Our Easter Traditions – Orange rolling on Dunstable Downs

imgresFor at least two hundred years on Good Friday, the people of Dunstable and neighbouring villages would gather at the top of the Downs, then chase oranges thrown down the hills, attempting to catch them. There is some great footage from 1938 of this on britishpathe.com.

The origins of this event are unknown, but it is believed to have started in the mid-to-late 18th century. By the end of the 19th century, newspaper records show that it was an annual event attended by hundreds of people, known at the time as “pelting oranges”. At this time it was common for bands, fairground-type rides and stalls to set up at the bottom of the pit, to further entertain the revellers. At the turn of the 20th century there were issues with rowdy elements within the crowds, in one particular instance over-running a coconut shy, eventually resulting in banning of such amusements in 1914. However, the event would continue, with increasing visitors from further afield such as London, as transportation improved.

WWII was to bring the first break from this tradition, as by 1941 the fruit was in short supply owing to rationing. Post-war the Dunstable Chamber of Trade attempted to bring back the event, but by 1968 it was decided rest it, due to Health and Safety regulations and a lack of support from local traders. Apart from isolated attempts to revive the event, such as in 1985, and despite fond memories from older locals, these factors plus the build-up of scrub on the slopes make it impractical to hold the event today.

A new lease of life

Spring is the season of new life: the birds are nesting, flowers are in bloom and butterflies do their acrobatic courtship dances in the sky. However, this Spring marked the end of life for one mighty oak in the hedge line of Sundon Hills Country Park, which came crashing down a few weeks ago. The fallen giant lay crushing the fence and obstructing the path so the Ranger team were called out for a mammoth clean up operation.DSCF3386The first task was clearing off the masses of ivy that had enrobed the tree in a leafy blanket. The vines had grown thick and woody; it took an hour of precision cutting with pole saws and chainsaws to strip it off before the true scale of the oak below was revealed. With the tree bare it was now plain to see that we had a truly hefty piece of wood to move, and the trunk would have to be cut. Once the chainsaw had done its work we could peer inside, and then we made an exciting discovery…the outer hard wood of the oak was perfectly intact, whilst the centre was completely rotten away. We had a perfect wooden tube, wide enough for a child to crawl through, and this natural tunnel was surely the next addition to our Chute Wood playscape. We just had to get it there..DSCF3395The winch of a Landrover is an impressive piece of machinery, but we really put it through it’s paces lifting this tree. Reversing inch by inch to push the vehicle under the wood, trying not to push the fence down that was supporting the trunk and reluctant to cut the length any shorter…it was a complicated logistical challenge, as well as a test of our vehicle’s power. Suddenly it glided into place, fitting on the back without an inch to spare. We had our treasure!DSCF3402Lying back in our yard now, this wonderful length of oak will soon be installed in the woodland for people to explore, climb on, play in. Rather than a death, it seems more like a rebirth for this tree, after standing hidden away for so long under an ivy cloak it can now be admired by all our visitors.

If you go down to the woods today..

..tread very carefully, because there’s a miniature world of weird and wonderful dens underfoot! This is not the work of pixies and fairies, in fact these tiny homes were created by human hands. Children’s, to be precise, to house a host of mini-critters, such as this fellow:

(it's a badger..)

(it’s a badger..)

The Rangers have been leading den-building sessions with our regular Run Wild rabble and some visiting school groups, but instead of shelters for ourselves we imagined where foxes, badgers and hedgehogs might sleep. We thought it best to use some softer, more cuddly models as the real animals can be somewhat shy (and spiky!), and used sticks, bark and leaves to make shelters. Imaginations overflowed as mossy clumps became cosy blankets, pine cones were reinvented as dining furniture, pine-needles became gate-posts in expertly crafted miniature gardens.


We hope that thinking about the habitats and environments of wild animals will encourage future generations to make space for nature in our increasingly industrialised, urban society. There are other benefits to this kind of play too, as young children develop problem solving skills and learn to effectively cooperate and work as a group. Most importantly, we all had a lot of fun….so if you go down to the woods today, why not build a den?

