A medieval warren on Dunstable Downs


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1009398

Date first listed: 25-Nov-1994


Ordnance survey map of A medieval warren on Dunstable Downs
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

District: Central Bedfordshire (Unitary Authority)

Parish: Dunstable

District: Central Bedfordshire (Unitary Authority)

Parish: Totternhoe

National Grid Reference: TL 00588 20783, TL 00601 20876


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

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.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


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.

MAP EXTRACT 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.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 24409

Legacy System: RSM


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)

End of official listing