clunch, with a slight covering of loamy soil, barely sufficient to nourish a scanty crop of indifferent herbage. The northern acclivities of the Chiltern hills are, in many places, the steepest in the county, and are totally inaccessible to the plough; but, with the exception of this tract, the waste lands occupy only a very small proportion of its surface.
The Manufactures are almost entirely confined to the platting of straw and the making of thread-lace, the latter being pursued in every part of the county, excepting only in the southern districts, where it has been superseded by the straw manufacture. Straw-platting was formerly confined to the chalk district, at the southernmost extremity of the county, but was so much encouraged about the commencement of the present century, as to spread rapidly over the whole southern part of it, as far as Woburn, Ampthill, and Shefford. Here many of the male, and nearly the whole female, population are employed in this manufacture; as those of the middle and northern parts are in making threadlace. A considerable quantity of mats is made in the vicinity of the Ouse, to the north-west of Bedford. The principal rivers are the Ouse and the Ivel; the former becomes navigable at Bedford, and the latter at Biggleswade, and they unite at Tempsford. The Grand Junction canal crosses a small south-western portion of the county, in the valley of the Ouzel, near Leighton-Buzzard; and the Bedford branch of the London and Birmingham railway, passing by the towns of Ampthill and Woburn, is almost wholly within the county.
Bedfordshire contained the Roman station called by Antonine Durocobrivæ, and by Richard of Cirencester Forum Dian, at Dunstable; and that designated by Ptolemy [Salinai], and by the geographer of Ravennas Salin, near the village of Sandy. It was intersected by the great Roman roads Ikeneld-street and Watlingstreet, by a military way running for a considerable distance within its south-eastern border, and by several vicinal ways. The most remarkable military intrenchment is that called Totternhoe Castle, on the brow of a high hill about two miles to the north-west of Dunstable, consisting of a lofty circular mount surrounded by a ditch and ramparts: a little south-eastward of this is a camp in the form of a parallelogram, about 500 feet long, and 250 broad. About a mile from Dunstable is the large circular encampment of Maiden Bower, about 2500 feet in circumference, and formed by a single ditch and rampart. There is another extensive fortification of the same kind, and nearly of a circular shape, near Leighton-Buzzard: a third circular intrenchment, 112 feet in diameter, is situated about four miles from Bedford, on the road to Eaton-Socon; and on a hill overlooking the site of the ancient Salin, is a large Roman camp of an irregular oblong form. At the period of the Reformation, there were fourteen religious houses, besides a commandery of the Knights Hospitallers, six hospitals, and one college of priests: the most considerable remains are those of Elstow Abbey and Dunstable Priory, and there are smaller vestiges of Warden Abbey, of the Grey friars' Monastery at Bedford, and of the priories of Bushmead, Harrold, Newenham, and Caldwell. Of ancient castles there are few remains, except the strong earthworks which yet mark their sites, and of which the most remarkable are situated at Arlsey, Bedford, Bletsoe, Cainhoe, Mappershall, Puddington, Ridgmont, Risinghoe, Sutton, Thurleigh, Toddington, and Yielding. Among the mansions of the landed proprietors, those most worthy of particular notice are Woburn Abbey, and Ampthill, Luton-Hoo, Wrest, Brogborough, Bletsoe, and Melchbourn Parks. There are mineral springs at Barton, Bedford, Bletsoe, Blunham, Bromham, Bushmead, Clapham, Cranfield, Holcutt, Milton-Ernest, Odell, Pertenhall, Risley, Silsoe, and Turvey; they possess different properties, some being saline, and others chalybeate, but none of them are much frequented.
Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.