Dunstable

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Dunstable (/ˈdʌnstəbəl/) is a market town and civil parish located in Bedfordshire, England. It lies on the eastward tail spurs of the Chiltern Hills, 30 miles north of London. These geographical features form several steep chalk escarpments most noticeable when approaching Dunstable from the north.

In Roman times its name was Durocobrivis. There was a general assumption that the nominative form of the name had been Durocobrivae, so that is what appears on the map of 1944 illustrated below. But current thinking is that the form Durocobrivis, which occurs in the Antonine Itinerary, is a fossilised locative that was used all the time and Ordnance Survey now uses this form.

There are several theories concerning its modern name:

  • Legend tells that the lawlessness of the time was personified in a thief called Dun. Wishing to capture Dun, the King stapled his ring to a post daring the robber to steal it. It was, and was subsequently traced to the house of the widow Dun. Her son, the robber, was taken and hanged to the final satisfaction that the new community bore his name.
  • It comes from the Anglo-Saxon for “the boundary post of Duna”.
  • Derived from Dunum, or Dun, a hill, and Staple, a marketplace.

Relics of Palæolithic man, such as flint implements and the bones of contemporary wild animals, suggest settlement is prehistoric. At Maidenbower in the parish of Houghton Regis to the north, there is an Iron Age hill fort and is clearly marked on the Ordnance survey maps. Maidenbower has some of the ramparts showing through the edge of an old chalk quarry at Sewell where there are Bronze Age remains of an older fort. There are a lot of prehistoric sites in this area and details can be found with the Manshead Archaeological Society who are based in Winfield Street, Dunstable.

There was already some form of settlement by the time that the ancient Roman paved road (now known as Watling Street, and in the Great Britain road numbering scheme the A5) crossed another ancient and still-existing road, the Icknield Way. Traces of Neolithic activity are not in doubt but much of their mystery may be lost under the surrounding Chiltern Hills.

The Romans built a posting station and named the settlement Durocobrivis, which survived until their departure from Britain. The area is most likely to have been occupied by Saxons, who overran this part of Bedfordshire in about 571 AD.

Until the 11th century this area of the county is known to have been uncultivated tract covered by woodlands. In 1109 Henry I started a period of activity by responding to this danger to travellers. He instructed areas to be cleared and encouraged settlers with offers of royal favour. In 1123 a royal residence was built at what is now called the Royal Palace Lodge Hotel on Church Street. The King used the residence as a base to hunt on the nearby lands.

The Dunstable Priory was founded in 1131 by the King and was later used for the divorce between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, which led to the establishment of the Church of England in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church. The same year the town granted a town charter to the power of the priors.

In 1290 Dunstable was one of twelve sites to erect an Eleanor cross recognising Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, whose coffin was laid close to the crossroads for the local people to mourn the dead Queen. The coffin was then guarded inside the priory by the canons overnight before continuing on to St. Albans. The original wooden cross has long since perished but a modern memorial remains.

Bedfordshire was one of the counties that largely supported the Roundheads during the English Civil War. Nearby St Albans in Hertfordshire was the headquarters of the Roundheads, and troops were occasionally stationed at Dunstable. The town was plundered by King Charles I’s soldiers when passing through in June 1644, and Essex’s men destroyed the Eleanor cross.

The town’s prosperity, and the large number of inns or public houses in the town, is partly because it is only one or two days’ ride by horse from London (32 miles (51 km)), and therefore a place to rest overnight. Towns like Stevenage on the Great North Road benefited from the same effect, and of course similar settlements all over the rest of the country. There are two pubs which still have coaching gates to the side: the Sugar Loaf in High Street North, and the Saracen’s Head in High Street South. The Saracen’s Head is a name often given to pubs frequented by knights of the Crusades. It is considerably lower than the road to its front, witness to the fact that the road has been resurfaced a number of times during the lifetime of the pub.

Dunstable’s first railway opened in 1848. It was a branch joining the West Coast Main Line at Leighton Buzzard. A second line linking Dunstable with Hatfield via Luton opened in 1858. Passenger services to Dunstable were withdrawn in 1965, but the line between Dunstable and Luton remained open for freight traffic for many years.

Dunstable was a significant market town, but its importance diminished as the neighbouring town of Luton grew.

The 19th century saw the straw hat making industry come to Luton and a subsequent decline in Dunstable, to be replaced in the early 20th century by the printing and motor vehicle industries with companies such as Waterlow’s and Vauxhall Motors respectively. But with the closure of the main factories and the decline of manufacturing in the area, this distinctiveness has been lost.

Shops were concentrated along High Street North/High Street South (Watling Street) until in 1966 the Quadrant Shopping Centre opened, becoming the main retail centre of Dunstable. Additionally in 1985 the Eleanor’s Cross retail area was developed to cater mainly for smaller independent shops.

With the rise of out-of-town retail parks, as with many other market towns the town centre has suffered a decline in trade. Few original independent shops remain. Of the oldest Moore’s of Dunstable (opened in 1908) closed in 2008, leaving The Cottage Garden Flower Shop of Chiltern Road, established in 1898, as the oldest independent retail business still trading.

Before the Local Government Act 1972 coming into force in 1974, Dunstable was a municipal borough. It is now a civil parish in the Central Bedfordshire district.

The oldest part of the town is along the Icknield Way and Watling Street where they cross. These roads split the rest of the town into four quadrants which have each been developed in stages.

