Dunstable (pronounced /ˈdʌnstəbəl/) is a market town 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 above. 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".
Relics of Palæolithic man, such as flint implements and the bones of contemporary wild animals, suggest settlement is prehistoric. At Maidenbower just outside the town near Totternhoe to the north-west, 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 St. Dunstable.
Sewell Chalk Quarry
There was already some form of settlement by the time that the ancient British Romans 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.
A map of Dunstable from 1944
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 swarmed by the Saxons, who overran this part of Bedfordshire in about 571.
Until the 11th century this area of the county is known to have been uncultivated tract covered by woodlands. In 1109 Henry I started the 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.
Market Cross Dunstable
Bedfordshire was one of the counties that largely supported the Roundheads during the English Civil War. Nearby St Albans in Hertfordshire was the head quarters 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 day's ride by horse from London (32 miles (51 km)), and therefore a place to rest overnight. Towns like Stevenage on the Great North Road benefitted 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 Saracens Head in High Street South. The Saracens 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 Grove House
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.
World War ll Museum Luton
20th century and after
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 Waterlows and Vauxhall Motors respectively.
Vauxhall Motors Griffith House
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 the main High Street (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.For council elections the town is divided into wards. Since 2002 these have been called Chiltern, Dunstable Central, Icknield, Manshead, Northfields and Watling.
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 north-west quadrant started to be developed in the nineteenth 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 south-west 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 south-east quadrant, the area around Great Northern Road was developed at the end of the nineteenth 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 north-east quadrant is a mainly commercial and civic area, the result of redevelopment in the early 1960s. But the site of the Waterlow and Sons 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 border 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.
Leighton Buzzard Market Square
The town lies in the parliamentary constituency of South West Bedfordshire. Since June 2001 Leighton Buzzard based lawyer Andrew Selous has won election to representation on behalf of the Conservative party. For many years previous David Madel was MP for the district.
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. National and local productions take place regularly at this cornerstone of Dunstable's cultural exploits. Additional facilities include units fit for six bars or restaurants along with a 1,000 seated auditorium. (Currently a Wetherspoons entitled The Gary Cooper, an Italian, and a Dim Sum restaurant have opened.)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. The auditorium, once part of the Chews Trust was fully opened in 1964 by Bernard Bresslaw. It sits next to the historic Chews House on High Street South. The town also has numerous amateur dramatics societies that perform several shows a year. These include 'The Square Drama Circle' and 'Dunstable Amateur Operatics Society'
The new Grove Theatre development
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.
Prehistory: Matthews, C. L. (1989). Ancient Dunstable (2nd ed.). Manshead Archaeological Society. ISBN ISBN 0-9515160-0-0.
Historical town-centre locations: Benson, Nigel, (1986). Dunstable in Detail: An Illustrated Guide to the Town of Dunstable. Dunstable: Book Castle. ISBN 0-9509773-2-2.
Street names: Walden, R. (1999). Streets Ahead: An Illustrated Guide to the Street Names of Dunstable. Dunstable: Book Castle. 0-871199-59-X. ISBN 0-871199-54-9.
Second World War: Dunstable and District at War from Eyewitness Accounts. Dunstable: Book Castle. 2006. ISBN 1-903747-79-1.