The lcknield Way is probably the oldest road in Britain. It first appeared in Neolithic times, about five thousand years ago when man was first learning how to grow food and keep animals. It is part of an ancient trading route that followed the chalk ridge across southern England, from the Norfolk coast across East Anglia, on to the plains of Wiltshire and then down to the coast in Dorset. Today you can make this journey by following the family of recreational routes together know as the Great Chalk Way.
The original Icknield Way, was a series of tracks that followed the grass chalk downland. On either side of the downland is heavy clay, which in Neolithic times would have been thick with vegetation. Travelling across this would have been difficult, so the route developed along the easiest line. As farming developed, the vegetation was cleared and the rich calve soils were used for growing crops. The chalk slopes were too steep to cultivate and were too low in nutrients, so were used for grazing sheep and cattle. This is still true today, and on places like Dunstable Downs you can see the chalk downland, which is still grazed by sheep, with the patchwork of arable fields around Eaton Bray and Totternhoe on the clay below.
The Trail in Bedfordshire is rich in archaeology. The burial mounds at Five Knolls and the barrows at Galley Hill are some of the best examples on the whole of the Icknield Way. These burial sites are from the Bronze Age, when tribes laid important people to rest in large tombs surrounded by their possessions. Older flints and axe-heads have been discovered close by and many of these are thought to have come from Norfolk. Many people used the ancient Icknield Way as a trading route which explains how they came to travel this far west. Waulud’s Bank at the source of the River Lea in Luton is one of the oldest sites near the current route. It was an important meeting place for tribe elders, and may also have been used for religious ceremonies.
Maiden Bower near Sewell was a Neolithic camp that later became an Iron Age fort. The battered remains of Iron Age warriors have been discovered there, showing evidence of an ancient battle. Not far away, Ravensburgh Castle near Hexton is the largest hill fort in eastern England. This was also built during the Iron Age and was heavily fortified with timber ramparts. Some historians believe it is where Julius Caesar’s army finally defeated a fearsome British warlord named Cassivellaunus in 54bc. When they weren’t fighting, the Romans left their own marks on the landscape, imposing order in the form of straightened roads. They may have been responsible for the straight section of the Icknield Way from Galley Hill eastwards into Hertfordshire. Not quite so long ago, Sundon Hills was used for ‘battles’ of its own, as during the Second World War it was a firing range used to train soldiers. One of the reasons the Trail doesn’t go through there is the amount of live ammunition still in the ground!
Nature & Conservation
The chalk grasslands and woodlands found along the Trail are home to many special plants and animals. Places like Barton Hills, Dunstable Downs, Sharpenhoe Clappers and Sundon Hills are great places to stop and admire your surroundings and at the right times of year, you’ll find Cowslips, Pasque Flowers and a variety of orchids. Bedfordshire is also home to Lapwings, Skylarks and Fieldfares, birds that are quite rare in other parts of the country. Dormice and Badgers also live along the Trail, but you’ll need a sharp pair of eyes to spot them! Something much easier to see are the butterflies that love the chalkland plants. Through the spring and the summer you will see Brimstones, Commas, Chalkhill Blues and many others.
This part of the route is within the Chiltern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) which has some of the finest landscape in England, offering excellent opportunities for walking, riding or cycling at any time of year. The AONB covers 383 sq. km of the chalk ridge that runs across southern England. It is an area well known for rolling hills, with magnificent views to the north from the ridge where the chalk drops away sharply, while the dip slope, with its valleys and chalk streams, runs gently down towards the Thames basin in the south. The landscape, cloaked in beechwoods and ancient hedgerows, also has a wealth of prehistoric features and sites rich in wildlife of all sorts. There are many picturesque villages with traditional brick and flint cottages, farms and medieval churches and ancient routes like the Ridgeway and Icknield Way as well as newer ones like the Chiltern Way cycling route.