Dunstable Downs

Dunstable Downs

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.

Orange Rolling.

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.

Rifle Range.

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.

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.

Red Kites.

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.

Feathered Friends.

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.

  • 1. Find the first waymarker in the courtyard facing the car park. Somewhere near here stood a signal station, built in the 1800s when Britain was on high alert against a French invasion.
  • The Chilterns Gateway Centre marks the start and end of your walk. Pop in and visit the shop, or why not enjoy a well deserved rest at the end of your walk with something to eat and drink from the café.
  • 2. Take the path to the windcatcher and follow the surfaced path to your right. Follow the footpath as it winds downhill over the grass area towards Pascombe and Five Knolls.
  • 3. Look out for waymarker two. This is where a beacon stood as part of an early warning system in 1588, when England was overshadowed by fear of Spanish invasion during the reign of Elizabeth I. A network of fire beacons stretched from Cornwall to London, and to the east coast.
  • 4. Continue along the footpath and look out for evidence of the Icknield Way, the ancient trackway that runs along the side of the Downs. It's a wide corridor with several tracks running in the same direction.
  • Icknield Way. The Icknield Way is a long-distance trail that follows a series of prehistoric trackways, extending from Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire, to Knettishall Heath in Norfolk. It links together two National Trails - the Ridgeway to the southwest and the Peddar's Way in the northeast.
  • 5. As you walk past the lower car park, look out for waymarker B. Skylarks can be heard singing constantly as they soar above the Downs in spring and summer. They nest in medium-length grass, so look where you're putting your feet when off the path! You may also see the occasional red kite.
  • Red kites. Look out for red kites gliding on the wind above the Downs. Their forked tails make this bird of prey easy to recognise. In the 1990s, 93 pairs were re-introduced to the Chilterns and by 2010 they had become over 350 pairs.
  • 6. As you continue along the route you'll see a sign for grasshoppers - you'll need to stop and listen for this one. In summer, grasshoppers make an almost continuous 'chirrup' sound by rubbing their back legs against their wings as they try to attract a mate.
  • 7. Follow the footpath and just across the road, where Dunstable Golf Club now stands, stood a prehistoric burial mound. It was ploughed up in the 1880s and the skeletons of a 25-year-old woman and a five-year-old child were discovered. These are now in Luton Museum.
  • 8. The path descends slightly and you'll find waymarker D. The hawthorn bush provides food for insects and birds. In May, they're a mass of white flowers producing pollen and nectar, and in autumn the flowers give way to red berries for the birds.
  • 9. You'll see how the footpath runs along the top of the Downs. Waymarker E highlights the important quaking grass and rock-rose which cover the Downs.
  • Quaking Grass. Quaking grass grows up to 8 inches (20cm) high in summer and the rock-rose has yellow flowers and grows close to the ground.
  • 10. Keep walking along the footpath towards Pascombe Hill.
  • Pascombe Hill. Look out for waymarker 5, which highlights signs of the medieval artificial rabbit warren found in Pascombe Hill. The Normans brought rabbits to Britain to be farmed for their meat and fur. As they were a valuable commodity they were guarded by a 'warrener'. These warrens on Pascombe Hill probably belonged to the Priory in Dunstable.
  • 11. Keep to the footpath as it descends through a gateway, with a small area of woodland to your left. An information panel highlights the Saxon execution site.
  • Five Knolls. Look out for the group of burial mounds, known as the Five Knolls, as you get to the end of the path.
  • 12. Turn round and walk back along the footpath you've followed, all the way back to the Chilterns Gateway Centre. When you arrive back you must be due a large cup of coffee and something to eat.
  • End: Chilterns Gateway Centre café.

