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The Downs by Teresa Burns

Writer Teresa Burns was inspired by her childhood memories of being taken to Dunstable Downs by her father, and her poem is featured in our Dunstable Downs film. Read the full poem below.

We’re in the car.
Dad is singing along to a tape
about a man dancing on the moon.
On the backseat, I grip my kite so
tightly, my palms sting. Ready.
Our Vauxhall Vectra splutters
skyward and my heart counts down.
Dad, stops the tape.
An announcement:
“This darlin’ – this is Dunstable
At 797 feet, this is the closest
I’d ever been to the sky.
The car-door slams shut and Sinatra
makes way for a symphony…
Up here, the wind howls hello, our
feet crunch grass and as we pass, the hum of the ice cream van enjoys
a sweet solo.
Children shriek with the thrill of
their kites taking to the blue. Ladybirds, Pirate Ships, Butterflies and Batman. A high- flying motley crew.
I hold Dad’s hand. His left pocket
smells of sugar and sherbet. My
kite flutters under my arm, teasing
the breeze.
Dad places his hand on my shoulder
and smiles. The gale swallows up
his words, so he gently raises my
little arms, aloft. My kite catches
the wind. “1…2…3!”
I’m shaking. Still holding on so
tightly, scared of letting go.
“Come on!” shouts Dad “You’re ready!”
And it bolts! Up into the air, with such conviction that it could fly through the clouds, surge up through the stratosphere, dodge meteors and glide across the moon. It could marvel astronauts, baffle stargazers, trouble astronomers for centuries and travel infinitely on and on, flying past forever.
But we’ve got it. Dad and me. My kite. Dancing over the Chilterns in the rosy hours of the morning.
And at that moment, “the hills are alive with sound of….” birdsong from Skylark Meadow. Grasshoppers chirp and butterflies sigh. They sing of land full of stories.
Stories of love and loss and home and borders and hope and war and friendship.
Along Icknield Way, Pre-historic Farmers, Roman legions, Saxon Warlords and Medieval Drovers all travel in the same direction, letting The Chilterns guide them on their way. They share jokes, anecdotes, heavy, knowing looks, scripture from ancient books and they could teach us a thing or two.
It’s Good Friday… A brass band plays. Oranges stampede down Pascombe Pit, Children scramble for juicy prizes, without fear of getting hit. But one orange, escapes their zesty clutches.
This orange rolls on and on, and on, bouncing off the green, right down to the bottom of the pit. And there, as day turns to night and as the sun rises each morning, it will slowly perish. Crumble into the earth. There on ancient burial ground.
Five Knolls: a place of death. Voices cry out from the soil. A high priestress, lay by the side of her 5 year old child. Slain. They dream, they dream, they dream of a new beginning.
The Armada fire beacon, lights up the sky, smoke swirls, pirouetting through clouds. It’s a warning, to all who see it. Smell it. Breathe it in.
A few miles East, lies the border between the Saxons and the Danes. An agreement to stop the violence. Too many lives lost.
Hundreds of years on, beyond Wildflower Meadows, a man, Edmund Blyth would build a Cathedral in honour of his fallen comrades. This Cathedral would be made not of bricks and mortar but of trees. A Tree Cathedral, where there is no altar or cross but silver birches, chestnut, tulip trees and whitebeam, there in the splendour of the setting sun.
And now, at the very top of the Downs, the wind whistles the arrival of thousands of celebrants, from every creed, every corner of the Chilterns. They come together and they… DANCE. And the moon declares this to be a day of celebrating the ghosts of our past, our present and the future. Let us blow away the cobwebs. Breathe deep. Let today be a day of picnics, magic tricks, hand-holding, grazed knees, marvelling at Duke Burgundys, ice-cream fatalities. A day of FLYING KITES.
The stars hang across the sky like icicles.
And suddenly the revellers stop and listen closely to the sweet refrain of Skylark Meadow, telling them: You belong here. You belong everywhere.
The earth turns and turns, rapid,
at a rate of knots. Like someone
sat on the remote. Giddy!
And I feel the cotton caress of my
head resting on my Dad’s chest.
He’s stood behind me, pulling the
string of my kite. And we watch
it’s descent, as it falls to the
“C’mon” says Dad. “Time to go
I pick up my kite, hold on to it
tightly. Until next time.
I look out across the landscape and
I take in the view. I can see the
whole world from up here, from the
comfort of my home-town.
Yes this, this is Dunstable Downs.
And this is the closest I’d ever
been to heaven.
Dad takes me by the hand, our feet
crunch grass and the wind…
howls on.

Teresa Burns