diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 06, 2019

Where the ridge of the Chilterns fades into Bedfordshire, just beyond Ivinghoe Beacon, lie Dunstable Downs.

Picture a steep chalk escarpment rolling down to miles and miles of flat land, in this case the Vale of Aylesbury, with the possibility of glimpsing Milton Keynes or even the Cotswolds on the horizon. Conveniently for visitors the Whipsnade Road runs past the highest point, and to make things even easier the National Trust have provided a car park and visitor centre. I walked up Buttercup Lane from Dunstable, dodging ill-aimed balls on the golf course inbetween, but I may have been alone in doing this.

The Chiltern Gateway Centre is a long glass-fronted building which recently replaced a lesser refreshment facility. Grab a pot of tea and sit out on the terrace, hide inside with venison bangers and mash, or potter round the shop with its impressively extensive selection of kites. Dunstable Downs is a renowned kite-flying spot, thanks to its accessibly exposed location, and is very much the place to bring a active youngster or an over-enthusiastic parent. Dozens of amateur string-tuggers were out in force yesterday, but also four lads in identical black outfits doing seriously synchronised aerobatics. The backs of their jackets announced them as Fracture, the team who wiped the floor at this year's UK Nationals, now warming up for the World Sport Kite Championships 2020. Their Sky Sharks whipped around the sky in choreographed harmony - looping, swooshing, soaring and only occasionally crashing to the ground because practice makes perfect. I was well impressed.

The other folk making the most of the wind were members of the London Gliding Club. This has been based at the foot of the downs since 1930, and is easily identifiable as the large field with dozens of white gliders clustered in one corner. Every so often another glider was winched across the grass and rose slowly into the sky, its cable falling back to earth on a parachute, before soaring off on a thermal for a jaunt above the vale. The pilot's sole competition was a magnificent red kite, hovering with wings outstretched... and a stream of charter planes on final approach towards Luton Airport.

We earthbound mortals were left to hike along the ridgetop, following some chalky path (or accessible tarmac). I headed for Five Knolls, a lumpy protrusion offering a fine view back along the escarpment, and the site of seven excavated Neolithic barrows. Several of the trees in the fields below were on the turn, their leaves tinged with gold and yellow, although the majority have thus far refused to succumb to the season. The hubbub of Dunstable was but one steep footpath away, but I held off my return until I'd soaked in the full glories of the Downs.

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