Pilgrim's Progress

Geographical and topographical features behind the fictional places

Scholars have pointed out that Bunyan may have been influenced in the creation of places in The Pilgrim's Progress by his own surrounding environment. Albert Foster[17] describes the natural features of Bedfordshire that apparently turn up in The Pilgrim's Progress. Vera Brittain in her thoroughly researched biography of Bunyan,[18] identifies seven locations that appear in the allegory. Other connections are suggested in books not directly associated with either John Bunyan or The Pilgrim's Progress.

At least twenty-one natural or man-made geographical or topographical features from The Pilgrim's Progress have been identified—places and structures John Bunyan regularly would have seen as a child and, later, in his travels on foot or horseback. The entire journey from The City of Destruction to the Celestial City may have been based on Bunyan's own usual journey from Bedford, on the main road that runs less than a mile behind his Elstow cottage, through Ampthill, Dunstable and St Albans, to London.

In the same sequence as these subjects appear in The Pilgrim's Progress, the geographical realities are as follows:

  1. The plain (across which Christian fled) is Bedford Plain, which is fifteen miles wide with the town of Bedford in the middle and the river Ouse meandering through the northern half;
  2. The "Slough of Despond" (a major obstacle for Christian and Pliable: "a very miry slough") is the large deposits of gray clay, which supplied London Brick's works in Stewartby, which was closed in 2008. On either side of the Bedford to Ampthill road these deposits match Bunyan's description exactly. Presumably, the road was built on the "twenty thousand cart loads" of fill mentioned in The Pilgrim's Progress;[19] However, the area beside Elstow brook, where John grew up, may also have been an early inspiration - on the north side of this brook, either side of the path to Elstow was (and still is) boggy and John would have known to avoid straying off the main path.
  3. "Mount Sinai", the high hill on the way to the village of Morality, whose side "that was next the way side, did hang so much over,"[20] is the red, sandy, cliffs just north of Ridgmont (i.e. "Rouge Mont");
  4. The "Wicket Gate" could be the wooden gate at the entrance to the Elstow parish church[21] or the wicket gate (small door) in the northern wooden entrance door at the west end of Elstow Abbey Church.
  5. The castle, from which arrows were shot at those who would enter the Wicket Gate, could be the stand-alone belltower, beside Elstow Abbey church.
  6. The "House of the Interpreter" is the rectory of St John's church in the south side of Bedford, where Bunyan was mentored by the pastor John Gifford;
  7. The wall "Salvation" that fenced in the King's Highway coming after the House of the Interpreter[22] is the red brick wall, over four miles long, beside the Ridgmont to Woburn road, marking the boundary of the Duke of Bedford's estate;
  8. The "place somewhat ascending ... [with] a cross ... and a sepulchre"[22] is the village cross and well that stands by the church at opposite ends of the sloping main street of Stevington, a small village five miles west of Bedford. Bunyan would often preach in a wood by the River Ouse just outside the village.
  9. The "Hill Difficulty" is Ampthill Hill, on the main Bedford road, the steepest hill in the county. A sandy range of hills stretches across Bedfordshire from Woburn through Ampthill to Potton. These hills are characterized by dark, dense and dismal woods reminiscent of the byways "Danger" and "Destruction", the alternatives to the way "Difficulty" that goes up the hill;[23]
  10. The pleasant arbour on the way up the Hill Difficulty is a small "lay-by", part way up Ampthill Hill, on the east side. A photo, taken in 1908, shows a cyclist resting there;[24]
  11. The "very narrow passage" to the "Palace Beautiful"[25] is an entrance cut into the high bank by the roadside to the east at the top of Ampthill Hill;
  12. The "Palace Beautiful" is Houghton (formerly Ampthill) House, built in 1621 but a ruin since 1800. The house faced north; and, because of the dramatic view over the Bedford plain, it was a popular picnic site during the first half of the twentieth century when many families could not travel far afield;.[26] The tradesman's entrance was on the south side looking out over the town of Ampthill and towards the Chilterns, the model of "The Delectable Mountains". There is also an earlier source of inspiration; As a young boy, John would have regularly seen, and been impressed by, "Elstow Place" - the grand mansion behind Elstow Church, built for Sir Thomas Hillersden from the cloister buildings of Elstow Abbey.
  13. The "Valley of the Shadow of Death" is Millbrook gorge to the west of Ampthill;
  14. "Vanity Fair" is probably also drawn from a number of sources. Some argue that local fairs in Elstow, Bedford and Ampthill were too small to fit Bunyan's description [27] but Elstow's May fairs are known to have been large and rowdy and would certainly have made a big impression on the young Bunyan. Stourbridge Fair, held in Cambridge during late August and early September fits John Bunyan's account of the fair's antiquity and its vast variety of goods sold[28] and sermons were preached each Sunday during Stourbridge Fair in an area called the "Dodderey." John Bunyan preached often in Toft, just four miles west of Cambridge, and there is a place known as "Bunyan's Barn" in Toft,[29] so it is surmised that Bunyan visited the notable Stourbridge Fair;
  15. The "pillar of salt", Lot's wife,[30] is a weather-beaten statue that looks much like person-sized salt pillar. It is located on small island in the river Ouse just north of Turvey bridge, eight miles west of Bedford near Stevington;
  16. The "River of the Water of Life", with trees along each bank[31] is the river Ouse east of Bedford, where John Bunyan as a boy would fish with his sister Margaret. It might also be the valley of river Flit, flowing through Flitton and Flitwick south of Ampthill;
  17. "Doubting Castle" is Ampthill Castle, built in the early 15th century and often visited by King Henry VIII as a hunting lodge. Henry, corpulent and dour, may have been considered by Bunyan to be a model for Giant Despair. Amphill Castle was used for the "house arrest" of Queen Catherine of Aragon and her retinue in 1535-36 before she was taken to Kimbolton. The castle was dismantled soon after 1660, so Bunyan could have seen its towers in the 1650s and known of the empty castle plateau in the 1670s[32] Giant Despair was killed and Doubting Castle was demolished in the second part of The Pilgrim's Progress.[33]
  18. The "Delectable Mountains" are the Chiltern Hills that can be seen from the second floor of Houghton House. "Chalk hills, stretching fifty miles from the Thames to Dunstable Downs, have beautiful blue flowers and butterflies, with glorious beech trees."[34] Reminiscent of the possibility of seeing the Celestial City from Mount Clear,[35] on a clear day one can see London's buildings from Dunstable Downs near Whipsnade Zoo;
  19. The "Land of Beulah" is Middlesex county north and west of London, which had pretty villages, market gardens, and estates containing beautiful parks and gardens): "woods of Islington to the green hills of Hampstead & Highgate";[36]
  20. The "very deep river"[37] is the River Thames, one thousand feet wide at high tide; however, in keeping with Bunyan's route to London, the river would be to the north of the city;
  21. The "Celestial City" is London, the physical centre of John Bunyan's world—most of his neighbours never travelled that far. In the 1670s, after the Great Fire of 1666, London sported a new, gleaming, city centre with forty churches.[38] In the last decade of Bunyan's life (1678–1688) some of his best Christian friends lived in London, including a Lord Mayor.

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