The northwest quadrant started to be developed in the 19th century when the British Land Company laid out the roads around Victoria Street. The development of the Beecroft area began with the houses around Worthington Road; after World War II the borough council extended the estate up to Westfield Road with its shops, and then up to Aldbanks. The war-time site of the Meteorological Office, where the road Weatherby is now, was redeveloped by George Wimpey and others. At the north of the town there is an estate originally marketed as French’s Gate Estate, and at the west of the town there is an area of houses on Lancot Hill.

The southwest quadrant has largely been developed since World War II. There are three main estates. In the Lake District Estate all the streets are named after places in the Lake District and Cumbria; the estate includes a parade of shops on Langdale Road. It was originally called the Croft Golf Course Estate and was built by Laing Homes. Oldhill Down Estate around the Lowther Road shops was developed by William Old Ltd, and the Stipers Hill Estate around Seamons Close was initially created by the Land Settlement Association.

In the southeast quadrant, the area around Great Northern Road was developed at the end of the 19th century as Englands Close Estate and Borough Farm Estate. The Downside Estate including the shops on Mayfield Road was planned by the borough council in 1951.

The northeast quadrant is a mainly commercial and civic area, the result of redevelopment in the early 1960s. But the site of Waterlow’s printing works around Printers Way is now occupied by houses built in the 1990s. The Northfields Estate at the north of the town was completed by the borough council in 1935.

Further east, near the boundary with Luton, there is another area that has largely been developed since World War II. To the south of Luton Road, Jeansway was completed after the war; to the north, Poynters Estate and Hadrian Estate were built on either side of Katherine Drive, where there is a parade of shops. The area also includes the Woodside Estate which contains most of the factories and warehouses that still exist in Dunstable.

The town lies in the parliamentary constituency of South West Bedfordshire.

The A5 trunk road lies at the heart of Dunstable’s transport infrastructure, directing movement north and south. This movement is additionally complemented by the M1 motorway which is located east of the town in Luton. The nearest motorway junction is J11, which is about two miles to the east of the town centre via the A505. Although congested, the town’s roads provide the means to connect to the country’s motorways systems.

Dunstable was once served by the Dunstable Branch Lines to Leighton Buzzard and to Luton from Dunstable Town railway station. There have been a number of campaigns for the re-establishment of a passenger railway although none of them has proved to be successful. Dunstable is now one of the largest towns in England without a railway connection.

Plans are now going ahead for the Luton to Dunstable guided busway between central Dunstable and Luton Airport via Luton town centre, much of which will run along the lines of the old railway.

As part of a solution to Dunstable’s growing traffic problems proposals for a Northern Bypass A5 – M1 Link road have been submitted. These comprise of a two-lane dual carriageway running east from the A5 north of Dunstable to join the M1 at a new Junction 11a south of Chalton. Here, it is intended to join with the proposed Luton Northern Bypass to form a northern bypass for the wider conurbation.

The proposal is currently awaiting the results of an ongoing review of the M1 widening scheme as any changes to this scheme could potentially affect the bypass proposals. Until these results are released plans for the Dunstable Northern Bypass cannot proceed. Following the Highways Agencies decision to drop claims for the Dunstable Eastern Bypass, the Woodside Connection is also currently under scrutiny.

Like other major transport schemes the Dunstable Northern Bypass is suspended pending a government spending review due to be completed by Autumn 2010.

Following the abandonment of the Dunstable Eastern Bypass a new road is being considered which would connect to the A5-M1 Link (Dunstable Northern Bypass) to the Woodside industrial estate.

Since its opening in April 2007 the Grove Theatre has replaced the Queensway Hall as the town’s premier arts centre, located within the council owned Grove Gardens. Currently a Wetherspoons entitled The Gary Cooper, an Italian restaurant named Adesso, a Dim Sum restaurant and “Cookies and Cream” night club have opened. A unit is also currently occupied by Bedfordshire University, as part of Dunstable College.

One of the town’s little gems is that of the Little Theatre, home of the Dunstable Rep Theatre Group that also hosts dramatic performances throughout the year.

Lancot Meadow is a small nature reserve managed by the local Wildlife Trust.

Within the town, there is the modern Grove Theatre, newly refurbished Priory House Heritage Centre (free to the public), and the Priory Church where Henry VIII formalised his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. There is shopping in the heart of the town at the Quadrant Shopping Centre; across High Street North there is a secondary area called Eleanor’s Cross Shopping Precinct with a modern statue commemorating the original cross. Nearby Luton has the Waulud’s Bank prehistoric henge and Luton Museum & Art Gallery.

Dunstable Downs, a chalky escarpment outside the town, is a popular site for kite flying, paragliding, and hang gliding, while the London Gliding Club provides a base for conventional gliding and other air activities at the bottom of the Downs. Further into the countryside are the open-range Whipsnade Zoo, a garden laid out in the form of a cathedral at Whipsnade Tree Cathedral, and the Totternhoe Knolls motte-and-bailey castle.

Dunstable is twinned with Bourgoin-Jallieu, France, and Porz-Am-Rhein, Germany.

Note: this page is partly based on a Wikipedia page. Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. Where possible, text is being updated to original, fully referenced research. ‘Our photos’ means we took the photographs. The Street View and street map visuals are courtesy of Google.

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