Nestled in the Chiltern Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the National Trust’s Dunstable Downs is the highest point in Bedfordshire. And from its elevated position, it is possible to see five counties on a clear day; the views are simply breathtaking.
Comprised mainly of chalk grasslands, designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for their nature conservation importance, there are miles of footpaths that criss-cross this beautiful landscape. As well as an abundance of wildlife to discover, there are historical features to explore such as the Five Knolls Neolithic burial grounds and medieval rabbit warrens, both Scheduled Ancient Monuments.
The cooler autumn days can see the mist and fog roll in across the valley giving Dunstable Downs a very atmospheric feel. The wide-open skies make it a perfect place for cloud watching and you can often see the rain clouds roll in. It is not unusual at this time of year to experience all four seasons in one day so definitely pack your waterproofs, just in case. As the leaves on the trees turn from green into hues of reds, oranges and browns, the lower autumn light in late afternoon can really make them glow.
Take a walk along the hedgerows and keep a look out for birds feeding on fruiting hawthorn and blackberries. If you are lucky, you might see flocks of fieldfare and redwing feeding and taking shelter in the hedgerows. Both species are very social birds and can often be seen together in large flocks in grassland and woodland areas. These birds fly south from northern Europe spending the winter here in our much milder climate.
Red kites can be seen soaring above the Downs, riding the thermals on warmer days. Easily identifiable with its forked tail, this large bird of prey was nearly hunted to extinction in the UK but thanks to recent reintroduction programmes, this magnificent bird can now be seen most days above Dunstable Downs. The Chilterns are a particular stronghold, and the red kites remain one of the biggest conservation success stories in history.
About a one mile walk from the Chilterns Gateway Centre at Dunstable Downs is the intriguing Whipsnade Tree Cathedral. Planted by Edmond Blyth in the 1930s, he built a medieval cathedral from trees, hedges, and shrubs, in the spirit of ‘faith, hope and reconciliation’ in response to his memories of the First World War. The first religious service was held at the site in 1953, and an annual service continues to this day.
For those with impaired mobility, trampers are available to hire from the National Trust enabling you to explore the Downs. These are free but donations are welcomed towards their upkeep. Booking is recommended at least three days prior to your visit to avoid disappointment. To book, call 01582 500920 or email [email protected]
If you prefer getting about on two wheels, then the National Cycle Network Route 574 starts from Dunstable Downs. This short route takes you along the Icknield Way towards Dunstable and then connects to other routes nearby. For more information, see sustrans.org.uk
The National Trust has loads on offer for families looking to make the most of the autumn weather. A naturally windy spot, Dunstable Downs is perfect for kite flying and there is even a designated kite-flying area. If you don’t have your own then there is a selection of kites, from beginners to the more advance, available to purchase from their shop. A new geocaching trail is available for those looking to explore and take on this treasure-hunting challenge. This trail is roughly one mile long with six hidden boxes for you to discover. Swap and change items in these boxes and leave a note for the next intrepid adventurer.
Throughout October half term there will be a Halloween-themed trail for the whole family to enjoy.
If exploring is not for you, then you sit and relax with a warm hot chocolate inside The View Café whilst enjoying the landscape. Throughout the autumn the café offers a variety of seasonal hot drinks and food and is open daily, 10am to 4pm.
Sharpenhoe Clappers just north of Luton is also a wonderful place in the autumn. Beech woodlands are synonymous with the Chiltern Hills and Sharpenhoe Clappers is no exception. Its beech woodland sits on the site of an Iron-Age hillfort and provides stunning autumn displays of colour.
For more information about Dunstable Downs visit nationaltrust.org.uk