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Danish Camp Willington

Danish Dock on a map of 1926
Danish Dock on a map of 1926

The Bedfordshire Historic Environment Record [HER] contains information on the county’s historic buildings and landscapes and summaries of each entry can now be found online as part of the Heritage Gateway website. The entry for Danish Camp [HER 769] reads: “The site comprises the remains of a double island moated site and associated dock next to the River Ouse. The moated site comprises inner and outer moated enclosures. The outer enclosure is D-shaped with its northern side formed by a scarp parallel to the river. The water-filled south east and south west arms of the enclosure survive in good condition measuring approximately 12 metres in width. A slight inner bank survives along the south west corner of the island. The interior is largely occupied by a disused railway line and station. Attached to its south-west corner are the remains of a rectangular inner enclosure, Its moated island measures approximately 90 metres by 25 metres and is defined by a 12 metre wide water filled moat on the south and west sides. Its north side is defined by the outer moated enclosure. A slight inner bank or rampart is still visible along the south-east arm of the moat. Entrance to the enclosure is across a causeway on the south side which is opposed to a similar causeway across the outer enclosure moat. Excavations within the enclosures uncovered the well-preserved remains of buildings dating to between the 11th and the 14th centuries”.

“Adjacent to the east of the moated enclosures are the well-defined remains of a riverside dock. It was originally one of three interconnected docks at the site. It survives as a rectangular water filled pond, measuring approximately 50 metres by 35 metres. The dock was originally connected to the River Ouse by a channel which has since been backfilled. The date of construction of the dock is unknown”.

The name Danish Dock or Danish Camp became attached to the site because the Danes, or Vikings, are known to have been active in the area, using the River Great Ouse to attack Bedford. Most famously the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes an attack in 920: “At the same time the [Danish] army came from Huntingdon and East Anglia and made the fortress at Tempsford, and took up quarters in it and built it, and abandoned the other fortress at Huntingdon, thinking that from Tempsford they would reach more of the land with strife and hostility. And they went till they reached Bedford; and the men who were inside went out against them, and fought against them and put them to flight, and killed a good part of them”. As can be seen from the Historic Environment Record entry above, there is no evidence of use of Danish Camp by the Danes, the earliest firm date being from the 11th century, a hundred years or so after the Battle of Bedford, when the site was a moated homestead.

In November 1903 then Lords of the Manor, George and James Keeble put the Willington Manor Estate properties in the village up for sale by auction. The sale particulars [X403/3] included Danish Camp as Lot 47, though not under that name. The particulars read as follows:


Situated adjoining Willington Station, bounded on the north by the London and North Western railway, on the south by Chapel Road, on the west by Station Road and on the east by land of Mr. M. Young, containing

6 acres, 1 rood, 25 poles
Part Ordnance Survey 75 – Meadow – 6 acres, 20 poles
Part Ordnance Survey 23 – Moat – 1 rood, 5 poles.

Bank at Danish Camp August 2010
Bank at Danish Camp August 2010

Danish Camp was purchased by Mark Young, who also purchased Grange Farm and thus from that point the camp formed part of the farm. In 1958 the estate of Mark Young, who had been dead for ten years, sold Grange Farm to matchmakers Bryant and May. The sale catalogue for dead farming stock at Grange Farm [AD1147/34] reads: “The recent sale of Grange Farm is an important events in planned afforestation in England. The purchasers of this 331 acre property are Bryant and May Limited, the match manufacturers, and the area is to be developed as the company’s forestry headquarters for the Central and South Eastern Counties of England”.

“The British match industry has been concerned for more than 30 years in the study of poplar at all stages in its growth and utilisation, and Bryant & May, especially during the last ten years, have been active in laying the foundations for a good and continuing supply of poplar, by themselves acquiring property for afforestation and by actively encouraging landowners to plant this tree. The Company has a forestry advisory service, which willingly supplies information on poplar, and which sells plants of high quality at prices near to cost of production”.

“Poplar is a fast growing tree, and, on a suitable site, a yield of 3,000 cubic feet (Hoppus) per acre can be expected in 30 years. On better sites this volume should be obtained sooner. To provide for the present log requirements of the match trade it is necessary to plant 300 acres per annum. On a rotation of 30 years a potential 9,000 acres will be required, but this figure must be doubled if the match trade is also to become independent of imported splints. It is Bryant & May’s aim to encourage those landowners with suitable land to continue to plant poplar. A great deal is needed and there will always be a demand for good quality timber”.

In 1973 Bryant & May merged with Wilkinson Sword to form Wilkinson Match. This firm suffered the usual fate of British companies being taken over by a foreign concern, in this case an American company called Allegheny International. In 1987 Allegheny sold the company to Swedish Match. The last United Kingdom factory of the former Bryant & May, in Liverpool, closed in 1994.

The poplar woods at Danish Camp were cleared in the 1980s to make way for sand and gravel extraction. At the beginning of the 21st century the site was acquired by The Marston Vale Trust which intends to make Danish Camp the heart of a planned BedfordRiverValleyPark, intending, with local landowners, to convert 3½ square miles east of Bedford into a green space for leisure and the conservation of wildlife and landscape. The Camp is open daily to visitors.

In Volume 25 of Bedfordshire Archaeology Gary Edmundson and Andy Mudd reported on an archaeological excavation by Northamptonshire Archaeology at Danish Camp in 2000 before the current visitors’ centre was built. The dig confirmed that the site does not go back as far as the Vikings, dating evidence recovered putting the range of occupation between the 12th and mid 13th centuries. They concluded that the size of the site suggests that it formed part of a complex related to the Manor of Willington.

The River Great Ouse at Danish Camp August 2010
The River Great Ouse at Danish Camp August 2010