Warden and Galley Hills Nature Reserve was Luton’s first nature reserve and is the perfect place to enjoy a walk. There are three routes to choose from when exploring this common. You can avoid climbing the hills by taking a circular walk from Streatley village or you can climb up Warden Hill to enjoy the views across Luton from the top. The final route involves walking along part of the Icknield Way which is an ancient route that was used in the past for trade.
The Icknield Way
The Icknield Way is an ancient trackway in southern England that goes from Norfolk to Wiltshire. It follows the chalk escarpment that includes the Berkshire Downs and Chiltern Hills. It is generally said to be one of the oldest roads in Great Britain, being one of the few long-distance trackways to have existed before the Romans occupied the country, of which the route can still be traced.
The name is Celto-British in derivation, and may be named after the Iceni tribe. They may have established this route to permit trade with other parts of the country from their base in East Anglia. It has also been suggested that the road has older prehistoric origins. The name is also said to have been initially used for the part to the west and south (i.e. south of the River Thames) but now refers usually to the track or traces north of the Thames.
From ancient times, at least as early as the Iron Age period (before the Roman invasion of 43 AD) and through Anglo-Saxon times, it stretched from Berkshire through Oxfordshire and crossed the River Thames at Cholsey, near Wallingford.
The earliest mentions of the Icknield Way are in Anglo-Saxon charters from the year 903 onwards. The oldest surviving copies were made in the 12th and 13th centuries, and these use the spellings Ic(c)enhilde weg, Icenhylte, Icenilde weg, Ycenilde weg and Icenhilde weg. The charters refer to locations at Wanborough, Hardwell in Uffington, Harwell, Blewbury and Risborough, which span a distance of 40 miles from Wiltshire to Buckinghamshire.
The chalk downland in this area supports a huge variety of wild flowers and these attract rare insects and over 20 species of butterflies.
“Drays ditches” run along the base of Warden Hill which were originally dug in the Bronze Age as boundaries to seperate tribal groups. However, later on in the Iron Age these were built up as a way to control the traffic along the Icknield Way.
Near the top of Galley Hill two Bronze Age barrows can be found. These were excavated in the 1960s and the remains of 14 burials were found in the largest barrow. In the Middle Ages a gallows was built on top of one of the barrows to be used for public executions.
It is thought that Warden Hill was used as a harvest hill linking with the ancient tradition, surviving until recent times in Scotland, of building harvest hills to celebrate the first fruits festival Lughnasadh in early August. Folk lore often associates neolithic tombs and stone circles with this feast day which was a major neolithic fearival coming at a time when the outcome of the harvest was very uncertain.
We can imagine the first fruits of the harvest being laid out on the flat summit of the hill where the earth goddess and sky god were deemed to come together in union.
Other harvest hills include Silbury Hill near Avebury, Mount at Lewes and Clifford Hill
near Northampton. Silbury standing in water meadows beside the River Kennet, the Mount standing on the floor of the Ouse valley, beside what was a tidal lagoon in the Neolithic, Clifford Hill rising up beside the River Nene and Warden Hill being close to the source of the River Lea. All having an association with life giving water.
Silbury is the largest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe. Roman coins were found at the summit of Clifford Hill and it was common for people in Roman times to drop coins on ancient sacred sites to appease local gods. Hatfield Barrow a harvest hill standing in the Marden superhenge beside the River Avon was excavated to destruction in 1818 by Colt-Hoare and Cunnington who were confused to find not a trace of a burial. Colt-Hoare concluded that the mount was ‘ a Hill Altar’ or ‘locus consecratus’.