At the heart of the area is Dunstable. First built on the side of the Downs by the Romans at the junction of the ancient Icknield Way and Watling Street the small settlement was called Durocobrivis. This was abandoned in Saxon times and Dunstable was established, as a new market town, by Henry I who granted it to the Augustinian Priory which he founded here in 1131. Part of the original Priory still survives as the parish church. Until the Priory was dissolved in the 16th century Dunstable was a town of considerable royal importance and regular royal visits were made and jousting tournaments held. It was at the Priory that the annulment of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon was pronounced, by Cranmer, in 1533.
Watling Street was a busy stagecoach route bringing much prosperity to Dunstable and at least two former coaching inns still survive. The development of the railways spelt the end for stagecoaches. However, Dunstable was bypassed by all the main lines. This resulted in the straw-plaiting and hat-making industry shifting to Luton and for most of the 19th century, when urban populations rapidly increased, Dunstable's population remained almost unchanged. However, towards the turn of the century new industries, notably printing and engineering were established and further industries, especially those connected with the motor trade and hotel and entertainment, have led to extensive commercial and residential development.
Key local companies include: Granada Hospitality (hotels and entertainment), De La Rue (security printers), T R W Steering Systems (power steering), S C A Hygiene (healthcare products), Linpac Mouldings (plastic injection mouldings), O A G Worldwide (publishers), Checkout Computer Systems (cash registers), B T R Sealing Systems (automotive components) and J Sainsbury's and Tesco (both retail supermarkets).
An open air market is held on Wednesdays and Saturdays and the traditional high street shops are augmented by the Quadrant and Ashton Square shopping precincts. A new addition to the town centre is a large ASDA store which has replaced the former famous Queensway Hall concert venue. Other central facilities are Dunstable Leisure Centre, which includes an indoor swimming pool and sports facilities; a modern library and county offices; the Courthouse; and Grove House public gardens. The new out of town centre 'White Lion Retail Park' is also being developed.
Dunstable College offers a variety of courses and the area is well served for schools. Indeed, the famous film star Gary Cooper has an educational connection with the town. Although he was from Montana in the USA his family were from Dunstable and they sent him to Dunstable Grammar School (now Ashton Middle) from 1910 - 1913.
Immediately to the west of the town are Dunstable Downs. Set within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty they command some of the best views over the Vale of Aylesbury. There is also an 18 hole golf course and the field of the London Gliding Club.