Walk in the steps of history giants at Dunstable Downs, Bedfordshire
This National Trust walk begins and ends with elevated views from Dunstable Downs. Find out how people in prehistoric times, right up to the recent past, lived in this unique landscape. Visit the Armada fire beacon, Pre-historic mounds and site of the Admiralty Signal station.
Suitable for active families.
Chilterns Gateway Centre, Dunstable Downs, grid ref: TL008193
The first section of the walk is on an easy path with a hard, smooth surface, suitable for both wheelchairs and buggies. If you are unable to continue when you reach the end of this easy path, you can see the remaining features of interest from points along the path.
Admiralty Signal station
Britain in the 1800's was on high alert of attack from the French. 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.
Set off down the path towards the windcatcher, turn right and follow the path until you reach the exisiting beacon. The Armada fire beacon was close to this spot.
Armada 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 beacons spread from Cornwall to London, and were lit at the first sign of attack. Lookouts at the next beacon would see the light and light theirs until the message was shared by all the beacons.
As you continue along the path you will be walking along the route of the Ickneild Way, thought to be the oldest road in Britain.
The 110 mile long Icknield Way is an ancient road which runs along the side of the Downs. Its history dates 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.
Further along the path you will pass close by a variety of humps, bumps and hollows. These date back from pre-history to more recent times. Some are remnants of the golf course when it was on both sides of the road, some from old quarrying sites while some are of unknown origin.
Just across the road stood a prehistoric burial mound similar to the Five Knolls. In one grave lay two skeletons - one of a young woman and one of a child. They are now kept in the Luton museum. When Archeologists examined the content of this site, items such as pottery, fossil sea urchins and stone tools were found. These were part of the funeral rites at the time.
When you reach a fork in the path take the left-hand branch. Pause here to look down the slope to where, many years ago, Orange Rolling took place. To find out more about this event visit our website at https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/dunstable-downs-and-whipsnade-estate/features/orange-rolling. Also, at the bottom of this hill, there used to be a rifle range from the 1860s. For more information on this - https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/dunstable-downs-and-whipsnade-estate/features/rifle-range. If you leave the path here and take a short detour to your left, you will find two pillow mounds.
These mounds were not burial places but medieval rabbit warrens. The first more southerly mound is rectangular, while the next 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.
Carry on walking until you reach the end of the easy path, Five Knolls is on your left.
The Five Knolls are prehistoric burial mounds or barrows. There are two pond barrows which are circular flat areas surrounded by raised banks. The mounds are believed to be from the later Neolithic and early Bronze Ages - about 4,000 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 the 5th and 6th-centuries gallows were placed at this site to warn Saxon invaders and others.
Head down the slope to the road and carefully cross the B489/Tring Road and go slightly to the right into Green Lane, also known as the Drovers Way. The walk can again be shortened here by turning left before reaching the road onto the path that follows the bottom of the Downs. If continuing along the orignal trail continue along Green Lane.
The Drovers Way was traditionally used by drovers to take livestock to market in Dunstable, now a favourite route with walkers and horse-riders.
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, cross the road, turn left and walk a short way passing some houses and turn right onto a track. Keeping the 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.
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. 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.
Continue following the bridleway and turn left into Wellhead Road. Follow this road with care as it lacks a separate paved path in places.
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.
Well Head road leads you towards the Tring road. Cross the road with care and follow the bridleway opposite towards the Downs. On your right you will see the London Gliding Club.
London 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. During the Second World War, the club was used as a prisoner of war camp. 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.
At the end of the bridleway, pass through a gate onto the Downs, 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 top then head back to the beacon from where you will see the visaitor 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 follow the bridleway up the hill until you see a path until your see a path to the left. Turn left onto this path and follow along untill you reach the Chilterns Gateway Centre.
Chilterns Gateway Centre, Dunstable Downs, grid ref: TL008193
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