31: Dunstable Downs, Bedfordshire/Central Bedfordshire

Ivinghoe Beacon
The view towards Ivinghoe Beacon, from the summit of Dunstable Downs.

Date: 5th May 2021.

Weather conditions: At first, pretty good, with sunshine at times although it was not all that warm. This lasted until about 1.30pm then changed utterly, when a hailstorm soaked me and made my head go numb. That it could clearly be seen approaching from miles away (see the picture further down the page) was no consolation.

County Top bagged: Dunstable Downs, the summit of which is marked by a trig point with a height of 797 feetl/243m above sea level, at grid reference TL008194. And here it is.

Summit trig point
The summit of Bedfordshire.

This is the first one bagged since Beacon Hill that was a historic County Top, it being the highest point in Bedfordshire. However, in administrative terms that county ceased to exist in 2009 when bits of it (specifically, Luton and Bedford) were hived off into their own local authorities and what was left was redesignated as Central Bedfordshire, this being the authority of which the Downs are the modern Top.

The Downs are part of the Chiltern Hills, so this becomes my third Chiltern CT after Pavis Wood and Haddington Hill were bagged on the same walk about 15 months ago.

By altitude Dunstable Downs ranks:

Seats with a view
A picnic table with a view.

[ << Warden Law, Sunderland (30) | (32) Corse Hill, East Renfrewshire >> ]

Start and end point of walk: Started and finished in Dunstable, specifically the bus stop just outside the big Asda supermarket (at roughly TL019222). Very frequent buses link this with Luton railway station, using the ‘guided busway’ that runs along the line of the old railway track (so one wonders why they didn’t just keep it as a railway). Including refreshment breaks the walk took me three hours.

Pub at end: There are several pubs in Dunstable, though not all of them have yet reopened after the latest bout of Great Fear restrictions. But at least I did manage to get a drink today in the Old Sugar Loaf on the High Street — the first time I have ended a CT walk at an open pub since climbing Hanging Hill ten walks and five months ago. Hurrah!

One can also purchase refreshments on the summit, at the National Trust’s ‘Chiltern Gateway Centre’ (pictured). It is not licensed, but does teas, coffees, lunches etc. Not to mention ice cream for dogs, I kid you not.

The Gateway Centre
The Chiltern Gateway Centre — and evidence that you can drive to this Top if you really want.

Distance walked: 7.5 miles/12km approximately.

Feet of ascent: No more than about 360 feet/110m. Dunstable is already fairly elevated, the starting point being around 460 feet/140m up, and once up to the summit the rest of the walk is flat or downhill.

Difficulty: ★. A very easy walk for which hiking boots are not required. The ground was bone dry on the day I did it — perhaps some sections (specifically those on the approach to the Tree Cathedral) might get muddy sometimes, but then again, all is on chalk, so perhaps not.

Ease of access: ★★★★. If Dunstable still had a railway station of its own I would give this five stars, but it doesn’t. All the same, this is not a hard place to get to, with ample trains to Luton and frequent bus connections from there. Had I felt minded to I could have done this on a day trip from Yorkshire.

View off the escarpment
More-or-less the walk’s first sighting of the view off the escarpment.

Scenic qualities: ★★★. This is a more attractive walk than the one up Haddington Hill nearby. The views west and north-west, off the escarpment, are unimpeded by woodland and very fine. The ‘Tree Cathedral’ is also worth a visit.

The area: The county of Bedfordshire might well provoke feelings of loyalty from its natives, but to me seems just another one of the mostly indistinguishable northern Home Counties — along with Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hertfordshire — all hard to tell apart, to the outsider. For those who don’t know, the counties which border London are collectively known as the ‘Home Counties’, which says a lot about the London-centric nature of Britain. Bedfordshire doesn’t actually border the capital but is often included in the count, and certainly, it feels like one.

In Dunstable
In Dunstable. No whipping for 170 years or more.

Dunstable, and its bigger neighbour Luton, were places I’d never been to before today. Dunstable seemed alright, though not appreciably different from dozens of other similarly-sized places in the region. Can’t say Luton is looking great after multiple lockdowns, however. Luton Airport is a major employer and as it’s been in a state of cryogenic suspension lately I imagine that the Great Fear has hit the town hard. I need to return there at some point to bag its own Top, and all I’ll say is, let’s hope better days are ahead.

Map: Technically, you need two OS Explorer maps to cover the walk. Dunstable is on sheet 193: Luton and Stevenage, and the summit and Whipsnade are in the top left corner of 182: St Albans and Hatfield. But you’ll get round just fine without either.

The summary map reflects the fact that to and from the Gateway Centre I trod the same route in both directions. From the centre to Whipsnade, I went round that little circuit anti-clockwise.

Map of walk 31

Route: Until the hail assaulted me on the way back down, I had been enjoying this walk. The views are extensive, albeit only in one direction, and there are other things to see as well. It really is a very easy walk terrain-wise; only the slope up from the edge of town to the Five Knolls involves any perceptible climbing and that ascent seems over before it has really begun. The paths are dry and agreeable, and all in all this is more like a Sunday afternoon stroll than a hike or climb as such.

