Galley & Warden Hills Nature Reserve

Galley and Warden Hills Nature Reserve Walk

The walk begins at the car parking area at the top of Warden Hill Road. This point can be reached from the Barton Road (A6) running out of Luton to the north. The complete route will take from 2-3 hours; shorter walks can be devised by leaving out some stations. Good outdoor clothing and footwear is advisable. Owing to the terrain, some sections of the walk are unsuitable for pushchairs or wheelchairs.

How To Get There by Passenger Transport

BY BUS – Telephone Bedfordshire Bus Information Line : 01234 228337, 8.30am – 5pm open 5 days a week or Travel Line 0870 6082608.
BY TRAIN – Luton station is on the Bedford to London Thameslink line. For timetable information, please telephone National Rail Enquiries 08457 484950.
Click here for National Rail Enquiries website

How to Get There by Car

Follow the Barton Road (A6) running out of Luton to the north and turn right onto Warden Hill Road.
There is a car parking area at the top of Warden Hill Road.

Start/Finish Point

The walk starts at the car parking area on the left at the top of Warden Hill Road.

Access and General Information

Access Information
Surface Types: You can expect to walk across surfaces ranging from grass or uncultivated earth paths without any ruts, to grass or uncultivated earth paths with ruts and mud.
Linear Gradient: The steepest linear gradient is steeper than 1:6 in several places. There are also gradients of between 1:6 - 1:9.
Cross Falls: The steepest cross fall is 1:9 or steeper, between points 16 and 17.
Width Restriction: There is no width restriction less than 1000mm.
Steps: There are 4 steps with a maximum step height of 200mm between points 3 and 4.
Barriers: There are two kissing gates with a restriction greater than 1500mm, five kissing gates with a restriction less than 1000mm, two 1-way opening gates with a width greater than 750mm and one kissing gate with a restriction of between 1000-1500mm.
Refreshments: The nearest shops, pubs, etc, are situated in Luton.
Public Toilets: None on route.
Picnic Tables: None on route.
Seats: None on route.

Point 1

As you leave the pull-in, you cross a shallow ditch and bank and enter the nature reserve. The field in front of you is one of the few calcareous meadow areas left in Bedfordshire and is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, along with the hills themselves. The field itself is rich in lime-loving wild flowers, and two uncommon species occur, the purple milk-vetch and knapweed broomrape. Since the field ceased to be part of the golf course, wild flowers have flourished, and the area is maintained with an annual autumn hay cut.
Turn right and follow the field boundary to the south, until you see the marker post for the Icknield Way walkers route. Follow the arrow towards the hill for about 50 metres.

Point 2

To the north of this path are the remains of Warden Hill Farm, surrounded by bushes. The farm ceased to function when the area became part of the golf course in the 1890s, and was used by the golf club until relatively recently. The area around the farm ruins contains many garden plants, but also tall weeds such as docks, nettles and willowherbs. Such plants are typical of enriched ground close to human habitations. To the south of the path lies an open area of meadowland with a scattering of bushes. The grassland is of high quality and is dominated by upright brome. A wide range of lime-loving wild flowers can be found here, including the clustered bellflower and mouse-ear hawkweed.
Continue along the track bearing south east until you reach the kissing gate adjacent to the field gate at the foot of the hill. Pass through a kissing gate adjacent to the field gate.

Point 3

This area is a mixture of different types of grassland and scrub habitats. The scrub is mainly composed of hawthorn with some buckthorn and dog rose, while under the bushes the grassland has been destroyed by the effects of shading. The bare ground becomes colonised by shade-tolerant plants such as ivy and mosses. Beyond the scrub the rising grassland is rich in species, including the rare knapweed broomrape, and the scrub is being prevented from spreading in this area. The common lizard has been seen near here.
Continue along the footpath until you reach the next marker post.

Point 4

This area is still a mixture of scrub and grassland, but note the hazel bushes, which are a good source of nuts for birds and small mammals. Further along are many young beech trees which have seeded into the grassland from the mature specimens along the boundary.
From the marker post take the Public Footpath that rises steeply up the hill and notice the changes in the grassland towards the top, passing through trees at first. Continue in a straight line until you reach the crest of the hill.

