Walk in the steps of history giants

Chilterns Gateway centre, Dunstable Road, Whipsnade, Dunstable, Beds, LU6 2GY

Route details and mapDownload as a print friendly PDF
Admiralty station as it looked © National Trust

Admiralty station as it looked

View from the beacon © Amanda Miller

View from the beacon

Icknield way view © Kate Sheard

Icknield way view

Pillow Mounds © Jenny Angliss

Pillow Mounds

Aerial view of London Gliding Club, Bedfordshire © G Lokey

Aerial view of London Gliding Club, Bedfordshire

Route overview

Beginning and ending with elevated views from the Dunstable Downs, following part of the walk, you will see how people from prehistoric times to the recent past have lived in this unique landscape.

Route details

See this step-by-step route marked on a map

Route of the five knolls wildlife and heritage walk at Dunstable Downs in Bedfordshire
  • Directions
  • Route
  • Bus stop
  • Parking
  • Toilet
  • Viewpoint

Start: Chilterns Gateway Centre, Dunstable Downs, grid ref: TL008193

  1. The first section of the walk is on the easy path a hard, smooth surface that is suitable for wheelchairs and buggies. There are six numbered trail marker posts, these indicate historic points of interest and give you a little information. If you are unable to continue after the end of the easy path, you can see the remaining features of interest from points along the path. From the Gateway Centre look for the first trail marker in the courtyard facing the car park.

    Show/HideAdmiralty Signal station

    Britain in the 1800's was on high alert of attack from the French. The signal stations were the fastest way to relay messages across the country. This particular station was on the line between London and Great Yarmouth. The signal system used six shutters which could be pivoted to make up a code. The shutters were positioned on the roof and relayed to the next station. The station was dismantled in 1814 and no trace of it remains (direction 1).

    Admiralty station as it looked © National Trust
  2. Walking the path towards the windcatcher turn right, follow the path until you reach trail marker 2. Near here was an Armada fire beacon (direction 2.)

    Show/HideArmada fire beacon

    During Elizabethan times the country was on a state of alert, this time from the Spanish. Overshadowed by fear of invasion, fire beacons were placed along the coast as an early warning system. This network of beacon spread from Cornwall to London, and were lit at the first glance of attack. Lookouts at the next beacon saw the light, and in turn lit theirs until the message was reached.

    View from the beacon © Amanda Miller
  3. Trail marker 3 points to the Icknield Way, possibly the oldest road in Britain.

    Show/HideIcknield Way

    The 110 mile long Icknield Way is an ancient road which runs along the side of the Downs, its history dating back 6,500 years. Connecting East Anglia to important sites such as Avebury it was a well-used road, and since prehistoric times, farmers, soldiers, Saxon warlords and medieval drovers have walked or ridden along it. When the rain fell onto the Downs, it seeped through the hills and emerged as springs at the edge of the Chiltern hills lower down. These springs provided water for people and their animals (direction 3).

    Icknield way view © Kate Sheard
  4. Moving on along the walk, after a short distance you will come to trail marker 4 and the pre-historic mounds.

    Show/HidePre-historic mounds

    Just across the road from the trail marker, stood a prehistoric burial mound similar to the the Five Knolls. In one grave lay two skeletons - one of a young women and one of a child. They are now kept in the Luton museum. When the Archeologist managed to get hold of the content of this burial, items such as pottery, fossil sea urchins and stone tools were found. This was part of the funeral rites at the time (direction 4).

    Pillow Mounds © Jenny Angliss
  5. Continue along to trail marker 5 reaching Pascombe Hill, close to this marker are two pillow mounds.

    Show/HidePillow mounds

    These mounds were not burial places but medieval rabbit warrens. The first mound or more southerly mound is rectangular, while the next mound is a 32 metre long bank. After the Norman Conquest, rabbits were valued for their meat and fur. Warreners managed the mounds and would send ferrets down to catch the escaping rabbits (direction 5.)

  6. Carry on walking until you reach the end of the easy path, Five Knolls is on your left.

    Show/HideFive Knolls

    The Five Knolls are prehistoric burial mounds or barrows. The five raised mounds are also known as bell and bowl barrows. There are two pond barrows, circular flat areas surrounded by raised banks. The mounds are believed to be from the later Neolithic and early Bronze Ages, about 4000 years ago. Excavations have found the remains of a middle-aged woman buried with a polished flint knife, and Bronze Age cremated remains in an urn. It is also believed that during 5th and 6th centuries gallows were placed at this spot for Saxon invaders as a warning to others. We know that the gallows were there in the 1260s and the practice could also have taken place centuries earlier (direction 6.)