Blooming lovely!

Nature has begun to paint the landscape with the glorious palette of spring colours..look carefully and you will see new dabs of blue, yellow and purple speckling the ground. Our rich and varied chalk down land and woods will soon be awash with delicate, colourful flowers, but thanks to the recent beaming sunshine it is already possible to spot a few favourites in bloom. On Saturday’s Spring Flowers walk we discovered the following little treasures: 

lesser cleandine

The lesser celandine, R. ficaria, has been known as ‘spring’s messenger’ as it is one of the first woodland flowers of the year. The name celandine derives from the Greek word chelidon which means swallow, and it’s suggested that this is because lesser celandines bloom with the return migrating swallows and die off when the birds leave for the winter. However, the flower actually arrives much earlier than the birds, so we can enjoy them already!

cow parsley

Cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris is a common site in our hedgerows, decorating roadsides with a shower of white spray. It looks lovely in a vase as well! Young parsley leaves make a fresh addition to salads and omelettes, but be warned – it is easily confused with many other toxic species.

common dog violetThis is the common dog-violet, V.riviniana. The ‘dog’ in the name means it is unscented, unlike the ‘sweet violet’ species, but John Clare still found it a worthy subject for his poem ‘Holywell’:

And just to say that spring was come, 
The violet left its woodland home,
And, hermit-like, from storms and wind
Sought the best shelter it could find,
‘Neath long grass banks, with feeble flowers
Peeping faintly purple flowers.

Fowl play

The Rangers garden has been invaded. Fighting, shouting, food left everywhere. Rowdy gangs and shifty individuals. There’s even evidence that an amourous couple are trying to move in. Luckily we’ve got it all on camera…


OK, we did encourage this behaviour. Putting out food since November, and even building them a house…alright, to be honest we really wanted these colourful characters to visit. The dramas of the bird table are brief but passionate, and everyone’s got a favourite player. Little coal tits are definitely the underdog, the woodpecker a rare and celebrated visitor, and just this week we have a newcomer: with our new ‘live food’ feeder a robin has entered the fray. Oh, and the chickens. Not wild birds, but they are wild about the seeds that get dropped.

The ruckus is all the more entertaining when the perpetrators are dressed to the nines in every shade of the rainbow… muted shades and slick eyeliner give our elegant nuthatch a certain je ne sais quoi, a far cry from the gaudy red face masks and yellow streaks of the bolshy goldfinches, an avian troupe of clowns.

Let’s not forget our courting couple. Romance is in the air for a handsome pair of blue tits, and they are house hunting ready to start a family in the spring. What they don’t realise is that the nest box we’ve built for them has an infra-red camera hidden inside. If they do choose to lay their eggs there (and at the moment they seem pretty keen!) we will get some fascinating footage of these chicks being born and raised, with our camera right inside the heart of the family home.

Our beautiful British garden birds are a delight and really appreciate a little bit of support in chillier winter months. Get a couple of cheap feeders, a mix of nuts and seed, and next time you’re staring out the window as you wash plates you can witness more drama than a Scandinavian thriller and costumes to rival the best period drama.

Of course, most of the land we manage is a very different habitat to gardens, and we are lucky to play host to several rare and lovely species of bird that you won’t find at the bird table. The burbling song of sky larks has just begun to decorate the air, and they are looking for long grass to make their nests. Their favourite spot is the fields by Chute Wood, a couple of minutes from the Chiltern’s Gateway Centre. Take a stroll down the track over the next few months to hear their music, and you might also see their dazzling display flight. Just remember to keep your dogs on leads at all times (and wandering kids on the path), delicate eggs lie in that luscious long grass.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis) singing in flight, Cheshire, UK, April

Read more about Sky larks here


Back to school

As if we needed another excuse to get mud on our boots, this week we’ve been learning about the research that proves time spent in nature more than just muddy good fun, it’s vital for our children’s development. We’ve met up with Learning Officers from National Trust places all over the East of England, as well as members of organisations such as the Wildlife Trust and Groundwork, and even council representatives and local teachers, to share knowledge and ideas about environmental education.

