Bedford has been a market town since the Middle Ages and in those days it would have been the heart of shopping in the county and people would have come from miles around to shop there. In recent years the town has re-embraced the market model and now there are a large number of them held regularly as well as a large shopping centre and vibrant town centre. This, along with some of the ancient medieval architecture of the town draws many people from the surrounding area to shop here on a regular basis.
As part of an effort to encourage local shopping it is now possible to purchase Bedford Town Centre gift vouchers redeemable at over 200 shops in the town. These are available from the Tourist Information Centre in St Paul's Square and come in denominations of £5, £10 and £20.
Bedford is a market town, meaning it was given a charter to hold its own markets 800 years ago by King Henry II. The charter market in St Paul's Square has been held there continuously since the 16th Century and sells a mixture of fresh food and other consumer items such as toys and clothing from both permanent and temporary stalls. Since 2004, however, the town has begun offering a number of other markets including the Bedford Gourmet Market, Farmers Market, Home and Garden Market and Arts and Crafts Fair. The Farmers Market sells local produce and cakes made by the Bedford Women's Institute. In June a Continental Market also comes to the town selling produce from Continental Europe.
Bedford town centre includes a mix of both chains and independent shops (like Gunns Bakery which has been operating for over 80 years) mostly dotted around the central square mile of the town. There are shops of every sort, serving the entire community of Bedford and too many to be able to list them here. In the center of the town there is also the newly developed Castle Quarter which describes itself as “a square mile of independent shops.”
If the phrase “shopping centre” conjours up images of plasticky modern architecture then you will be pleasantly surprised by Bedford's Harpur Centre. The facade of the building is in fact that of the 19th-Century Bedford Modern School and was designed by the famous architect Edward Blore. Inside there are 38 different shops, mostly well-known high street chains, selling a mixture of books, stationery, food, gifts, cosmetics, jewelry and clothing.
For those who are driving to the town there is ample parking nearby as well as a popular park and ride service outside of Bedford, in Elstow. Over 6 million people per year visit the centre which is open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5.30pm and 10am to 4pm on Sundays with free parking on bank holidays. The shopping centre is organised over two different levels and has two different coffee shops, Harpur Coffee Co. and Love Coffee, both of which are independent businesses.