Distance 1,050m. Direction: N – S, NNW – SSW
As one enters the grounds you will see Swiss Cottage, the entrance lodge, to the east. Its history is related later but now forms the Visitors Centre, shop (open weekdays 9 am – 5 pm and weekends 10 am – 5 pm), toilets and offices. A large car park is located in the trees immediately to the south. The shop sells a variety of bird-related gifts, soft-drinks and ice-creams. Brochures with details of some wonderful woodland and heathland walks are available inside and a notice board indicates which birds have been spotted recently for those ornithologists amongst you. More than 30 birds regularly breed on the estate. As RSPB staff and visitors use the road, you need to be careful walking along the bridleway. Dogs need to be kept on a lead and are not allowed on the other footpaths around the estate.
Bridleway 32 forms part of the Skylark Ride, East Bedfordshire’s 36 km circular horse ride from Sutton, through Wrestlingworth, across Biggleswade Common, up through Sandy Warren to join the Roman Road here. So, if you don’t meet up with any horse riders, you will see plenty of evidence of horses’ hooves in the mud along the way.
Further down the road, about 100 metres past the hut, a footpath has been created alongside it. It continues through the woods for about 500 metres with views to the west to open grassland, a man-made lake and a bird watching hide. Archaeological evidence of human settlement on the top of the Greensand Ridge suggests there were people living here about 10,000 years ago. A small enclosure with a circular mound dating to around 300 BC is thought to be a single family’s hill fort, the mound may have had a wooden wall to keep out wild animals like bears and wolves. In the side of one of the earth banks the ancient burrows of two sand martins were found.
By the 13th century this area was known as Sandy Warren. The sandy hills provided valuable nesting and grazing sites for rabbits which, in Medieval times, were a valuable source of meat and fur. It was owned by William de Beauchamp. Whether it was William (1185 – 1260), the Chancellor of the Exchequer or his son William, (1237 – 1298), the 9th Earl of Warwick, is uncertain. Maybe they both owned it. The Beauchamps owned lots of land in Bedfordshire and elsewhere.
The adjoining estate to the north belonged to the Pym family in the 18th century. Humphry Repton was called in to landscape the park. In his Red Book, a prized family possession, he described, the area as “...rough windswept country. After ascending the naked hills from the village of Sandy the eye is disgusted by the vast expanse of flat uninteresting rabbit warren.“. When John Byng visited the Pym family’s estate at Hasells Hall in 1794 he wrote that the villagers at the foot of the hill (Stratford), survived with “a little rabbit plunder.” This estate of heath and open woodland was bought in about 1850 as a country retreat for Captain William Peel, the third son of Robert Peel, the Prime Minister of Great Britain and founder of the Police Force.
The gate house, known as the ‘Swiss Cottage’, was built for William in 1851 where he convalesced after catching river fever in Africa. As a captain in the Royal Navy, he gained a Victoria Cross during the Crimean Wars in 1854 and was honoured with the title of Knight Commander of the British Empire for helping put down a Mutiny in India. He was injured in Lucknow and died from smallpox in 1858 before he could see his plans for the Sandy estate realized. He was responsible for building the railway from Sandy to Potton which used to run along the foot of the southern face of the Greensand Ridge into the valley that drained into Biggleswade Common. The plan was to take advantage of the market gardening land in Sandy, Potton and Gamlingay and supply the increasing demand for food from the urban centers, especially London. It was completed in June 1857, and officially opened by Lady Peel. The first train consisted of a locomotive, called "Shannon", named after Peel’s frigate and built by George England at a cost of £800. It was able to haul two passenger carriages, a goods wagon and a brake van. Within seven years it and a second locomotive, "Little England", were hauling coprolites extracted from Sandy Heath to Sandy station. These were thought by some at the time to be the fossilized droppings of dinosaurs, fish and other organisms. Details can be found in the account of Bridleway 29 – the Long Riding.
