Last Thursday I visited Totternhoe Knolls Common in Bedfordshire, at the request of the National Trust countryside manager, Jon Powell. The common is close to Dunstable Downs which is the highest point in the east of England region (as was).
Totternhoe Knolls is a regulated pasture, under an inclosure award of 1886 (Totternhoe was the last parish in Bedfordshire to be inclosed). A regulated pasture is a common for which the inclosure commissioners directed that the land could be stocked and depastured in common, by those with an interest in it, in proportion to their respective rights. It was controlled by the Totternhoe Board of Conservators but is now owned by Central Bedfordshire Council and leased to the National Trust. The northern end is managed by Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust.
As well as being registered common land, it is a site of special scientific interest and local nature reserve, and the medieval motte and bailey is a scheduled ancient monument. Jon was considering management options for the site and wanted the Open Spaces Society’s advice.
We started from the small car-park, with its realistic wooden sofa.
Here there is a mini-chalk grassland which can be enjoyed by those who cannot walk far.
We followed the old chalk track (a byway open to all traffic with a traffic-regulation order on it) up onto the ridge, across a meadow to the summit of the castle.
This is the largest motte and bailey castle in Bedfordshire and is unusual in having three baileys. The view from the top is spectacular.
Then we walked onto the wildlife trust’s section, which has been grazed and is an archetypal chalk grassland. It was a mass of twayblade and heath spotted orchids.
We searched in vain for a man orchid.
Issues for the trust include opening up the castle so that it can be seen and enjoyed by the public, and so that it is not damaged by tree roots, but at the same time preventing motorcyclists and mountain bikers from damaging the defences.
The meadows on the way up to the castle should be grazed, and some trees removed from the steep slopes to open up the views and protect the ancient monument, while ensuring there is sufficient shelter for the butterflies. There are rights to walk over the whole common.
In addition the trust would like to clear some of the trees on the south-western slope to reveal the medieval lynchets.
The solution is likely to involve fencing, to enclose the stock and restrict motorbikes and mountain bikes. It’s important that the fence is unobstrusive with many access points. It seems that the gains will be worthwhile, making this splendid monument visible once again, increasing the biodiversity of the meadows, and opening up the striking views along the Chiltern escarpment and beyond.