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History of Dunstable Downs estate

View of Dunstable Downs and Whipsnade Estate, Bedfordshire
View of Dunstable Downs and Whipsnade Estate | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Discover the history of the Neolithic burial mounds at Five Knolls, the only Scheduled Monument known in Bedfordshire, the creation of a rifle range and the unusual tradition of an orange-rolling event that took place at Pascombe Pit.

The history of Five Knolls

At Dunstable Downs there is a group of seven round barrows, consisting of two bowl barrows, three bell barrows, and two pond barrows. It’s thought that they were initially used as burial grounds for kings or chiefs, although excavations of two of the bell barrows in August 1850 revealed no treasure to support this.

First noted by William Stukely in the 18th century, the burial mounds were excavated in the 1850s and 1920s, revealing that they originated in the late Neolithic and Bronze Ages and were re-used for burial in the Roman period and beyond.

Excavation history

When the northernmost barrow was excavated in 1928 by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, a crouched female skeleton with a late Neolithic knife at her shoulder was found. This is now on display at Luton Museum and Art Gallery.

Other excavations throughout the 1920s revealed over 90 skeletons from various periods. In Saxon times about 30 bodies were buried here with their hands apparently tied behind their backs. In medieval times, gallows were set up on the northernmost barrow and some of the victims were buried there.

Witch lore has also been connected with the barrows, as in the 1667 trial of Elizabeth Pratt of Dunstable. She was arrested while meeting with three other women, plotting to bewitch the children of Thomas Heyward.

Nearby monuments

Two other Scheduled Monuments can be found either side of the adjacent hilltop. Two long, low 'pillow' mounds, first noted by W.G. Smith in 1894, are considered by their form and location to indicate the sites of medieval rabbit warrens.

These were possibly constructed and managed by the Augustinian Priory at Dunstable. Warrens were areas of land set aside for breeding and management of rabbits, to provide a constant supply of fresh meat and skins.

Pascombe Pit rifle range

A volunteer army is born

Following the Crimean War, with half of Britain’s forces posted in garrisons across the Empire during the 1850s, it became apparent to the army that any further conflicts may leave the defences at home severely depleted. With the possibility of being dragged into a European war at the end of the decade, the Volunteer Force of part-time rifle, artillery and engineer corps was formed.

These volunteers would pay for their own arms and equipment, provided under supervision of the War Office and to be considered effective for service, each volunteer had to undertake eight days of drills every four months.

The battalion established a rifle range at the base of the Downs for the regular training of these ‘Saturday Soldiers’, forerunners of today’s Territorial Army.

Target practice

Permanent targets were placed near the bottom of Pascombe Pit, where the Downs sweeps around to the headland upon which the Five Knolls sits. Camps were set up a couple of hundred yards along the base of the Downs, where the volunteers would fire from.

The upright metal foundations of the target area can still be seen at the base of Pascombe Pit today, riddled with indents from bullets. Targets were set on the foundations, with a man crouched behind, moving across to check on hits and signal scores with flags.

Orange rolling at Pascombe Pit

For around 200 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, trying to catch them.

Although there are similar traditions in other parts of the country, only Dunstable Downs has been recorded as using oranges.

The origins of this event are unknown, but it’s 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 oranges being thrown at people, especially those dressed in top hats, to encourage being hit.

It was common for bands, fairground-type rides and stalls to set up at the bottom of the pit, to entertain the revellers. However, at the turn of the 20th century there were issues with rowdy elements within the crowds resulting in the banning of such amusements.

Orange rolling would continue though, 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 oranges were in short supply due to rationing. Post-war, the Dunstable Chamber of Trade attempted to bring back the event, but by 1968 the decision was taken to cancel it, due to health and safety concerns and a lack of support from traders.

Apart from isolated attempts to revive the event in 1985, and despite fond memories from older locals, the build-up of scrub on the slopes make it impractical to hold the event today.

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