The estate passed to his younger brother, Arthur Wellesley Peel, MP, who lived in Swiss Cottage. In 1864 he had tests done on Sandy Heath to determine whether the iron found in the Greensand under his estate was of sufficient quality to deserve mining. It wasn’t but the fossil deposit beneath it proved a lucrative source of mineral wealth. A bed of what the Victorian geologists termed phosphatic nodules, thought by others to be the fossilized dung of dinosaurs, lizards, bears, fish and even wildebeests, was located a few feet below the surface. Ground to a powder and dissolved in sulphuric acid, it was the raw material much in demand in the second half of the 19th century in the manufacture of superphosphate – the world’s first artificial chemical fertilizer. Several contractors made agreements with Peel to raise the fossils, paying up to £3 a ton royalty. When several hundred tons could be raised per acre and many hundreds of acres were worked between Sandy, Everton and Potton, it proved a very profitable reserve to have discovered on your property. Average royalties during the coprolite period were just over £100 an acre. As many hundreds of acres were worked between Sandy and Potton, Peel must have realized a fortune between 1865 and the 1890s when the industry petered out.
Over the years he helped develop the town of Sandy. He was elected Liberal MP in 1865. Along with rents from his estate he could afford to build a country house. In 1870 work started on a design by Henry Clutton, the architect who, two years later, designed Old Warden Park for the Shuttleworth family. He also designed a number of estate churches for the Duke of Bedford. The lowest tender was £6,695. To hide the Tudor-style house from the road the park was planted with pine trees with a 700 metre-long drive. Formal gardens were laid out, with a wide variety of trees, including sweet chestnuts, weeping birch, and majestic cedars. Peel tried to get permission from the local authorities in the 1860s to divert the public bridleway than ran north-south through his estate but they refused. An extensive tree-planting scheme was undertaken with mostly pines and conifers but some oak and birch. Closer to the house exotic plants like the strawberry tree (the UK’s biggest and oldest) and Atlas cedar were planted.
By 1873 he was parliamentary secretary of the Poor Law Board and from 1871, secretary to the Board of Trade. Between 1884 and 1895 he was Speaker of the House of Commons. When he retired in 1895 he was appointed Viscount Peel and the following year chaired a Parliamentary Committee investigating licensing laws. Many of his proposals are till in place today. As the local landowner he had a number of farms built along Stratford Road, which runs alongside the railway line, and on the estate further east including Cottage farm and Warren Farm. As well as building estate cottages for his tenants he was instrumental in building a gas works near Sandy Railway station and providing the town with gas lighting. When he died the gas works were sold to a group of local businessmen who formed the Sandy Gas Company.
Following the depression of the 1930s the estate was sold to Sir Malcolm Stewart and his wife in 1934. He was the chairman of the London Brick Company and the Bedfordshire workings at Stewartby were named after his father, Sir Halley Stewart. The family’s wealth was used to create many of the Italian-style formal gardens around the house. As a keen swimmer Sir Malcolm had a 50-metre long pool built on the south terrace. His wife preferred it as a fishpond with ornamental waterfowl and a story has it that he was chased across the pond by mandarin ducks. Nowadays the pool teems with huge carp. The walls of the two small gardens were constructed in the 1930s. On the western side was a water garden; on the east a rose garden. The Kitchen gardens erected in the 1870s were accessed through the water gardens. The walls are now covered with mature wisteria and clematis.
There were a number of air crashes in the Sandy area, some close to the railway. On 2nd June, 1943 (???) a Halifax LK284, ‘J for Johnny’, piloted by F/L Hugh Stiles DFC of 138 Squadron, REAF Tempsford, took off for Belgium on operation TYBOLT 29. He lost his port inner engine at a height of only 100 ft (30 m) and came down three minutes later near Sandy Hills, landing it skillfully in the fields behind Sandy Lodge. Counterfeit coins were reported found scattered everywhere. The aircraft caught fire. He and P/O Bryant escaped unhurt but P/O Casey was slightly injured. Three other crew members suffered fractures and one a dislocated shoulder.