  7. Head down the slope through the metal gate, follow the slope down the road and carefully cross the B489/Tring Road into Green Lane, also known as Drovers Way. The walk here can again be shortened by turning left before reaching the road onto the path that runs parallel to the road. After a short walk along the road you will see Well Head road on your right with a path opposite. Turning left here you will rejoin the trail at the metal gate with the gliding club on your right. If continuing along the orignal trail continue along Drovers Way.

    Show/HideDrovers Way

    Drovers Way was traditionally used by drovers to take livestock to market in Dunstable, now a favourite with walkers and horse-riders (direction 7.)

  8. When you reach the second crossroads on the track, turn left onto the Houghton Green Highway, a track leading you south-eastwards towards the village of Totternhoe. On reaching Dunstable Road, turn right and walk a short way passing houses and a barn before turning left onto a track. With a hedge on your left follow the track as it curves to the right then passes through an allotment area. You are now on the edge of the village of Totternhoe.

    Show/HideTotternhoe

    The Domesday Book of 1086 recorded the village as Totene Hou, meaning 'lookout house' and 'spur'. This probably relates to Totternhoe Knolls, the hills toward the north of the village used by the Romans and Normans as a fort. Much of the village was owned at one time by the Earl of Bridgwater, the owner of the Ashridge Estate. Totternhoe Stone, a hard form of chalk, has been mined or quarried at or around the Totternhoe Knolls since the Middle Ages and was used in Woburn Abbey, St Albans Abbey and Westminster Abbey. This walk does not pass over Totternhoe Knolls but you can visit and explore the Knolls. The 'Walking in the steps of rock giants' trail will take you there, and you can see the Knolls from the Gateway Centre (direction 8.)

  9. Follow the footpath and turn left into Wellhead Road. Follow this road with care as it lacks a separate paved path in places.

    Show/HideWell Head

    The nearby hamlet of Well Head was established on one of the Icknield Ways springs. Some houses in this road date from the 18th century and are listed buildings (direction 9).

  10. Well Head road leads you towards the Tring road. Cross the road with care and follow the track opposite towards the Downs. On your right you will see the London Gliding Club.

    Show/HideLondon Gliding Club / Strip Lynchetts

    The club was inaugurated in 1930. In 1939 Geoffrey Stephenson was the first person to glide across the Channel when he flew from Dunstable to France. The clubhouse and hangar form a listed building, being fine examples of the International Modern Style from 1936. The café is a worthwhile destination on another day. During the Second World War, the club was used as a prisoner of war camp but all that remains of this are some wooden posts to the south-west of the airfield. The gliders tend to be of fibreglass rather than wooden construction today, but there is a vintage glider group at the club. Strip Lynchets on your left, to the north of the bridleway, are cultivation terraces or strip lynchets. They are believed to be medieval. They would have made cultivation easier and improved drainage for vines or for crops planted after ploughing. You may see them better as you gain height on the Downs (direction 10.)

    Aerial view of London Gliding Club, Bedfordshire © G Lokey
  11. At the end of the bridleway, turn right and follow the footpath at the bottom of the slope through a fence until a track is reached on the left. Follow this track up the slope to the Gateway Centre. Alternatively at the end of the bridleway, turn right and follow the path at the bottom of the Downs until you reach the B4540, turn left and walk a little way up the road until your see a path to the left. Turn left onto this path and follow along untill you reach the Gateway centre.

End: Chilterns Gateway Centre, Dunstable Downs, grid ref: TL008193

  • Trail: Walking
  • Grade: Easy
  • Distance: 4.5 miles (7.2km)
  • Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
  • OS Map: Landranger 165 and 166; Explorer 181 and 192
  • Terrain:

    A trail which begins with an easily accessible concrete path with gentle slopes. The walk then includes grassy, undulating terrain as well as stone tracks and concrete surfaces. The walk incorporates some moderate slopes, and a steep gradient towards the end of the walk. Whilst there are opportunities to shorten the walk, the full route crosses the busy B489 Tring road, and care is needed while crossing. The grassy parts of the walk may be wet or muddy, so sturdy footwear is advised. Please keep dogs under close control.

  • How to get here:

    By bus: Arriva 60 from Luton, Centrebus 327 from Hemel Hempstead railway station and Red Rose 343 from St Albans railway station, all Sundays only; otherwise Arriva 61 Aylesbury to Luton railway station to within 1.5 miles

    By cycle: Bridleway from West Street, Dunstable, and Whipsnade. View local cycle routes on the National Cycle Network website

    By road: On B4541 west of Dunstable

    By train: Luton 7 miles. Luton Airport Parkway 7 miles

    By foot: From West Street and Tring Road, Dunstable

  • Facilities:

    National Trust car park - closes 6pm in summer and dusk in winter.

    WCs, café & gift shop open daily 10am - 5pm (10am - 4pm in winter), closed on 24 & 25 Dec).

  • Contact us