    ** – 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.

  • 1. From the car park, walk slightly downhill over the grass area, then turn right following the path along the top of the slope, past the site of the Medieval warren as far as the five knolls tumuli.
  • Kite flying. The Downs are an ideal place to fly a kite. Choose from an excellent selection of kites in the NT shop, from beginners to stunt kites; they even have a 3D pirate one! And if you need help constructing your kite, or advice on how to fly them, they're happy to help.
  • 2. Continue downhill to West Street, which runs along the line of the Icknield Way.
  • Five Knolls. Lying on the edge of the Downs, this Scheduled Ancient Monument is the largest round barrow cemetery in Bedfordshire. Visible as bumps against the skyline, the burial mounds were excavated in the 1850s and 1920s, revealing that they originated in the late Neolithic and Bronze Age and were re-used for burial in the Roman period.
  • 3. Cross West Street on to Green Lane opposite, known also as Drovers Way. This is part of a network of tracks and paths in and around Dunstable, traditionally used by drovers to take livestock to market in Dunstable, but now popular with walkers and horse riders.
  • 4. Continue as far as the crossroads. In the field diagonally to the right, the line of trees marks the rampart of Maiden Bower. At the second crossroads, turn left along the Houghton Green Highway into Totternhoe village.
  • Maiden Bower. These are the remains of Maiden Bower, a Neolithic hill Iron Age fort - between points 4 and 5 on the walk.
  • 5. Cross Dunstable Road and follow Furlong Lane, turn left onto Church Road and left again on to Well Head Road. Follow this as far as the Icknield Way near Well Head.
  • 6. Cross the road and follow the bridleway opposite as far as the base of the Downs.
  • 7. Turn right at the end of the bridleway. Follow the footpath at the bottom of the slope, through the fence, until a track is reached on the left. NOTE: for a shorter walk, follow this track uphill and back to the starting point along an ancient hollow way.
  • 8. Pass through a gate, turn left uphill for 50yds (45m), then turn right onto a sunken way. This path is an old cut way which would have offered travellers an easier way up the slope. Follow this path as it climbs up the Downs and then back to the bottom.
  • 9. Join the footpath that follows the bottom of the Downs.
  • 10. Just before the road, join the bridleway which climbs uphill, looking back at views of the Vale of Aylesbury and Ivinghoe Beacon.
  • Vale of Aylesbury. Enjoy views from the top of Ivinghoe Beacon across the Vale of Aylesbury. The surrounding chalk grassland supports a wide variety of wildlife, including rare wild flowers, such as the bee orchid, and butterflies such as the chalkhill blue and the Duke of Burgundy.
  • 11. With the car park on your right, carry on uphill and turn left into a large grass field. Please keep your dogs on a lead in this field as there may be sheep grazing.
  • 12. Follow the hedge line at the top of the field, with more views of the Vale of Aylesbury on your left. You're following the Ridgeway Link which joins Dunstable Downs to Ivinghoe Beacon. After walking under a number of beech trees and passing through a bridle-gate, the Chilterns Gateway Centre soon appears on the right.
  • Ridgeway Link. The Ridgeway Link is a walking path which runs from the Chilterns Gateway Visitor Centre to the Ridgeway National Trail at Ivinghoe Beacon. It is part of the Icknield way long-distance footpath.
  • End: 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.