Point 5

From the top of Warden Hill there are excellent views over the town. Note the earthworks that occur in this area. These are the remains of golf course features abandoned many years ago; they are not ancient archaeological features. The grassland here is dominated by the bright green fescues which form a dense mat over much of the higher ground over the hills. The soils here are richer, and there are few wild flowers typical of the tussocky grasslands on the steeper slopes. The grasslands are of a neutral, rather than limy, character and few of the typical chalk-loving flowers survive in this dense turf.
Follow the path northwards towards the boundary fence, and then along the inside of the fence to the rails opposite the triangulation point, which is 195m above sea level.

Point 6

The fences around Warden Hill were erected in the winter of 1992/3 to allow sheep grazing, which was the traditional way of keeping down the coarse grasses and scrub. The sheep were last present at around the time of the Second World War, and since then much of the hill has reverted to a coarse grassland rather than the short, springy turf, rich in wild flowers, which is typical of chalk downland. There are pockets of this kind of grassland lower down the hill, where many of the flowers manage to survive. Grazing should enable these flowers to flourish and spread.
Continue left along the boundary fence until you reach the kissing gate. Pass through this and follow the fence to the foot of the hill. (The path may be difficult to find.) At the bottom, turn right onto the short grassland bordering the golf course.

Point 7

This area shows many of the features of high quality downland, and is particularly rich in wild flowers and butterflies. Among the flowers that grow here are the kidney vetch and horseshoe vetch, which are the food plants of the caterpillars of the small blue and chalkhill blue butterflies which can be seen here at the right time of year. Without these plants these butterflies would die out. The area is also rich in autumn gentian, a pretty purple flower to be seen in September, while brown argus, marbled white and the dingy and grizzled skipper butterflies can also be seen in this small area. A notable moth, the brown scallop, was recorded on the hills in 1976. On the slopes above are a variety of bushes, including wayfaring tree, wild privet, wild apple and even a hornbeam tree.
Continue along the path behind the golf green, turn left, pass through the kissing gate and walk down the bridleway for some 50 metres, back towards the town.

Point 8

This area, which is within the Local Nature Reserve, is part of the Dray's Ditches ancient monument, an earthwork which was first created in the Bronze Age, enlarged in the Iron Age and modified and extended in Medieval times. The open grassland supports a population of the rare great pignut plant, with clusters of small white flowers present in June.
Retrace your steps back up the bridleway and follow the footpath back through the kissing gate. Continue until you are about half way up the hill.

Point 9

Notice again the tussocky grasslands, dominated by upright brome, with a scattering of mature hawthorn and buckthorn trees. These provide a good source of berries as food for the birds, as well as nesting space and cover. The buckthorn is also the food plant for caterpillars of the bright yellow brimstone butterfly, which may sometimes be seen as early as February.
Continue to the top of the hill, where there is a marker post.

Point 10

This northern compartment of Warden Hill was fenced in late 1991 to allow sheep to graze. Previously the grass here reached nearly 2m in height in places, swamping most of the plants of interest. Molehills are a prominent feature of this area. Grazing will gradually improve the interest of this grassland. Dogwood, a shrub with reddish twigs, can be seen near here.
Follow the path to the north, leading towards Galley Hill, pass through the kissing gate at the foot of the hill, cross the bridleway and pass through the kissing gate opposite onto Galley Hill.

Point 11

As you pass through the valley dividing the two hills, the effects of the grazing which began on Galley Hill in 1991 can be seen in the shorter springy turf of this area. Between the track and the golf course is a large spinney of blackthorn, which provides cover for larger mammals, including muntjac deer and foxes. Following the track to the top of the hill, where there is a kissing gate and prominent hawthorn bush, the grassland changes once more from the rich, neutral, fescue grassland of the valley to the poor, tussocky, chalky grassland of the steeper slopes. Notice how species such as cowslip and salad burnet increase up the slope.
On reaching the kissing gate at the top of the hill pass through, and keeping to the bridleway, continue as far as the wooden gate. Re-enter the reserve through this gate and follow the bridleway until you reach the large circular mound.

Point 12

The bridleway crosses one of the small group of round barrows on the top of Galley Hill, constructed in Bronze Age times and excavated in 1961. Galley Hill is capped with clay-with-flints, giving rise to an acidic soil that until recently supported a heath-like vegetation that included heather, which became extinct by 1974, owing to the increase in coarse grasses and scrub. Other plants lost from the hills include the pasque flower and burnt orchid; the latter once grew on the northern end of Galley Hill. Both these species need a short cropped turf to survive, which can only be maintained by effective grazing.
Turn right at the marker post on the mound, to the path which runs inside the fence and follow this down towards the northern end of Galley Hill.

