Dunstable Downs are part of the Chiltern Hills, in southern Bedfordshire in England. They are a chalk escarpment forming the north-eastern reaches of the Chilterns. At 797 ft (243 m), Dunstable Downs are the highest point of the county of Bedfordshire. Because of its elevation, Dunstable Downs hosted a station in the shutter telegraph chain which connected the Admiralty in London to its naval ships in the port of Great Yarmouth during the years 1808 to 1814.
Whipsnade Zoo has cut an enormous lion shape into the chalk into the side of one of the hills. The lion can be seen from the B489 (Aylesbury to Dunstable road). The downs are used by gliders, kite fliers, hang gliders and paragliders in the area because of their height. The London Gliding Club is based at the foot of the downs. Much of the downs is managed by the National Trust as part of the Dunstable Downs & Whipsnade Estate property.
Central Bedfordshire Council and the National Trust commissioned Architype architects to build a visitor centre known as the Chilterns Gateway Centre, on the very top of Dunstable Downs. The summit is right next to the B4541 road that crosses the hill, and so an ascent of the hill requires nothing more than getting out of a car at the highest point and walking across to the trig point.
For those who wish to climb the hill from the base, it is possible to do a circular walk from the village of Whipsnade by following the Icknield Way Path and Chiltern Way, both of which are marked on Ordnance Survey maps. This circuit can be extended to take in the northern top of Five Knolls. The hill can also be ascended from Dunstable to the north. The Icknield Way Trail, a horse rider and off-road cycle route, has been established following a similar route to the Icknield Way Path which passes over the Dunstable Downs.
The Five Knolls
Lying on the edge of the Downs, this Scheduled Monument is the only such site known in Bedfordshire. Visible as bumps against the skyline, barrows are burial mounds constructed in chalk over individual burials, with later burials (usually cremations) dug into the outside of the mounds. First noted by William Stukely in the 18th century, the burial mounds were excavated in the 1850s and 1920s, revealing that they originated in the late Neolithic and Bronze Age and re-used for burial in the Roman period and beyond.
At Dunstable Downs there is a group of 7 round barrows, consisting of 2 bowl barrows, 3 bell barrows, and 2 pond barrows. It is thought that they were initially used as burial grounds for Kings or Chiefs, although excavations of 2 of the bell barrows in August 1850 revealed no treasure to support this. When the northern-most barrow was excavated in 1928 by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, a crouched female skeleton with a late Neolithic knife at her shoulder was found, later put on display at Luton Museum and Art Gallery.
Other excavations throughout the 1920s revealed over 90 skeletons from various periods. For instance, in Saxon times about 30 bodies were buried there with their hands apparently still tied behind their backs. Gallows were set up on the northernmost barrow in medieval times and some of the people hung were also buried there. Witch lore has also been connected with the barrows, as in the trial of Elizabeth Pratt of Dunstable, in 1667 she was arrested whilst meeting with three other women, plotting to bewitch the children of Thomas Heyward.
Two other Scheduled Monuments can be found either side of the adjacent hilltop. Two long, low “pillow” mounds, first noted by W.G. Smith in 1894 are considered by their form and location to indicate the sites of medieval warrens. These were possibly constructed and managed by the Augustian Priory at Dunstable, warrens being areas of land set aside for breeding and management of rabbits, to provide a constant supply of fresh meat and skins.
For around two hundred years an unusual and unique tradition was practised on the slopes leading down to Pascombe Pit. Every Good Friday, the people of Dunstable and neighbouring villages would gather at the top of the Downs, then chase oranges thrown down the hills, attempting to catch them! Although there are similar traditions in other parts of the country of throwing items such as eggs down hills, said to symbolise the rolling of the stone away from the tomb of Christ, only Dunstable Downs has been recorded as using oranges instead.
The origins of this event are unknown, but it is believed to have started in the mid-to-late 18th century. By the end of the 19th century, newspaper records show that it was an annual event attended by hundreds of people, known at the time as “pelting oranges”. Participants were either a “pelter” or a “pelted”, with the oranges generally being thrown at other people, especially those who dressed in items such as top hats to encourage being hit. Indeed, whilst children might happily tumble down, chasing oranges to earn a juicy prize to eat, some “old hands” deliberately attracted attention on the slopes to catch as many as possible, with the intention of selling them on later!