  • 1. From the car park, walk down past the Chilterns Gateway Centre towards the windcatcher, then turn left at the waymarker post onto the bridleway that runs alongside the hedgerow.
  • The view northwards from the Chilterns Gateway Centre is a good place to start and finish your walk. From the windcatcher, watch gliders taking off from the fields below.
  • 2. Continue along the bridleway, which runs along the line of the Icknield Way, into the long grazing area and continue toward Bison Hill car park. The 'oldest road' in Britain, stretching from Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire through to Kettishall Heath in Norfolk, the Icknield Way consists of a network of pathways which date from Neolithic times and links the Ridgeway in the west to Peddlars Way in the east.
  • Bison Hill. The hill is so-called because of the Bison in a large paddock on part of its slopes that belong to Whipsnade Zoo.
  • 3. On approaching Bison Hill car park, turn left and continue along the bridleway with hedgerows on both sides. This is a good example of a holloway - a track deepened by centuries of use and occasional clearance. It's believed to be a medieval route between Whipsnade and Eaton Bray.
  • Chalkhill blue and Duke of Burgundy butterflies. Look out for butterflies such as the chalkhill blue and Duke of Burgundy. Listen to larks ascending high above the chalk grassland and in June you can see wild orchids, including the common spotted orchid and the bee orchid.
  • 4. Continue along the bridleway as it opens out, passing the Whipsnade Zoo car park on your right. As you proceed along a housing boundary to your left, look out for the footpath sign to the left.
  • Gliders. Watch gliders taking off and circling over the vale of Aylesbury. They were originally towed up onto Dunstable Downs to be launched manually but now take off with the assistance of a winch or tow plane.
  • 5. Turn left at the footpath waymarker and follow the path through a kissing gate, with a field on one side and fencing on the right. Follow the footpath through to the next gate, which leads to the Whipsnade Tree Cathedral.
  • Whipsnade Tree Cathedral. Set in a hayfield as a memorial to lost friends in the First World War, the Tree Cathedral is laid out in the pattern of a medieval cathedral. Wander along the transepts of chestnut and tulip trees or along the wide Cloister Walk of ash trees, or simply sit and enjoy the tranquility of this unique memorial.
  • 6. Continue along the footpath with the Tree Cathedral on your left. Walk through the car park and keep to your left as you approach the B4540. Cross the road with care and proceed past the church and downhill, past the Old Hunters Lodge pub to the roundabout.
  • 7. Cross the roundabout with care and head towards Whipsnade Heath car park on your left. Follow the tarmac path and then take the footpath straight up through the woodland.
  • 8. Continue through the woodland and follow the footpath straight on to the kissing gate. Keep to the path as it runs alongside pasture and into a field, where it comes out onto a quiet road opposite Green End Farm.
  • 9. Cross the road and follow the footpath signs to the right of Green End Farm, then walk along the footpath, which traces a route round the edge of the field. Continue downhill and through to the kissing gate on your left. Walk diagonally uphill across Codling Bank and through to the kissing gate in the chain link fence.
  • Codling Bank. Just below Codling Bank; a small strip of hillside that is too steep for cultivation.
  • 10. Turn immediately left and follow the footpath down through the wooded area, past a small brick shed and onto the footpath by the quarry fence.
  • 11. Continue along the footpath and bear right to join the rising headland path along the left hand field edge, in the direction of a mixed woodland and tall aerial on the skyline.
  • 12. Follow the path into the copse and out onto the roadside, turning right to join Isle of Wight Lane. Proceed along the lane with care to the junction with the B4541 at Robertson Corner. Cross the road with care and return to the Chilterns Gateway Centre with its café and toilets.
  • Chilterns Gateway Centre. Stop off at the Gateway Centre for a drink and bite to eat.
  • End: Chiltern Gateway Centre car park.
  • Icknield Way

    Icknield Way

    ** – 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 – **


  • • NT café within the Gateway Centre - please note that only service dogs are allowed.
  • • The National Trust gift shop within the Chilterns Gateway Centre specialises in a wide range of kites and other gifts.
  • • Parking at Dunstable Downs off B451 (£3) last entry March to October 5.30pm; Whipsnade Tree Cathedral - gates close March - October 7pm, B4540 (off the village green); Bison Hill off B4540; Whipsnade crossroads, junction of B4541 and B4540.
  • • Coach parking - space for three coaches only at Dunstable, booking essential (no other coach facilities).
  • • Walks at waymarked routes, multi-user trail to Five Knolls and regular guided walks.
  • • Kite flying all year round.
  • • Dogs welcome under close control, on leads near livestock but not in the cafe except for service dogs.
  • • Cycling - public bridleway giving cyclists shared access. Route is part of Icknield Way Trail.
  • Family

  • • Baby-changing rooms available at the Chilterns Gateway Centre during opening hours.
  • • Family events throughout the year, including annual kite festival.
  • • Family trails.
  • • Pushchairs and baby back-carriers admitted.
  • • Activity packs.
  • Accessibility

  • • Mobility parking in main car park, 20 yards.
  • • Grounds partly accessible on multi-user route.
  • • Level access to Chilterns Gateway Centre.
  • • Mobility toilets available both inside and outside the Chilterns Gateway Centre during opening hours.
  • • All picnic benches have wheelchair access.


    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.

    Tickets: Free.

    Tel: 01582 500920