09 Mar 2024: March of the mediævals! Dunstable Downs/Totternhoe

This walk was a circular route around the Dunstable Downs. From the Chiltern Gateway visitor centre of the National Trust, the route went N to Totternhoe, S to the start point, S to Whipsnade Tree Cathedral, N to the start point.

The usual stats:

  • Event led Khris R.

  • Attendance 11 people

  • Distance: 9.97 miles (16.0 km).

  • Altitude per GPS: low 570ft (223m), high 1,036ft (242m), climb 731ft (223m), descent 793ft (242m).

  • Time: start 11:34, end 16:32 (sunset 17:55), lunch 42 minutes, other breaks included in walk-time.

  • Speed: moving arithmetic average 2.33 mph (3.75 kph).

  • Terrain: path, pavement, field on footpath, bridleway, highway and open access.

  • Weather: sunny intervals giving way to overcast, temperate range between 8°C and 14°C, easterly wind 17mph (27 kph) with strong wind-chill, felt like 6°C and 10°C.

  • Number of sewage works: 0.

  • Number of churches: 1.

  • Number of golf courses: 0.

The Dunstable Downs are a major feature in this region’s landscape, being an escarpment cut deep into the mainly-chalk landscape with the Chiltern range of hills, as they roll from west to east. The Downs are the highest point in Bedfordshire, at 797ft (243m).

The views from the start point are some of the most amazing views available from the Chilterns, at just the right elevation to see as far as the curvature of the earth permits (and also to see the curvature of the earth itself), as well as many details of the settlements, the woodlands and the fields in the middle distance.

It is said that the elevation of the Downs was once higher, at a time when the lower, flat land to the north was an inland lake, or a sea, whose waters were supplied by the River Isis and trapped by a glacier that extended to what-is-now St Albans. Eventually, the glacier retreated enough to allow the water to find another route to drain, thus connecting the Rivers Isis and Thames. The name Isis eventually fell into disuse.

The area was once an extensive woodland. It has been used as hunting grounds, a neolithic burial ground, military training and eventually became a rifle range for the precursors of the Territorial Army and, later, civilian gun clubs. The steep edges of the Pascombe Pit were also used by the locals for a strange sport, or ritual, of chasing oranges down the hillside on Good Friday, until 1968, when “health & safety” banned it.

The escarpment of the Dunstable Down is particularly steep, providing views of Ivinghoe Beacon to the south-west. To the north, the lowlands around Totternhoe provided commercial opportunities for chalk quarrying. The quarry has resulted in man-made escarpments, as impressive as the nature-made cliff-sides. The mines were also allegedly used by the criminal gangs of east London – the Kray twins? - to bury the bodies of their victims.

The quarry produced a durable chalk, known as Totternhoe Stone, or “clunk”, which ended up forming interior walls of Westminster Abbey, St Albans Abbey and Woburn Abbey. The stone is a blue-ish chalk, which shatters under unstable pressures, but is otherwise robust, making it unusual amongst the types of chalk. The stone is clearly a chalk by sight, comprising compressed bits of shellfish and sharks’ teeth, most likely from the Cretaceous period. Fossils are seldom found here, because the intense pressure to create the chalk stone would destroy whatever bodies would otherwise have fossilised.

In the second part of the route, we visited the Whipsnade Tree Cathedral (history), a planting of trees and shrubs in a layout based allegedly on that of Norwich Cathedral.


The optional tea shop was the National Trust’s tea shop at the Chiltern Gateway Visitor Centre. Five members paused for tea, some with cakes.

For more pictures, see https://photos.app.goo.gl/Yzas8BYvsTQy8sZi9.

Other links:

Words by Martin Thornhill. Pictures by Peter O’Connor.

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