Monday 15 August 2022

Dunstable Downs parkrun

The market town of Dunstable is in Bedfordshire and sits at the western end of the Luton/Dunstable urban area, which also includes the town of Houghton Regis. There are thought to have been settlements around this area as far back as the Bronze Age and was on the route of the Icknield Way, one of the oldest roads in Great Britain (possibly the oldest). In Roman times the area was on the route of Watling Street and a settlement formed here which they called Durocobrivis. It's not quite known where the modern-day name came from, but there are of course a few theories that exist.

To the south of the town lies the chalk escarpment called Dunstable Downs which is at the northern end of The Chiltern Hills. In 1965 The Chilterns were recognised as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A section of Dunstable Downs has been assigned as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The downs are home to many types of wildlife including some rare butterflies. The highest point of the downs is 243m and this means it claims the crown of the highest point in Bedfordshire

From a historical point of view, the northern-most section of the Downs is home to Medieval Rabbit Warrens and the Five Knolls Barrow Cemetery which, since 1950, has officially been a Scheduled monument and this status protects it from any unauthorised change.

This area features seven burial mounds which date back around 4,000 years. Late neolithic and Bronze Age burials were the earliest finds, but there were subsequent burials from the Roman era. During the 5th or 6th centuries gallows were erected here and the bodies of around 100 executees, some with their hands still tied behind their backs, were found buried in shallow graves on top of the prehistoric remains.

The area is managed by The National Trust under the full name of Dunstable Downs and Whipsnade Estate. We visited on 13 August 2022 to take part in Dunstable Downs parkrun which has been active since February 2019. The event usually attracts just under a hundred participants each week.

There is a modern visitor building and cafe located at the highest point of the downs and this is adjacent to the car park which has a flat fee of £3.50 and that covers for the entire day. The machines only accept cash and are coin-only, but you can also pay using the 'paybyphone' app. If you need to pay with a banknote or by card, a note on the machine said this is possible by paying at the visitor centre instead. If you are a National Trust member you can park for free (I understand you have to scan the QR code on your National Trust membership card at the machine).

The closest train stations seem to be down in the main Luton/Dunstable urban area and the nearest is over 5 miles away. You may be able to alight at Luton and use a combination of buses to get closer to Dunstable Downs, but from my limited research you may still have over a mile uphill to walk when you alight the second bus.

A train-bicycle combo may work fairly well and upon arrival there are some bicycle racks just outside the visitor centre building. There are toilets on-site and although they have an official opening time of 10am, they should be open before parkrun starts on a Saturday (on the day we visited they were certainly open before 8.30am).

The main parkrun meeting point is on the grass outside the visitor centre, but before worrying about that you will probably want to take in the stunning view to the west where you can see into the neighbouring county of Buckinghamshire. Once the view has been thoroughly absorbed attention can return to the parkrun.

The course here is off-road and the event takes place over what is essentially a single lap course. Underfoot you will find mostly grass, but also some sections of dirt track. We visited during the very dry summer so the ground was firm - even though I could have gotten away with road shoes, I wore my trail shoes and was happy with that choice. In the winter the course will be a different beast and I'd say trail shoes are essential. The briefings, start and finish are all in the same spot outside the visitor centre.

The route initially heads in a northerly direction past the beacon which I understand was lit for the Queen's jubilee celebrations in 2012 and again in 2022. It then loops around the main open grass area outside the cafe and it's not long before you realise that this is not a totally flat course.

This opening loop features a lovely slight downhill, but as we all know, 'what goes down, must come up' and that first incline kicks in at around 400 metres into the course. There is of course that stunning view to take the mind off of such inclines, you may even spot some gliders from the London Gliding Club lined up in one of the fields below. If you are luckier you may spot one or two in the air.

The course now heads south and passes along the edges of fields, through countless gates and even joins the Icknield Way Trail for a couple of short stretches. I remember spotting one section with some heavily protruding tree routes but apart from that the surface underfoot was bumpy but not particularly hazardous. 

As I've mentioned the terrain it might be a good time to cover to deal regarding buggy running - the official advice is to contact the team in advance of visiting if you intend to use a buggy. My thoughts are that it's not really too bad if conditions are good and you are comfortable with undulating off-road buggy running. It may be a different story in the winter, so stick to the advice and contact the team in advance. Also another important point is that dogs are not permitted to take part at this venue.

The course generally rises and falls as the 5k progresses and these undulations are largely on the gentle side. There are plenty of marshals posted at all the important points around the course which is also extremely well marked with signage. In fact the signage and marshals were so good that you'd have to put an extra special effort in to get lost.  The far end of the course features a full loop of a field and at this point the course is only a stone's throw away from the famous Whipsnade Zoo, which at 600 acres is one of the largest in the UK. The zoo opened in 1931 and at the same time work began on a 147-metre-long chalk hill figure of a lion known as the 'Whipsnade White Lion'. It was finished in 1933.

The return journey consists of further grass paths leading around fields until eventually rejoining the Icknield Way Trail path where the outgoing route is retraced back towards the cafe. Up until now I haven't mentioned the rusty brown coloured item sitting on the downs. It looks like a sculpture, but it is in fact a wind catcher which is part of the ventilation system for the visitor centre - an underground pipe takes the fresh air into the building. Talking about wind, I imagine it can get pretty blowy up here at times.

The last 500 metres of the course is generally uphill - it's fairly gentle for most of it, but more noticeable at the very end. With the 5k completed, the barcode scanners can be found just after the finish line and of course the cafe with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating is immediately on-hand for some refreshments (although bear in mind that it doesn't officially open until 10am). The results were online a short while later.

I recorded the course with my Garmin and the GPS data can be found on Strava. I also created an accompanying Relive course fly-by video that can be viewed on YouTube. My lingering thoughts on the course are that it is very peaceful and scenic, but when you add the view into the equation this elevates it to a really special place. As parkrunners we should think ourselves incredibly lucky to be able to indulge our passion in such beautiful surroundings. It was actually a very special day as this was Dunstable Downs parkrun's 100th event which tied in nicely to our visit as my wife also celebrated her 100th run. So afterwards we got to enjoy some of the cakes that had been brought to help with their celebrations.

Once all the cake had been eaten we headed off to take a closer look at the burial mounds and continued to enjoy the stunning view. The freshly harvested hay fields below the downs were looking especially stunning. It also happened to be the hottest parkrunday this year, so we got ourselves back to the cafe for some extra fluids before heading over to Ivinghoe Beacon where there is a view back across to Dunstable Downs and the Whipsnade White Lion can clearly be seen on the hillside. Our final action was to have some refreshing lollies while enjoying the final viewpoint of the day. We'd had a fantastic morning out and would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to all the volunteers that put the event on.

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