At this time it was common for bands, fairground-type rides and stalls to set up at the bottom of the pit, to further entertain the revellers. However, at the turn of the 20th century there were issues with rowdy elements within the crowds, in one particular instance over-running a cocoanut shy, eventually resulting in banning of such amusements in 1914. However, the event would continue, with increasing visitors from further afield such as London, as transportation improved.
The rifle range at Dunstable Downs would have been used by hundreds of volunteer "Saturday Soldiers". The metal foundations for the target area can still be seen at the bottom of Pascombe Pit. Following the Crimean War, with half of Britain’s forces posted in garrisons across the Empire during the 1850’s, it became apparent to the Army that any further conflicts may leave the defences at home severely depleted. With the possibility of being dragged into an European war at the end of the decade, it was decided to form The Volunteer Force of part-time rifle, artillery and engineer corps. As part of this, in 1860 seven corps' of rifle volunteers were formed in various towns in Bedfordshire and grouped as the 1st Administrative Battalion, with their HQ at Bedford.
These volunteers would pay for their own arms and equipment, provided under supervision of the War Office to ensure uniformity. To be considered “effective” for service, each volunteer had to undertake 8 days of drills every 4 months. To this end, the battalion established a rifle range at the base of the Downs for the regular training of these hundreds of “Saturday Soldiers”, forerunners of today’s Territorial Army.
Permanent targets were placed near the bottom of Pascombe Pit, where the Downs sweeps around to the headland upon which the Five Knolls sits. Camps would be set up a couple of hundred yards along the base of the Downs, where the volunteers would fire from. There is a raised flat area at this point which was possibly used for this purpose, however the angle of the target seems to suggest a site could’ve instead been used in the fields now used by the Gliding club. The upright metal foundations of the target area can still be seen at the base of Pascombe Pit today, riddled with indents from bullets. When used, targets were set upon this, with a man crouched behind, moving across to check on hits and signal scores with flags!
One consequence of this activity was a pub being named The Rifle Volunteer, on the junction of West Street leading to the centre of Dunstable and Whipsnade Road leading up to the Downs. During the next century this would be a stopping point for daytrippers to the Downs and Whipsnade Zoo, plus patrons and performers of The California Ballroom. However, the pub was demolished in 1969 to make way for a very 70’s construction, the Windsock. A Schooner Inn, designed for Watneys by Britain's leading exponent of kitsch architecture at that time, Roy Wilson-Smith, it was pushed through planning because of its oblique reference to gliders, with curved floors and ceilings soaring up to 5 storeys high. This restaurant and pub was barely open a decade though and finally pulled down in 1984, in favour of a complex of flats, Westdown Gardens.
** – Wildlife – **
Chalk grassland is full of life! You may need to look closely but there are hundreds of weird and wonderful minibeasts within this habitat. Chalk grasslands are home to a huge range of different species. They are comparable to rainforests in their biodiversity as you can find up to 40 different species per square metre! They were formed when humans cleared land of trees and shrubs to graze livestock. Chalk grasslands are sadly in decline and maintaining the landscape is expensive and relentless. It is thanks to constant shrub clearing by the Ranger Team that Dunstable Downs can retain its rich biodiversity, as well as that perfect view!
Many plants will only grow in chalk grassland. Here at Dunstable Downs there are many varieties of stunning wild orchid. The orchids and other wildflowers attract rare butterflies. Dunstable Downs is home to 32 different species of butterfly such as the Duke of Burgundy.
The success of the Red Kite since their reintroduction has captured the hearts of the British public over the past 28 years. With its beautiful russet colour and aerial acrobatics the Red Kites are second to none. If you're not close enough to see its autumnal coloured feathers and piercing golden eyes, you'll recognise the Red Kite by its unmistakable silhouette. Their fork-like tails twist to help them change direction like a ship's rudder. The adults are 60 to 70 cm long with a wingspan of nearly two metres. Red Kites are scavengers and engage in ‘kleptoparasitism’ where they steal food from other birds mid-air! The female Red Kites are slightly larger than the males and they pair for life. Red Kites have thrived Britain since their reintroduction in 1989, especially across the Chilterns.
