The Icknield Way is probably the oldest road in Britain. It first appeared in Neolithic times, about five thousand years ago when man was first learning how to grow food and keep animals. It is part of an ancient trading route that followed the chalk ridge across southern England, from the Norfolk coast across East Anglia, on to the plains of Wiltshire and then down to the coast in Dorset. Today you can make this journey by following the family of recreational routes together know as the Great Chalk Way.
The Icknield Way connects important archaeological areas of Wessex and East Anglia. Its route is marked by numerous field monuments and ancient sites, both visible and invisible. These are often on a ridge overlooking the route, since the Icknield Way seldom follows the highest ground as its users wished to avoid the clay that often capped the chalk ridge. From an archaeological point of view, the Icknield Way is best described as a belt, studded with archaeological features placed irregularly along its length.
The Trail in Bedfordshire is rich in archaeology. The burial mounds at Five Knolls and the barrows at Galley Hill are some of the best examples on the whole of the Icknield Way. These burial sites are from the Bronze Age, when tribes laid important people to rest in large tombs surrounded by their possessions. Older flints and axe-heads have been discovered close by and many of these are thought to have come from Norfolk. Many people used the ancient Icknield Way as a trading route which explains how they came to travel this far west. Waulud’s Bank at the source of the River Lea in Luton is one of the oldest sites near the current route. It was an important meeting place for tribe elders, and may also have been used for religious ceremonies.
Maiden Bower near Sewell was a Neolithic camp that later became an Iron Age fort. The battered remains of Iron Age warriors have been discovered there, showing evidence of an ancient battle. Not far away, Ravensburgh Castle near Hexton is the largest hill fort in eastern England. This was also built during the Iron Age and was heavily fortified with timber ramparts. Some historians believe it is where Julius Caesar’s army finally defeated a fearsome British warlord named Cassivellaunus in 54bc. When they weren’t fighting, the Romans left their own marks on the landscape, imposing order in the form of straightened roads. They may have been responsible for the straight section of the Icknield Way from Galley Hill eastwards into Hertfordshire. Not quite so long ago, Sundon Hills was used for ‘battles’ of its own, as during the Second World War it was a firing range used to train soldiers. One of the reasons the Trail doesn’t go through there is the amount of live ammunition still in the ground!
Throughout its length the Icknield Way runs over chalk, avoiding both the Chalk Marl and Gault Clay to the north and the Clay with Flints and glacial Boulder Clay, 25 metres thick and more, which caps the crest of the chalk to the south. The Icknield Way strays onto the Boulder Clay where it loops a mile or two south near Chrishall and again near Brinkley. The Icknield Way runs mainly over open country where soils are light in texture, developed on the chalk itself or on overlying sandy deposits a few to several metres thick. East of Kentford, towards Thetford, extensive sands and gravels, mainly of glacial origin, mask the chalk and give the characteristic Breckland landscape.
The original Icknield Way, was a series of tracks that followed the grass chalk downland. On either side of the downland is heavy clay, which in Neolithic times would have been thick with vegetation. Travelling across this would have been difficult, so the route developed along the easiest line. As farming developed, the vegetation was cleared and the rich calve soils were used for growing crops. The chalk slopes were too steep to cultivate and were too low in nutrients, so were used for grazing sheep and cattle. This is still true today, and on places like Dunstable Downs you can see the chalk downland, which is still grazed by sheep, with the patchwork of arable fields around Eaton Bray and Totternhoe on the clay below.
Nature & Conservation
In many ways a walk along the Icknield Way Path gives us the opportunity to sample a whole range of ornithological habitats at whatever time of year, and it can be very surprising to discover just how bird communities vary along its length. Not that the Icknield Way is really a cross section of average lowland bird life, rather it follows a narrow divide between different habitats, just as it followed a natural line in the early landscape for man.
The rock underlying the Icknield Way is almost exclusively chalk but the effect of this on plant life is often masked by the predominant glacial or postglacial deposits which overlie the chalk ridge. Soils result which, although seldom acid, vary in consistency from the heavy Boulder Clay of Essex and South Cambridgeshire, to the poor, light Breckland sand of Suffolk and Norfolk.
The chalk grasslands and woodlands found along the Icknield Way in Bedfordshire are home to many special plants and animals. Places like Barton Hills, Dunstable Downs, Sharpenhoe Clappers and Sundon Hills are great places to stop and admire your surroundings and at the right times of year, you’ll find Cowslips, Pasque Flowers and a variety of orchids. Bedfordshire is also home to Red Kites, Lapwings, Skylarks and Fieldfares, birds that are quite rare in other parts of the country. Dormice and Badgers also live along the Trail, but you’ll need a sharp pair of eyes to spot them! Something much easier to see are the butterflies that love the chalkland plants. Through the spring and the summer you will see Brimstones, Commas, Chalkhill Blues and many others.
The Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire part of the route is within the Chiltern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) which has some of the finest landscape in England, offering excellent opportunities for walking, riding or cycling at any time of year. The AONB covers 383 sq. km of the chalk ridge that runs across southern England. It is an area well known for rolling hills, with magnificent views to the north from the ridge where the chalk drops away sharply, while the dip slope, with its valleys and chalk streams, runs gently down towards the Thames basin in the south. The landscape, cloaked in beechwoods and ancient hedgerows, also has a wealth of prehistoric features and sites rich in wildlife of all sorts. There are many picturesque villages with traditional brick and flint cottages, farms and medieval churches and ancient routes like the Ridgeway and Icknield Way as well as newer ones like the Chiltern Way.