"The neighbourhood of Dunstable has long been celebrated for its Sky-larks. They breed on and near the hills in vast numbers and their singing often fills the air with music. Professional ‘larkers’ catch them in nets of a large size, sometimes carried by two men. In the season the larkers start work at seven o’clock in the evening and return at one or two o’clock in the morning. They can catch from 300 to 400 larks in one night, and often take birds of a much large size. They send the larks to London, some alive in small cages, others dead for the poultry shops. There is practically no call for them now in Dunstable, although demand is said to have been great at the hotels and inns in coaching days. If the London demand could be made to cease, the Downs at Dunstable would not be defaced by lark catching vagrants. It is locally reported that about 50,000 Dunstable larks are sent to London Annually."
Worthington G Smith: Dunstable, Its history and Surroundings 1904 p.161
"Also this town has for ages been celebrated for its numerous emigrants of the feathered tribe, which annually resort to the adjoining field in the winter season: viz. Dunstable Larks, which are sometimes caught in great quantities; and for size and richness of flavour, are not to be equalled in the world. Their quality, I consider, is owing, in great measure, to the chalky soil of these parts; as on their first arrival they are very lean and weak, but they recover themselves in very short time, owing probably to their pecking considerable quantities of the finest particles of chalk with their food, which braces and fattens them in a surprising manner. These larks are caught by labourers in the evenings and mornings from Michaelmas to February, with trampolining nets, and are served up in great perfection, at some of the inns of this town (owing to a peculiar and secret method in the process of cooing them) they are admired as a luxury by the Nobility and Gentry who travel through Dunstable in the lark season: also, by an ingenious contrivance in their package, Larks are sent, ready dressed, to all parts of England."
William Nicholls: History of Dunstable. 1855 p18-19
"In one of his voyages Gulliver is stranded in Brobdingnag. The gigantic inhabitants of this kingdom are twelve times taller than himself. Towards the end of chapter III, he tells us, “The kingdom is much pestered with flies in the summer; and these odious insets, each of them as big as a Dunstable lark, hardly gave me any rest while I sat at dinner, with their continual humming and buzzing about mine ears. The queen would craunch the wing of a lark bones and all, between her teeth, although it were nine times as large as that of a full grown turkey; and put a bit of bread in her mouth as big as two twelvepenny loaves.”
Jonathan SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels - Published 1726
"Dunstable is remarquable for the Plenty and Largeness of the Larks taken in its Neighbourhood."
Magna Britannia et Hibernia, Antiqua & Nova Bedfordshire. 1720
The Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis) is larger than a house sparrow, and smaller than a starling. It breeds from Britain to Siberia, and south to India and North Africa; and nests on the ground in open areas: meadows, salt marshes, heaths and farmland. The nest is a cup on the ground made from grass and hair.
If you are on the course from April to August, this is likely to be the most prominent bird you will hear, starting even before the sun rises. They sing throughout the day, but it’s most striking in the hush of dawn. The bird sings not from a perch but while flying, so the song emerges from the sky above, as the night flees and the first glow of dawn appears. It is associated with all the possibilities of a new day, the freshness of dawn and of the light banishing darkness.
Unlike most perching birds, the male sings in flight, and what a flight: he starts up suddenly from the ground, goes up 50 to 100 metres in the sky, and hovers there for a few minutes, before plummeting down to land on the ground.
The (non-singing) female skylark will often fly over to the other side of the field before launching itself upwards into the sky. This is to trick you into thinking that it is nesting somewhere else, to keep its nest site a secret.
The skylark is associated with the arrival of spring and summer. Longer days, better weather, the beginning of another growing season, an end to the 'monotonous diet and shortages of winter', the return of birds and flowers, the birthing season for livestock and easier travel between farms and villages.
What better place to listen out for the Dunstable Lark than on a summer's day on 'the top of the world.'
“I rose early. I went into my garden before breakfast and stood listening, but towards the common there was nothing stirring but a lark.”
H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds
“Though there was nothing very airy about Miss Murdstone, she was a perfect Lark in point of getting up. She was up (and, as I believe to this hour, looking for that man) before anybody in the house was stirring.”
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
To hear the lark begin his flight,
And singing startle the dull Night,
From his watch-tower in the skies,
Till the dappled dawn doth rise.
John Milton, L’Allegro, l. 41
When shepherds pipe on oaten straws
And merry larks are ploughmen’s clocks…
Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost V, ii.
The association of the lark with dawn is so strong, poets even credit him with summoning the sun:
The busy day,
Waked by the lark, hath roused the ribald crows.
Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, IV, ii
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest,
Like a cloud of fire,
The blue deep thou wingest
And singing still dost soar
And soaring ever singest
Shelley, To a Skylark