We know that these days a lot of kids rarely get the chance to get their hands mucky, but disengagement with nature has been shown to have a range of worrying effects on our young people, affecting their physical health, their academic performance, their behaviour and well-being. Researchers have given this problem the wordy title of ‘Nature Deficit disorder’, and as a society we need to understand why we’ve allowed our children to get so removed from the natural world. Some cite lack of green spaces or lack of motivation to visit them, increased risks or the perception of risk, time and money constraints. At the National Trust we believe everyone should have a chance to get outdoors and closer to nature, and want to be part of turning these trends around. The conferences proved that there is a lot of support for this, even Ofsted want schools to take their pupils outside the classroom more often!

A natural climbing frame

A natural climbing frame

Teachers learnt some easy ideas for how to teach nature even in the most barren playground or school field. Hunting to find woolly caterpillars in a hedgerow and planting cuttings from supermarket herb packets were highlights. We also learnt that not everyone has the knack of modelling woodland critters with natural clay, but everyone certainly enjoys it! We are pleased to announce that the National Trust’s popular ’50 Things to do before you’re 11 ¾’ will be going for several years yet, and we have learnt some great ideas for more activities to bring to Bedfordshire over the coming months. We had a brilliant bird-box making session yesterday, so Chute Wood will soon be full of colourful new homes for blue tits. There will be plenty of learning for adults as well, with our next guided walk on 15th March, all about spring flowers.

So let’s get studying the Natural Curriculum…lesson one: fly a kite,climb a tree and jump in an enormous puddle!

Art class doesn't need a paintbrush

Art class doesn’t need a paintbrush

Sounds like spring?

A few days ago in a passing patch of sunshine I was surprised and pleased to hear a skylark singing overhead. Often inconspicuous on the ground, the skylark (Alauda arvensis) is relatively easy to see when in its distinctive song flight(take a look at the RSPB website for a good sound clip).

Line drawing of a Skylark (Alauda arvensis)The skylark is a small streaky brown bird with a small crest, which can be raised when the bird is excited or alarmed, and a white-sided tail. The wings also have a white rear edge, visible in flight. Its recent and dramatic population declines make it a Red List species.


Dunstable Downs has been known for it’s skylarks for a long time. In the 1850s a good male skylark could fetch 15 shillings as a caged songbird in the markets of London. A high proportion of the Skylarks sent to London came from a small area of Dunstable Downs at this time as the area had free access, allowing the lark catchers to work unhindered. Records show that in one winter nearly 50,000 birds were captured in this area (which helps to explain why they are now so scarce!).

Skylark (Alauda arvensis) singing in flight, Cheshire, UK, AprilThe area of Dunstable Downs South-East of the visitor centre (between the kite fields and Chute Wood) is known by the Rangers as the skylark meadows as a number of pairs still breed there. Skylarks are ground nesting birds. Their choice of nesting site is influenced by the height and density of the crop or meadow – the ideal vegetation height is 20-50 cm.

The nest is a hollow on the ground, lined by the female with leaves, grasses and hair. She lays 2-6 grey-white, thickly spotted eggs, and incubates them for 11 days. Both parents feed the chicks on insects for their first week, then gradually introduce small quantities of shoots and seeds for a mixed diet.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis) chicks in nest begging for food, GermanySkylark nests are quite difficult to spot which is why if you walk on Dunstable Downs between March and July you will see signs and barriers steering you away from the most sensitive areas of the site. Ground nesting birds are particularly vulnerable to disturbance, particularly by dogs roaming off the footpaths.

If you’d like to lend a hand to our other native birds why not pop along to the visitor centre on Dunstable Downs for nest box making day on Saturday 15th February. Don’t forget, ‘make a home for a wild animal’ is one of the 50 things to do before you’re 11 3/4!