Dunstable Town Guide
Dunstable’s Town Centre displays many fine historic buildings. Indeed, many modern looking shops have an internal structure dating from the earliest days of the Priory.
Around and About Town
Before 1850 the town consisted of the crossroads of the Icknield Way and Watling Street, with odd lanes leading into farmyards and the old ‘whiting works’. Today the Town still falls naturally into the four quarters demarked by the original ancient routes, with Church Street and West Street being the modern equivalent of the Icknield Way, and High Streets North and South (today’s main A5) Watling Street. For anyone wanting further information, the main exhibition at Priory House, Dunstable; the Town at the Crossroads, provides an invaluable insight into the town’s heritage whilst the Tourist Information Centre and gift shop has an extensive selection of free literature and books to purchase on local history. Alternatively, Dunstable Library provides a wealth of local information, both for borrowing and reference.
The outstanding monument that is the Priory Church of St Peter, had both its access and focus on what is now High Street South. The first Royal residence built here in the early 1100’s is thought to have been on the site now occupied by
The Norman King public house. Both these buildings are well worth a visit for their hospitality as well as for the architecture. The nearby Almshouses, built in 1743, were endowed by Blandina Marshe, and nowadays still house professional single women.
High Street South
Priory Church has dominated the town, and been a focal point for many centuries. Founded by Henry I around 1131, the actual building of the Priory took over 150 years, including extensive alterations and repairs. If you visit the church today you will witness examples of Norman, Early English, Perpendicular and more recent styles of architecture.
On 23rd May 1533, Dunstable Priory hosted an event which was to change the course of history. It was here that the court that annulled the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon was held. This event led to the break with the Church of Rome and the establishment of the Church of England.
To the west of the Church are the beautiful Priory Gardens, which years ago would have been the Great Courtyard of the Cannons. Priory House Heritage Centre is also to be found across these gardens. A Grade II* listed building, Priory House still contains the Thirteenth Century Groyne Vaulted Stone Ceiling of the original building. It is here that pilgrims travelling along Watling Street and the Icknield Way would have stayed during their visits. With the dissolution of the monasteries, the building was converted into a private house and has been added to and altered throughout the centuries. Priory House has also been used as an asylum, a hat factory, rented living accommodation and offices. With the aid of a Heritage Lottery Grant, Dunstable Town Council has converted this magnificent piece of history and architecture into a Heritage Centre.
Priory House assists residents and visitors alike to engage with Dunstable’s fascinating history through the main exhibition ‘Dunstable; The Town at the Crossroads’ and via a range of events and temporary exhibits.
The centre also houses the Tourist Information Centre which provides a gateway to the Priory House experience, the delights of the local area and acts a guide to Great Britain. Along with the Tourist Information Centre, Priory House is the home of a unique gift shop where visitors can pick up a piece of memorabilia, or a quality gift for any occasion. Furthermore, Dunstable Town Council has launched an initiative with Central Bedfordshire Council, making Priory House the first retail outlet of ’Tastes of Bedfordshire’, an umbrella group for locally sourced produce, with much of the craft and food items only available from Priory House or directly from the producer.
If you are feeling hungry after all the amazing history and shopping, you can visit the high quality Rose Garden Tea Rooms where you can enjoy a light snack or repast fit for a king! Even if you only need to quench your thirst before going back to look at all Priory House has to offer, a visit to the licensed eatery will leave you hungry for more with delightful seasonal menus that include locally sourced food and drink.
Further along the High Street and set slightly back, is a set of Almshouses dating from 1723. Mrs Jane Cart, the daughter of Thomas Chew who in 1715 fulfilled his own ambition to build a school for 40 Church of England boys, provided the money for these. This building today, is known as ‘Chews House’, and is utilised as the Parish office for the Priory Church. The small building to the South of Chews House is Dunstable’s Little Theatre. Built in the late 19th century, it has for some years been home to the Dunstable Repertory Theatre Club.
