Dunstable Downs Five Knolls wildlife and heritage walk, Bedfordshire
This is a great walk to do on wheels, with a series of numbered and lettered posts marking the route. 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.
Chilterns Gateway Centre visitor car park, grid ref: TL008195
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.
Chilterns Gateway Centre
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 grows up to 8 inches (20cm) high in summer and the rock-rose has yellow flowers and grows close to the ground.
Keep walking along the footpath towards 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.
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.
Look out for the group of burial mounds, known as the Five Knolls, as you get to the end of the path.
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.
Chilterns Gateway Centre café, grid ref: TL008195
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