The Lodge and forty hectares of the estate were purchased by the RSPB for £25,000 and used as its Headquarters. At that time its membership was about 10,500 compared to over a million today. Its mission statement as a UK charity is ‘working to secure a healthy environment for birds and wildlife, helping to create a better world for us all.’ It administers a plot of woodlands and sandy heath with trails and wheelchair access to hides for bird and animal observation. The ground floor of the Lodge was used for offices with staff accommodation upstairs. New offices were built nearby including a mock Tudor imitation of the original building in Bedfordshire brick and reconstituted stone. Built in 1996, this building has won environmental awards for its energy-saving devices and use of recycled materials. You will occasionally hear the hours and quarters chimed from the clocktower in the stable block.
The 107 acre nature reserve around the mansion is organically maintained and the Henry Doubleday Research Association (Ltd) wildlife garden demonstrates effective organic cultivation. The tranquil memorial garden commemorates the generosity of people whose legacies have helped the RSPB. The open area to the north of the Lodge was the original grazing meadow and is a designated SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) important for its flora and invertebrates. Part of the heathland is the east has been designated an SSSI.
You will notice that there has been quite large-scale tree felling on both sides of the bridleway. Following the purchase in 2003 of the 100-hectare woodlands around Redstone Hill to the west and 150-acre tracts of woodland stretching to the east towards Deepdale, the estate now more resembles the extent it was before 1960. Conservation management plans were put in place to improve and extend the heathland and acid grassland. In winter 2005 many of the trees were cut down, the timber sold and the branches and twigs mulched. Some of the leaf litter was removed and within a few months some of the seeds from the old plants had geminated. Some gorses and heathers have been introduced. The aim is to attract the natterjack toads and provide potential habitat for breeding birds such as woodlarks and nightjars. The woodland and bracken slopes are being managed to encourage flora, fungi and typical woodland birds.
Visiting in Spring you can see snowdrops and bluebells on the woodland floor, woodpeckers drumming and calling in the trees, flowering azaleas and rhododendrons and songbirds establishing territories. In Summer there are dragonflies hovering over ponds and bats flitting around the buildings. The wisteria is in blossom on the Lodge walls; colourful flowers and butterflies can be seen on the herbaceous borders and lizards and grass snakes on the heath. In Autumn magnificent displays of purple heather can be seen on the hillside, a variety of fungi can be spotted in the woods and birds of prey hovering and swooping over the heath. During the Winter there are bright berries on the evergreen shrubs, redwings and thrushes feeding on them, flocks of tits and nuthatches on the feeders and, following snowfalls, tracks or birds and animals.
43,000 visitors were attracted to the centre in 1998. latest figures? A number of way-marked footpaths have been created through the woods but the bridleway leaves the road where it turns to the southwest towards the Lodge (TL 191480). It then follows a gentle slope down a valley cut through the greensand by glacial meltwater through the pine trees until it leaves the estate at its south gate (TL 192487). You might notice that the base of the bridleway is made up of brick rubble, thought to have been brought up from the bombed out parts of London and dumped during the Second World War. Rain erosion, walkers’ feet and horses’ hooves have eroded the bridleway in parts and there are plans to have it restored using local ironstone, a by-product of the sand pits still operating on Sandy Heath.
Once you leave the woods through the local ironstone gateway (192476) you meet Bridleway 42 which runs E –W along the southern edge of the estate. In the 19th century it was called the Hunting Gate through which the members of the local gentry would enter Sandy Warren to join the hunting parties to catch rabbits and hares. West takes you to the Stratford Road and Sandy Station. Bridleway 33 takes you south via Bridleway 9 across Biggleswade Common, past Furzenhall Farm and on to Biggleswade. The sandy runoff from the hills has accumulated as a broad swathe over the northern edge of Biggleswade Common. Under it lies many hundreds of feet of Oxford Clay which dates back to about 500 million years ago when this area formed the NW coast of what geologists call the ‘London-Brabant platform’.