The Square and Ashton Square
Returning to the cross roads, on the west side of the street, takes you to the old cattle market, The Square. The impressive spire of the Methodist Church which dates from 1909, dominates this area and that of Ashton Square. It is the third Methodist church on the site, the previous two both having been destroyed by fire.
Towards the cross roads the terrace of buildings sandwiched between High Street South and Ashton Square is known as Middle Row. These permanent workshops, erected during the 16th century, replaced portable market stalls, which originally stood in their place, when Henry I founded Dunstable as a market town. Ashton Square is now the home of our traditional town market and a vast range of items can be purchased from a variety of stalls each Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, throughout the year. In addition to the regular market, Dunstable also plays host to a selection of specialist markets throughout the year that sell everything from gourmet food to Christmas decorations.
Once more at the cross roads, West Street, like the rest of Dunstable, is filled with notable buildings. The Nags Head for instance, a 17th century hostelry, which although altered over the years still offers a warm welcome, honed by over three hundred years of inn-keeping. From West Street a glimpse can be caught of the windmill, now sadly without sails. Built in 1839, this structure originally contained five floors, and today is used by the local Sea Cadet unit. Crossing the road the Victoria Public House can be found to offer food as well as a selection of real ales and guest beers. Indeed, West Street provides a selection of pubs and eateries to supplement shopping, provide a venue for an evening out or even a place to stay the night if there is too much to fill one day in Dunstable. Heading back into town the Dunstable Police Station can be found to assist in locating further places of interest.
High Street North
High Street North was once lined with inns of all shapes and sizes, and two large Hotels once stood near the cross roads. The Crown, formerly known as The Raven and latterly as The Crow, stood next to the White Horse Inn, whose central archway still remains. Soon into the 19th century when coach travel ceased, all the disused yards and stables became ideal sites for hat factories and the large windows, needed to allow in sufficient light for the bonnet makers, are still evident here and there. If you are interested in learning more about the hat trade, Dunstable Town Council have recently launched the first in a series of leaflets entitled: A Dunstable Heritage Trail; The Hat Walk. The leaflet is available from Priory House Heritage and Tourist Information Centre. The advent of rail replaced coach travel with the birth of the hat factories. Dunstable had two stations serving different lines for many years. Progressing north and crossing the historically busy road brings you to the elegant and attractive offices of Dunstable Town Council and Dunstable Register Office, the mid - 18th century Grove House. Tastefully restored, Grove House is a beautiful and accessible centre for the civic administration of the town, and is bordered to the rear by the ornamental Grove House Gardens, which every summer plays host to a variety of concerts and events. Both Grove House and Grove House Gardens have a fascinating history and a series of interpretation panels installed in the gardens in spring 2009, depict this history and detail the local wildlife for your information. Furthermore, Grove House Gardens has been recognised as one of the country’s best green spaces by attaining a prestigious Green Flag Award in 2010.
Visitors are welcomes to Grove House Gardens through an impressive stone and wrought iron gateway, originally installed in 1939. The original gates were replaced in 1958 and again underwent further restoration at the beginning of 2010, including the addition of an overthrow. This impressive feature is included within the listed building status of Grove House.
Across the road from the gardens is an open, more modern area of Dunstable where you will now find the library. Also within this area you will see the Dunstable Leisure Centre, Central Bedfordshire College, 10 pin bowling alley and the stunning two storey Grove Theatre arts and entertainment centre. The nearby Quadrant Shopping Centre offers ‘traffic free’ high street shops to residents and visitors, with the added bonus of free children’s entertainment on selected Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the year. Back on High Street North, The Old Sugar Loaf Inn is yet another living memorial from the coaching age in Dunstable and dating back to 1717, is one of the oldest remaining inns in the town.
The current version of the Dunstable Official Guide was designed and published by Local Authority Publishing Co. Ltd. Please use the link below for further information on the Local Authority Publishing Co. Ltd. For the full online version of the official guide please click on the second link below. A hard copy of the guide can be obtained from Dunstable Town Council or Priory House.
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