Dunstable is a market town and civil parish located in Bedfordshire, England. It lies on the eastward tail spurs of the Chiltern Hills, 30 miles north of London. These geographical features form several steep chalk escarpments most noticeable when approaching Dunstable from the north.
Relics of Palæolithic humans, including such relics as flint implements and the bones of contemporary wild animals, suggest settlement is prehistoric. At Maidenbower in the parish of Houghton Regis to the north, there is an Iron Age hill fort and is clearly marked on the Ordnance survey maps. Maidenbower has some of the ramparts showing through the edge of an old chalk quarry at Sewell where there are Bronze Age remains of an older fort. There are a lot of prehistoric sites in this area and details can be found with the Manshead Archaeological Society who are based in Winfield Street, Dunstable.
There was already some form of settlement by the time that the ancient Roman paved road (now known as Watling Street, and in the Great Britain road numbering scheme the A5) crossed another ancient and still-existing road, the Icknield Way. Traces of Neolithic activity are not in doubt but much of their mystery may be lost under the surrounding Chiltern Hills.
Until the 11th century this area of the county is known to have been uncultivated tract covered by woodlands. In 1109 Henry I started a period of activity by responding to this danger to travellers. He instructed areas to be cleared and encouraged settlers with offers of royal favour. In 1123 a royal residence was built at what is now called the Royal Palace Lodge Hotel on Church Street. The King used the residence as a base to hunt on the nearby lands.
The Dunstable Priory was founded in 1131 by the King and was later used for the divorce between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, which led to the establishment of the Church of England in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church. The same year the town granted a town charter to the power of the priors.
In 1290 Dunstable was one of twelve sites to erect an Eleanor cross recognising Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, whose coffin was laid close to the crossroads for the local people to mourn the dead Queen. The coffin was then guarded inside the priory by the canons overnight before continuing on to St. Albans. The original wooden cross has long since perished but a modern memorial remains.
Bedfordshire was one of the counties that largely supported the Roundheads during the English Civil War. Nearby St Albans in Hertfordshire was the headquarters of the Roundheads, and troops were occasionally stationed at Dunstable. The town was plundered by King Charles I's soldiers when passing through in June 1644, and Essex's men destroyed the Eleanor cross.
The town's prosperity, and the large number of inns or public houses in the town, is partly because it is only one or two days' ride by horse from London, and therefore a place to rest overnight. Towns like Stevenage on the Great North Road benefitted from the same effect, and of course similar settlements all over the rest of the country. There are two pubs which still have coaching gates to the side: the Sugar Loaf in High Street North, and the Saracen's Head in High Street South. The Saracen's Head is a name often given to pubs frequented by knights of The crusades. It is considerably lower than the road to its front, witness to the fact that the road has been resurfaced a number of times during the lifetime of the pub.
Dunstable's first railway opened in 1848. It was a branch joining the West Coast Main Line at Leighton Buzzard. A second line linking Dunstable with via opened in 1858. Passenger services to Dunstable were withdrawn in 1965, but the line between Dunstable and Luton remained open for freight traffic for many years.
20th century and after
The 19th century saw the straw hat making industry come to Luton and a subsequent decline in Dunstable, to be replaced in the early 20th century by the printing and motor vehicle industries, with companies such as Waterlow's and Vauxhall Motors respectively. The new Bedford Dunstable plant came into production in 1942 to support the British Army in World War II. It continued commercial truck and bus until 1992. But with the closure of the main factories and the decline of manufacturing in the area, this distinctiveness has been lost.
Shops were concentrated along High Street North/High Street South (Watling Street) and in 1966 the Quadrant Shopping Centre opened. By the 1980s, Dunstable town centre was a very successful shopping centre featuring major retailers including Sainsbury's, Tesco, Waitrose, Bejam/Iceland, Boots, Halfords, Co-op department store, Argos, Woolworths, very many independent specialist shops including Moore's of Dunstable, and free town centre car parks to attract shoppers from outlying villages, resulting in a thriving retail town centre significantly larger than would be supportable by Dunstable residents alone. Additionally in 1985 the Eleanor's Cross retail area was developed to cater mainly for smaller shops.
With the rise of out-of-town retail parks, as with many other market towns, the town centre has suffered a decline in trade – Sainsbury's, Tesco, and Halfords moved out of the centre to newer larger premises with free parking, whilst the town centre car parks all started charging. Waitrose closed, and fewer independent shops remain due to the drop in foot fall and rise in costs. The Cottage Garden Flower Shop of Chiltern Road, established in 1898, is believed to be the oldest independent retail business still trading.