As more and more of their natural habitat is reduced, our feathered friends benefit greatly from food sources that we humans leave out for them. Providing the right habitat. You can help your garden to welcome a wide variety of birds using insect-friendly planting, providing structures for perching, and supplementing their natural diet.
Slugs, snails, worms and other insects are a fantastic natural food source for robins and other small garden birds. You could help the birds by creating a bug hotel in your garden. Planting fruiting trees and bushes would also be helpful as the birds like to fill up on berries when they can.
You can increase the likelihood of survival by adding to their natural diet with food such as suet balls, peanuts and seed mixes. The winter months are tough for little birds such as finches, tits and robins as their natural food sources are greatly reduced. The food that you provide gives the adult birds the energy they need to build nests during the spring. Parent birds will teach their fledglings where to go to find the best food sources. Bird food and feeders are available to purchase from their shop.
** – Walks – **
With a stunning view and a warm and welcoming café to come back to, Dunstable Downs and the surrounding area is perfect for walking. They have a range of downloadable walks from 2 miles to over 6. Explore the countryside and find out more about the fascinating wildlife and history.
** – Five Knolls wildlife and heritage walk – **
Walk with the National Trust on the downs on this all-weather pathway. The chalk downs are home to a rich variety of birds, insects and plants and this site has been an important vantage point to people for over a thousand years. Ideal for families. This is a great walk to do on wheels, with a series of numbered and lettered posts marking the route. Suitable for buggies, motorised scooters and wheelchairs. Classified as Easy, the walk is 1.9 miles long and should take about 45 minutes. It has good access and is dog friendly.
Start: Chilterns Gateway Centre visitor car park.
** – Dunstable Downs countryside walk – **
Follow this walk with the National Trust, discovering diverse wildlife, Iron Age hill forts and burial mounds. Visit the Icknield Way and the ramparts of Maiden Bower, a Neolithic hill fort. This is for those who are a little fitter. The walk is classified as Moderate, it is six and a half miles long and should take about three and a half hours. It is dog friendly.
Start: Visitor Centre car park.
** – Whipsnade and Dunstable Downs walk – **
There's a chance to rest and wonder at the Whipsnade Tree Cathedral before climbing up through Whipsnade Heath and returning to the Chilterns Gateway Centre. The view northwards from the Chilterns Gateway Centre is a good place to start and finish your walk. Suitable for the more energetic families, this walk is classified as Moderate. The walk is about four and a half miles and should take around two and a half hours; it is dog friendly.
Start: Chiltern Gateway Centre car park.
** – Visiting – **
An extensive chalk grassland in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Look down on a breathtaking landscape, sculpted over time, decorated by nature and enjoyed by generations. Stand on top of Dunstable Downs for a view that will simply take your breath away. There are several Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designated for the quality of the chalk grasslands. As well as two Scheduled Ancient Monuments (Five Knolls and Medieval Rabbit Warrens) there are many other historical features and the site has much to offer.
There are miles of footpaths across the chalk grasslands of the Downs including several circular walks. The Downs have a fascinating history and an abundance of plants and wildlife. Dunstable Downs is within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and is the highest point in Bedfordshire. The wind-swept ridge provides ideal conditions for a variety of air sports, especially kite flying. On calmer days it's the ideal site to enjoy the view and a picnic. Please note: Chilterns Gateway Centre is owned by Central Bedfordshire Council and managed by the National Trust.
** – Facilities – **
Location : Chilterns Gateway Centre, Whipsnade Road, Dunstable, Bedfordshire, LU6 2GY
Transport: Luton (National Rail) 7 miles OR St. Albans (National Rail) then bus. Bus routes: Centrebus runs a service from Dunstable to St Albans, via Dunstable Downs, Mondays to Saturdays (number 34 and 35). There is no service on Sundays or Bank Holidays.
Opening Times Downs: Dawn till Dusk.
Opening Times Chilterns Gateway Centre: 09:30 to 17:00 daily.
Tel: 01582 500920