Opinion: Was Nelson Mandela’s visit the most joyful half an hour in Bedford’s history?

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Nelson Mandela visiting Bedford Town Centre in 2000. Image: Bedfordshire Police
Nelson Mandela visiting Bedford Town Centre in 2000. Image: Bedfordshire Police

Next Friday, 7 April, marks the 23rd anniversary of one of the most significant days in the history of Bedford.

It was the day that the former president of South Africa and one of the most well-known men on Earth, Nelson Mandela, visited the town.

Well, I say day. He was only here for half an hour, but it seems to be remembered as one of the happiest half hours the town has ever known.

I was there among the crowd and I remember a kind of disbelief that the whole thing was happening. And looking back, it feels kind of unbelievable that it did happen.

The TV footage from the day shows him smiling and waving at the crowds, dancing to the choir that was performing in Silver Street and even laughing at the streaker that ran down the High Street adorned in nothing but a South African flag.

My own memories are of a carnival-like atmosphere among the crowd as we waited for his arrival and then utter joy and pride that he was here in little old Bedford.

He was here to honour his life-long friend and fellow anti-aparthaid campaigner, Trevor Huddlestone, whose statue stands just behind the Silver Faces.

I can vaguely remember his speech, but I can vividly remember his shirt and him dancing with the singers. I had absolutely no recollection of the streaker until I rewatched the TV coverage.

It never fails to amaze people when I tell them I saw Nelson Mandela in Bedford.

And I’m pretty sure that it was 30 minutes when the town was completely united in joy. What a memory to treasure.