It’s interesting to imagine how the buttress of hard chalk rock that is Totternhoe Knolls would have looked a thousand years ago.
Turn off the B489 Dunstable to Tring road to Totternhoe and Nature Reserve. Park in the picnic site car park on Castle Hill Road and follow the Green Lane to the nature reserve. Other access is available from Castle Hill Road just pass the turning to Eaton Bray.
In the years after the forces of William, Duke of Normandy, occupied much of mainland Britain in 1066, the Normans built a fort here. At that time, the area would have still borne traces of the trade mark ditch and bank outline of a Celtic Iron Age hill fort… And like the Celts before them, the Norman castle builders recognised a commanding position when they saw one. The Norman fort, on top of a raised mound, was surrounded by a wall; at first made from timber and later stone; most likely using the nearest stone to hand, “Clunch Stone”, a hard chalk with the right properties for carving and ornamental stonework, although it can’t withstand wet weather or frost. “Clunch” from Totternhoe was employed inside Westminster Abbey - where it has lasted for 900 years.
For centuries this area around the Knolls has been quarried for building stone and the fine-grained rock was also burned to create high quality cement and gypsum. Cement-making, albeit much reduced, still goes on today..
Martyn Coote and local wildlife expert Dennis Furnell met in the small car park and picnic area at the beginning of the track that rises steeply along the edge of the heavily quarried hill. One side looks down over the village of Totternhoe and the other onto a flat area. When quarrying ceased on this part of the hill, in the 1980s the field was returned to nature and now supports a wide range of flowering plants, including orchids (for which the Knolls are well known) and for several species of rare insects.
Climbing the track in bright sunshine, we saw and heard a turtle dove calling its purring song from a sycamore tree growing over the path. These migrant birds are rare now so it was good to be able to record it as part of the programme. They will fly off to sub Saharan Africa at the end of September, a journey fraught with danger from hunters with guns and nets and from birds of prey.
The Norman builders levelled the top of the hill creating a wide area of chalk grassland where common spotted and pyramidal orchids grow in profusion among the bird’s foot trefoil and tall grasses. The buttress slopes downwards to a series of banks and ditches, home to more orchid species, including national rarities like musk orchid, man orchid and frog orchid. Dennis showed Martyn how the bee orchid flowers mimic the bee flies that fertilise them and also where to see twayblade orchids with their strange green flowers and two-stem leaves that give the plant its name
Spring, early summer and autumn is time to visit Totternhoe Knolls. In late summer the grasslands are alive with butterflies like common blue, the rare chalk hill blue, small copper, small skipper and Essex skipper… And the hill top is a perfect vantage point from which to watch the evening hunting flight of hobby falcons as they snatch dragonflies from the air above the chalk grasslands.
A difficult site for anyone with mobility-impairment; the path is steep and rough – slippery and dangerous after heavy rainfall.
last updated: 28/02/2008 at 12:40