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A medieval warren on Dunstable Downs

A Scheduled Monument in Dunstable, Central Bedfordshire

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Latitude: 51.8774 / 51°52'38"N

Longitude: -0.54 / 0°32'23"W

OS Eastings: 500601.5119

OS Northings: 220877.2698

OS Grid: TL006208

Mapcode National: GBR G55.894

Mapcode Global: VHFRK.L2DM

Entry Name: A medieval warren on Dunstable Downs

Scheduled Date: 25 November 1994

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1009398

English Heritage Legacy ID: 24409

County: Central Bedfordshire

Civil Parish: Dunstable

Built-Up Area: Dunstable

Traditional County: Bedfordshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Bedfordshire

Church of England Parish: Totternhoe

Church of England Diocese: St.Albans


The monument consists of two pillow mounds situated on the northern and
eastern slopes of a promontory at the northern end of the Dunstable Downs. It
is a single monument protected within two areas. The southern mound is
rectangular and is aligned along the brow of the western slope of the spur.
The mound measures 13.5m by 8m, and survives to a height of 0.6m. Material for
the construction of the mound was quarried from a surrounding ditch, the inner
scarp of which forms a continuation of the sloping edge of the mound. The
ditch is approximately 1m wide and 0.4m deep, and shows signs of silting on
the lower, western side.
The second pillow mound lies some 90m to the north. This is of a different
design comprising a narrow bank situated on a shallow terrace cut into the
northern slope of the hill. The mound is 32.5m in length, approximately 5m
wide, and 0.8m in height. The mound has a flat top, about 1.5m wide, and
sloping sides which descend to form the inner scarp of a surrounding ditch.
The ditch measures about 1.5m across and has a maximum depth of about 0.4m.
A small section (6m wide and 7m long) at the western end of the mound has been
separated by the excavation of a 1.5m wide trench.
The earthworks were first noted by W G Smith in 1894, although at that time
they were interpreted as prehistoric burial mounds. Later authorities,
particularly since the advent of aerial photography, have considered that the
form and location of the earthworks indicates their function as artificial
breeding places associated with a warren. The warren itself was unenclosed and
ultilised the northern area of the Downs allowing the rabbits free-range
across the grassland.
The Dunstable Downs were common land throughout the medieval and post-medieval
periods. The Augustinian priory at Dunstable (which lay some 2km to the
north east) held rights of common pasture on the Downs, and is thought to have
constructed and managed the warren.

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.
It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features,
considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

A warren is an area of land set aside for the breeding and management of
rabbits or hares in order to provide a constant supply of fresh meat and
skins. Although the hare is an indigenous species, the tradition of warren
construction and use dates from the 12th century, following the introduction
of rabbits into England from the continent. Warrens usually contain a number
of purpose-built breeding places known as pillow mounds or rabbit buries,
which were intended to centralise the colony and make catching the animals
easier, whether using nets, ferrets or dogs. The mounds vary in design
although rarely exceeding 0.7m in height. Earlier monuments such as burial
mounds, boundary features and mottes were sometimes reused as breeding places.
The mounds are usually surrounded by ditches and contain underlying channels
or are situated on sloping ground to facilitate drainage. The interior of the
mound may also contain nesting places constructed of stone slabs or cut into
the underlying subsoil or bedrock.
A typical warren may contain between one and forty pillow mounds or rabbit
buries and occupy an area up to c.600ha. Many warrens were enclosed by a bank,
hedge or wall intended to contain and protect the stock. Other features
associated with the warren include vermin traps (usually a dead-fall mechanism
within a small tunnel), and more rarely traps for the warren stock (known in
Yorkshire as `types') which could contain the animals unharmed and allow for
selective culling. Larger warrens might include living quarters for the
warrener who kept charge of the site, sometimes surrounded by an enclosed
garden and outbuildings.
Early warrens were mostly associated with the higher levels of society;
however, they gradually spread in popularity so that by the 16th and 17th
centuries they were a common feature on most manors and estates throughout the
country. Warrens continued in use until fairly recent times, finally declining
in the face of 19th and 20th century changes in agricultural practice, and the
onset of myxomatosis. Warrens are found in all parts of England, the earliest
examples lying in the southern part of the country. Approximately 1,000 -
2,000 examples are known nationally with concentrations in upland areas, on
heathland and in coastal zones. The profits from a successfully managed warren
could, however, be considerable and many areas in lowland England were set
aside for warrens at the expense of agricultural land. Although relatively
common, warrens are important for their associations with other classes of
monument, including various forms of settlement, deer parks, field systems and
fishponds. They may also provide evidence of the economy of both secular and
ecclesiastical estates. All well preserved medieval examples are considered
worthy of protection. A sample of well preserved sites of later date will also
merit protection.

The Downs are largely unsuited to ploughing and have remained an area of
upland pasture since the medieval period. The pillow mounds are an important
indication of the medieval management of the Downs, and illustrate the economy
of the adjacent settlement and priory. The pillow mounds survive in an
exceptionally well preserved condition. The structure of the mounds and the
fills within the ditches may contain both artefactual and enviromental
evidence relating to the period of use. The importance of the site is enhanced
by its inclusion within a public amenity area.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Matthews, C L, Ancient Dunstable, (1989)
Smith, W G, Man the Primal Savage, (1894), 332
Smith, W G, Man the Primal Savage, (1894), 332
Dyer, J, Holgate, R, 'Beds Arch Journal' in The Five Knolls And Associated Barrows At Dunstable, Bedfordshire, , Vol. 19, (1991), 26
annotated 'not a long barrow', Phillips, C W, REC 6' 21.3.1932, (1932)
Coleman, SR (Beds CC Conservation Section), (1993)
Kay, M W, The Augustinian Priory of Dunstable, 1947, undergraduate thesis
Kay, M W, The Augustinian Priory of Dunstable, 1947, undergraduate thesis
Schedule entry copy (SM 20422), Oetgens, J, Five Knolls round barrow cemetery, (1992)

Source: Historic England

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