Point 13

Of the interesting bird life of the area, pheasants are plentiful, while quails often visit the fields nearby. Four species of owl visit the area and may be seen at dusk. Partridges frequent the longer grass, although skylarks are less plentiful than they once were. The birds that favoured grazed turf, such as wheatears and whinchats, are now seldom seen, but the scrub has increased populations of other species. Kestrels commonly hunt small mammals over the hills. The balance of scrub to grassland should ensure that birds of both types of habitat will thrive.
Continue down to the bottom fence and follow the broad path to the right which leads to Little Galley Hill.

Point 14

Little Galley Hill is a small chalky knoll with some of the richest grassland of the whole area. Orchids are common, and include the common spotted and pyramidal species. Another uncommon plant that grows here is the field fleawort, a relative of common ragwort. Scrub was removed from Little Galley Hill by the Luton and Dunstable Conservation Volunteers in the winter of 1988/9 to protect this especially valuable fragment of downland.
Return from Little Galley Hill and follow the boundary fence along the golf course back to the field gate in the northwest corner.

Point 15

This part of Galley Hill is a mosaic of scrub and grassland. The field to the right was formerly arable, while that part of the golf course beyond the gate was once part of the Galley Hill downland.
Turn left at the gate and follow the path inside the fence, cross the bridleway and continue until a short stretch of hedge is visible leading across the course.

Point 16

On the steep slope outside the fence above the golf green a rich community of short perennial wild flowers has developed. Many of the rarer butterflies are now found in this area, including the species recorded at station 7. Once again, the short turf and shelter have provided a niche for the butterflies and the food plants they rely on. Pyramidal orchids may be seen in the base of the hedgerow, while a different community of plants has developed on the flat area that was once a golf tee. Perforate St. John's Wort can be seen in abundance.
Continue walking back along the path beside the fence until you reach an open area on the slopes where many coppiced elder bushes can be seen.

Point 17

The elder bushes mark the probable site of an old rabbit warren, reported by Dr. John Dony, where local disturbance and enrichment have led to a unique flora which includes such species as wild parsnip and guelder rose, not found elsewhere on the hills, and a profusion of hogweed, elder and nettles, indicative of enriched soil. There are a few rabbits still present today. The embankment that runs along the foot of the hill is an extension of Dray's Ditches, believed to have been constructed in Medieval times.
Continue along the path skirting the golf course and cross the neck of land that separates the two greens. Continue once more inside the fence as far as the kissing gate opposite the blackthorn spinney.

Point 18

This area, which is much disturbed by molehills, is particularly rich in the great pignut plant which seems to favour disturbed ground near the foot of the hills. The tubers of this plant were once eaten by local people and known as tiggy-nuts. Since the scrub has been thinned, this plant has spread once more. The slow-worm has recently been sighted in this area.
Follow one of the small tracks back to the kissing gate between the two hills. You can return to the car park either by following the bridleway down Dray's Ditches and then the golf club drive, or by walking back along Warden Hill

Facts and Figures

The hills officially became Luton's first Local Nature Reserve (LNR) on the 3rd March 1993.
The land belongs to Luton Borough Council and is a Public Open Space managed by Luton Museum Service.
The entire site lies outside the Borough boundary in the parish of Streatley.
The area was defined as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1951, and was renotified as such in 1986.
The flora includes many locally uncommon species and a nationally rare plant.
In 1992, six out of nine downland butterflies regarded as threatened were recorded on the hills.
The hills are formed of the Middle Chalk and are overlain by clay-with-flints.
Sheep grazing was reintroduced on Galley Hill on 14th September 1990 after a gap of nearly 50 years.
The reserve lies within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Photographic displays and a large topographical model of the area can be viewed at the John Dony Field Centre.
Please follow the Country Code when visiting the reserve. Walkers are asked to keep dogs on leads when sheep are on the hills, to close all gates and to take all litter home. Thank you.


The author is grateful to all individuals and organisations who have provided records of flora & fauna that have been referred to in the text.
Text: Trevor Tween
Produced by Luton Museum Service, Wardown Park, Luton, Beds. LU2 7HA Telephone: (01582) 546722