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 Second World War was to bring the first break from this tradition, as by 1941 the fruit was in short supply owing to rationing. Post-war the Dunstable Chamber of Trade attempted to bring back the event, but by 1968 it was decided rest it, due to Health and Safety concerns and a lack of support from local traders. Apart from isolated attempts to revive the event, such as in 1985, and despite fond memories from older locals, these factors plus the build-up of scrub on the slopes make it impractical to hold the event today.