Assuming you start at the Asda bus stop like I did, from there head out onto the High Street, turn left then right at the main traffic lights beside the Nags Head, and head out of Dunstable along West Street, which is the B489 road to Aylesbury. About a mile from the town centre, after passing the cemetery, take the road on the left signposted to Whipsnade, but immediately bear off it to the right, up a grassy bank.

Five Knolls
The Five Knolls (well, two of them anyway)

The path you are now following is the Icknield Way, reputedly one of the most ancient highways in Britain, a couple of millennia old even when the Romans turned up. It first leads you up to the ‘Five Knolls’, which are neolithic burial mounds. Archaeologists also once found evidence there of a hundred victims of an old mass execution — reckoned to be captured Saxon invaders.

Past the Knolls, the views open up impressively to the west and north-west. If it is operating, doubtless you will get distracted by the activities of the (misnamed) London Gliding Club based in the field down below. Until the weather began to close in, there seemed a constant procession of gliders being towed into the air (see pic), to then be set free to ride the thermals and air currents above the escarpment. It must be a very peaceful way to travel — and an endearingly pointless one, because they don’t actually go anywhere: after all, if they land somewhere other than the Club’s field, what happens then?

Glider, and friend.

This path leads, without any possibility of confusion or loss of route, to the Chiltern Gateway Centre and its shop, café and toilets. The trig point that marks the summit of Bedfordshire is located, somewhat prosaically, at the point where the access road for the Centre meets the B4541. It is perhaps pedantic to observe that there are some artificial grassy banks nearby which are a couple of feet higher than the trig — so perhaps these just reach 800 feet above sea level.

One could just return from here to Dunstable (including by bus). Or, when I originally scoped out the walk, I considered heading east and walking all the way to Luton, which would make the hike one of about 10 miles. Adding the extension to the Tree Cathedral was my chosen option, and it does add interest to the expedition without making it any harder, as all the walking from this point is flat.

Walker on escarpment
Out exercising on the escarpment.

To do this, keep following the Icknield Way along the edge of the escarpment, and under the twin lines of pylons. You will catch a side-on glimpse of the lion figure that the folks of Whipsnade Zoo have carved into the hillside, in mimicry of other chalk figures around the country. After doing so, bear left and leave the escarpment behind for a while.

Follow the Icknield Way signs to the Tree Cathedral. This was begun by Edmond Blyth in 1930, as a memorial to friends who had fallen in World War One. Its layout is akin to that of a cathedral, with a main ‘nave’ lined by lime trees, side ‘chapels’ and so on. Religious services are held here at times. It is certainly a peaceful spot although difficult to grasp the layout once you are inside.

In the Tree Cathedral
A place to sit and contemplate the Whipsnade Tree Cathedral.

Head through the Cathedral then leave it by the north entrance. Turn left along the lane, passing the secluded, and doubtless highly expensive, estate of Sallow Springs. This lane returns you to the Gateway Centre, from where you can just retrace your steps to Dunstable (hopefully in better weather than I managed from this point).

Hangover Commentary: Last night, 4th May 2021, was the first night I had spent away from home this year. I went down to London and was put up by a friend, who last entertained me in September, on my last visit to the capital. The city is still not its full and vibrant self, but at least the pubs have reopened. This does matter. Not because of Authority having magnanimously offered concessions, but simply because of people, asserting their right to make a choice.

Old water tower
Old Water Tower — and blue skies, only 15 minutes before the hail storm hit.

The consequences of this freedom of choice were quite apparent to me as I admit to over-indulgence last night and a stonking hangover this morning. The general level of tenderness was the reason why I did not follow through on my original plan to finish today’s walk in Luton, instead doing a shorter ‘there and back’ walk from Dunstable. I’m glad I did so, although the change didn’t prevent me suffering a soaking from that bloody hail storm, which left me cold and damp for the remainder of the afternoon.

The extensive view off the escarpment gave plenty of warning, with the showers clearly on their way in even as I embarked on the ‘extension’ of the walk out to Whipsnade; but they never looked as if they would be quite as bad as they turned out. Even 15 minutes before the precipitation began, I was still walking in sunshine. Christ, though, it was cold and wet. While I’m glad that the Old Sugar Loaf was open and willing to serve me a beer, having to drink it while cowering under an umbrella on their patio, getting colder and damper by the minute, was sub-optimal. Can someone please give me a rational reason why that was more ‘healthy’ than sitting inside, in a comfy chair beside a fireplace? I’d really like to know.

Incoming hail
Incoming…. (compare this to the picture of Ivinghoe Beacon at the top of the page).

That’s my fifth CT lying within striking distance of London (after the other two Chiltern ones mentioned earlier, then Holly Hill and Langdon Hills). The landscape of the Home Counties is rather hit and miss but today was a good one, I thought. It’s possible I will attain another CT in May, but more likely is that my next walks for this project will, finally, see a return to Scotland. Our Joe has made an application to Abertay University, located in Dundee, and we want to take ourselves up there to see the city before he commits to going somewhere that he may not like. With the offensive restrictions at the newly-created version of Hadrian’s Wall having been lifted, as of a couple of weeks ago, we can finally get this trip done in early June. Expect Dundee Law to definitely fall, and weather permitting, something bigger too.


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