Words Kirk Truman
Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“Bloomsbury is a centre of culture, joining together education, history and diversity at every turn…”
We have left behind the leafy street corners of Bloomsbury and find ourselves in the green fields of Woburn, Bedfordshire. Through the country lanes full of ferns that lean toward the roadside, we make the approach to the 13,000-acre estate of Woburn Abbey. Although it is 50 miles from London, this is the home of a family that has been integral in helping develop Bloomsbury into the place we know and love today. As we walk through the corridors of the Abbey, soaking up the sense of history and admiring the many portraits that line the walls, a lady approaches with a small dog in tow. Her Grace, Louise Russell, The Duchess of Bedford, lives at the Abbey with her husband Andrew, the 15th Duke of Bedford, and their two children. Though it is 50 miles from London, this is the home of a family that has been integral in helping develop Bloomsbury into the place we know and love today. It soon becomes clear, as Louise talks about Bloomsbury’s Bedford Estates and her role as Patron of the upcoming Bloomsbury Festival, that this is very much an ongoing relationship.
The Russell family has been part of the fabric of the Bloomsbury neighbourhood for over 300 years. When William, Lord Russell, married Lady Rachel Wriothesley in 1669, the Bloomsbury Estate came into the ownership of the Russell family. Rachel had inherited the estate upon the death of her father, the 4th Earl of Southampton, two years earlier. He had died leaving three daughters but no male heir, thus his estates were divided equally between his children. William, Lord Russell, was the eldest surviving son of the 5th Earl of Bedford. He became implicated in the Rye House Plot of 1683 and was executed for treason. The family was later pardoned, and the Dukedom was created in 1694. The couple had lived at Southampton House in Bloomsbury with their children, including the future 2nd Duke of Bedford. Southampton House became the primary ducal London residence and was renamed Bedford House in 1734 and later demolished in 1800, facilitating the creation of Russell Square. Much of the landscape and architecture of Bloomsbury is the work of past Dukes and Duchesses of Bedford. It was the formidable Duchess Gertrude, widow of the 4th Duke, who created the much admired Bedford Square and Gower Street, while Tavistock Square takes its name from the courtesy title given to the eldest sons of the Dukes of Bedford: the Marquess of Tavistock.
Louise has a passion for Bloomsbury, describing its notable architecture, fine Georgian squares and rich history as captivating and unmatched in Central London. “I hate the term up-and-coming, though there is something really quite unique about Bloomsbury that defines it as different from nearby neighbourhoods such as Fitzrovia, Soho and Marylebone,” she says. “Bloomsbury is a centre of culture, joining together education, history and diversity at every turn. Iconic literary and intellectual figures throughout history have made Bloomsbury their home, from Charles Dickens to Virginia Woolf. The Bedford Estates is proud of this heritage.”
Since it was established in 2006, The Bloomsbury Festival has become a focal point of the neighbourhood calendar. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the festival is a creative explosion of arts, science, literature, culture and fun. It’s a unique event, representative of the neighbourhood’s spirit, bringing together over 100 world-leading institutions, from drama, dance and visual art colleges to creative businesses, theatres, cinemas, ground-breaking scientists, thinkers, and publishing houses. Led by festival director Kate Anderson, the 2016 Festival takes place over five days from 19th to 23rd October, with a schedule of about 150 events in venues across the neighbourhood – streets, parks, museums, galleries and public and private buildings are all involved. For 2016, the theme of the festival is language, marking the Centenary of SOAS and also reflecting the rich diversity of the neighbourhood’s population. The interpretation of the theme is broad, promising a varied programme that will bring it to life: expect street parties celebrating the language of dance, debates on the language of social change, poets battling it out against technology, a sound installation of endangered languages, and many more wide-ranging creative projects and performances throughout the festival’s duration. Throughout the weekend of the festival, Store Street’s unique independent shops and restaurants will remain open later than usual and will each house a different art or music experience.
The Bedford Estates is one of the lead partners of this year’s Bloomsbury Festival, and has supported the event for many years, with Louise acting as Patron. The Duchess is an ambassador for the entirety of the programme, meeting with the festival chair and director throughout the year to discuss strategic plans, development and fundraising. Louise takes an active role in all of these capacities, hosting a number of receptions to help raise the festival’s profile and support its fundraising drive. The Duchess is a particular advocate for work that involves the community at all levels, especially the Step Out Store Street event, which this year takes place on Friday 21st October. “I would love to encourage as many people to come as possible – it’s really worth coming along! It’s a happy, vibrant and relaxed atmosphere, which captures the essence of the neighbourhood. If this corner of London is accessible to you, it would be a shame to miss it. Last year’s event on Store Street was a huge success,” she says. “It was attended by some 3,000 people, and the street was lined with fire sculptures inspired by 2015’s theme of light.”
The 10th Bloomsbury Festival is set to both captivate and represent the neighbourhood over its five days, and it’s one way in which the Bedford Estates maintains its historical links with the neighbourhood and continues its work here in modern day Bloomsbury, working closely with various stakeholders and the local London Borough of Camden to enhance the public realm and celebrate the cultural heritage of the area.