During the Bronze Age, select individuals were chosen for burial within large earthen mounds, now known as barrows or tumuli. Located on a high point along the Dunstable Downs is a collection of seven of these barrows, (confusingly) known as the Five Knolls. Stylistically, they differ; three are bell barrows, two bowl barrows, and two pond barrows. 19th and early 20th century excavations uncovered some of the individuals buried here. These excavations also revealed that the site was re-used as a cemetery by later Romano-Britons. A good site for keen walkers.
One of many hillforts built amid the increased militarisation of Late Bronze Age and Iron Age society, Sharpenhoe Clappers is part of a series of defended sites erected along the Chiltern Hills. Part of the hillfort’s northern side was converted into a rabbit warren during the 15th century. Woodland now covers much of the hill, which is recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its resident wildlife. A peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of nearby Luton, this is a site best suited for accomplished ramblers.
Although sadly not open to the public, archaeologists excavated the site of Totternhoe Roman villa in the 1950s. The villa contained mosaics, painted walls, and hypocaust heating systems. The discovery of sherds of 5th and 6th century Anglo-Saxon pottery suggested the continued occupation of the site, if not the villa itself, after the end of the Roman occupation. Although a grassy field now covers the villa itself, finds from the site are on display at Stockwood Discovery Centre’s Roman Gallery in Luton.
After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the invaders built motte-and-bailey castles around England to cement their newfound dominance. Positioned on chalk downland overlooking the Ouzel Valley, Totternhoe Castle is the largest motte-and-bailey fort in Bedfordshire. Precisely which Norman lord ordered its construction remains unclear, although Walter de Wahull is a strong contender. While the wooden (and possibly) stone fortification is no longer present, impressive earthworks remain for the visitor to explore. Also visible are several quarries, with Totternhoe stone being highly prized for sculptural work in the Middle Ages.
The Priory Church of Saint Mary, Bushmead, or – as it is better known – Bushmead Priory, was a refectory belonging to the Augustinian Canons. Built in the late 13th century, it consists of cobblestone and rubble walls with a wooden roof. After the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII granted the priory to a local landowner. The site is known for its 14th century wall paintings. The building is Grade I listed and owned by English Heritage; it is only open on the first Saturday of the month during certain parts of the year.
Someries Castle is a 15th century fortified manor house located near to Luton. It was commissioned by John Wenlock, a diplomat who gained notoriety for switching sides during the War of the Roses. Often cited as one of the first brick buildings in England, it also has the distinction of having had King James I as an overnight visitor in 1605. The name “Someries Castle” derives from William de Someries, whose manor inhabited the site during the 13th century. Now a romantic ruin, Someries Castle has attracted tales of hauntings.
A 16th century stone dovecote and stables, this building sits close to Willington’s church. Local landowner Sir John Gostwick, a treasurer for King Henry VIII, commissioned the construction of the building for his own estate. The limestone rubble used for the walls may have been purloined from nearby Newnham Priory, which had been recently demolished following the king’s dissolution of the monasteries. The dovecote remains in practical use, housing 1,500 pigeons, making it a good spot for bird watching. Owned by the National Trust, opening times are limited.
Although today it survives only as a ruined shell, Houghton House was once a grand house built in the early seventeenth century for Mary, Dowager Countess of Pembroke. King James I had granted her the land, and the building initially served as a hunting lodge. Architecturally, it blended elements of the Jacobean and Classical styles. The house was dismantled in the late eighteenth century, with many of its features being cannibalised for use elsewhere. Much of the building nevertheless survived, serving as a picturesque ruin in the grounds of Ampthill Park.
Built in the 1830s, Wrest Park is the creation of Thomas Robinson, the 2nd Earl de Grey. Designed in the style of an 18th century French chateau, the building sits on land that had been held in the de Grey family since the Late Middle Ages. The magnificent formal gardens predate the house itself, being a rare survival from the early 18th century. Some of the garden designs are the product of one of England’s greatest designers, Capability Brown. The building served as a military hospital in the First World War and is now owned by English Heritage.
One of the largest sepulchral chapels attached to any church in England, this mausoleum houses the remains of the aristocratic de Grey family who resided at nearby Wrest Park. Attached to the 15th century Church of St John the Baptist at Flitton, it was built in the early 17th century and expanded in 1704. 17 monuments can be found within the mausoleum, most of which are highly sculpted to reflect the deceased’s wealth and power. English Heritage own the mausoleum, which is open on certain Sundays and Wednesdays.
Many sites and attractions listed on this page are managed by English Heritage or the National Trust. While not all charge an entry fee, some do – certainly those that require greater upkeep and care. Joining either of these two organisations does offer many benefits, but also it supports the work of these two bodies. Read more on membership benefits of joining English Heritage.