Walk in the steps of history giants at Dunstable Downs, Bedfordshire
On this walk with the National Trust, begin and end with elevated views from Dunstable Downs. See how people from prehistoric times to the recent past have 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 the easy path with a hard, smooth surface that is suitable for both 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.
Admiralty 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.
Walking the path towards the windcatcher turn right, follow the path until you reach trail marker 2. Near here was an Armada fire beacon.
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 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.
Trail marker 3 points to the Icknield Way, possibly 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 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.
Moving on along the walk, after a short distance you will come to trail marker 4 and the pre-historic mounds.
Just across the road from the trail marker, 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 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.
Continue along to trail marker 5 reaching Pascombe Hill, close to this marker are two pillow 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.
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, 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.
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.
Drovers Way was traditionally used by drovers to take livestock to market in Dunstable, now a favourite 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, 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.
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.
Follow the footpath 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 track 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, 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.
Chilterns Gateway Centre, Dunstable Downs, grid ref: TL008193
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