Dunstable Downs is a chalk and grassland area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, on the highest point of the Chiltern Hills in Bedfordshire, at 797 feet. This windswept chalk ridge is home to a wide variety of wildlife and wild flowers and provides spectacular views over the Vale of Aylesbury and across five counties. Much of the area is managed by the National Trust, who operate the Chilterns Gateway Centre at the top of the Downs. At this Visitor Centre, there is a large car park and popular cafe. Outside, there is a distinctive structure, which is a Windcatcher. This is part of the ventilation system of the Chilterns Gateway Centre. Fresh air travels through an underground pipe into the Visitor Centre. In summer, it cools the air and in winter, it warms the air slightly. The Downs are popular with families, not only for walking and picnics, but also it is an ideal location for kite flying. There is an annual kite festival held in July. Hang gliding and paragliding is popular and the London Gliding Club, is based at the foot of the Downs. In the winter, if the slopes are snow-covered, the Downs attract many children and adults with their sledges.
An ancient trackway, The Icknield Way, passes along part of the Downs. It can claim to be Britain’s oldest road. It was ancient before the Romans arrived! It stretches for 103 miles, from Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire, to Knettishall Heath in Norfolk. Another sign of our ancestors on the Downs, is Five Knolls Round Barrows, which excavations in the 1850s and 1920s, revealed the Barrows originated from 3000 BC and had been used again for burials in the Roman period.
It has been a tradition on Good Friday for orange rolling or pelting oranges to take place. However, this tradition no longer continues. Villagers from Dunstable and other local villages, collected at the top of the Downs and then chased oranges down the hill to Pascombe Pit. The event originated in the 18th century and is said to symbolise the rolling of the stone away from the tomb of Christ. By the end of the 19th century, it was attended by hundreds of villagers. During the Second World War, the event was not held, as rationing made oranges in short supply. The event stopped completely in 1968, due to health and safety reasons, lack of support and the build up of scrub on the slopes.
In the 19th century, Dunstable Downs was the training ground for the forerunners of today’s Territorial Army. In 1860, seven corps of rifle volunteers were formed and a rifle range was established at the base of the Downs for the regular training of “Saturday Soldiers”.