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Axe valley


This is a broad, distinctive lowland river valley landscape with a wide floodplain, tightly meandering river course and valley sides which are formed by surrounding higher land. The valley sides have a strong hedgerow pattern with hedgerow trees coupled with small broadleaved woods and occasional farm orchards which give rise to a generally wooded character overall. Land use is mainly pastoral set within small fields in the upper tributary valleys, with larger fields and some arable within the main Axe Valley. The open valley floor and relatively loosely defined valley sides make the character of this valley rare in a Devon context. The tributary valleys of the Coly and Yarty are narrower and therefore more enclosed and intimate although they also have notable floodplains. Drainage channels are a feature, particularly in the central part of this character area, and settlement is focused on the river corridor at key crossing points just above the flood risk areas.  During the autumn, winter and spring this area has a ‘watery’ ephemeral and timeless quality. Towards its southern end the valley is closely flanked by steep wooded greensand scarp slopes and assumes a more tidal character where it cuts through the coastal plateau to the sea. In contrast, moving northwards, there is a more gradual transition from river valley to upland open ridge.

  • Context

    dca01-axevalleyThis area comprises the broad river valley of the Axe and its tributaries, principally the Coly and Yarty. The Axe valley is orientated north-east to south-west and the tributary valleys penetrate as a series of fingers into the East Devon Central Ridge to the west and the Wootton Hills to the east respectively. The higher land which surrounds the valley gives the area containment and visually defines the valley landscape unit. At the coast it breaks through the Sidmouth and Lyme Bay Coastal Plateau to form an estuary landscape with a strong maritime character. Inland the river continues north-eastwards, forming the boundary between Somerset and Dorset.

  • Constituent Landscape Character Types

    Constituent LCTs: 3A: Upper Farmed and Wooded Valley Slopes, 3B: Lower Rolling Farmland and Settled Valley Slopes, 3C: Sparsely Settled Farmed Valley Floors, 1E: Wooded Ridges and Hilltops, 4B: Marine Levels
    Part of NCA: 147: Blackdowns

  • Distinctive Characteristics

    • Geology comprises underlying mudstone, siltstone, limestone and sandstone bedrock on the valley sides with sand and gravel alluvial deposits within the floodplains.
    • The middle and lower reaches of the valley floor are typically broad and open while further north the valley floor narrows becoming more undulating.
    • Distinctive valley of the River Axe and its tributaries the Coly and Yarty which penetrate into the surrounding greensand ridges particularly to the north.
    • Meandering course of the river Axe and network of drainage ditches are features of the floodplain and maritime tidal marsh at the estuary and coast.
    • Strong hedgerow pattern with hedgerow trees coupled with small broadleaved woods, occasional farm orchards, and carr woodlands along tributary rivers particularly north of Axminster, give rise to a generally wooded character overall.
    • Mainly pastoral landscape within small fields in the upper tributary valleys; larger fields within the main Axe Valley and some arable farming on the floodplains and lower slopes.
    • Semi-natural habitats include water meadows, unimproved river banks, carr woodlands and species-rich pastures on the valley sides.
    • Many historic features including the Fosse Way Roman road and Roman town of Axminster, ancient lanes and greenways and the historic ruins of Colcombe Castle, Newenham Abbey and Second World War defences.
    • Historic settlements sited at old river crossing points just above the floodplain including Axminster, Seaton and Colyton and the villages of Whitford, Maidenhayne, Musbury, Kingsdon and Colyford
    • Elsewhere, a dispersed pattern of farmsteads scattered across the valley sides, often nestling next to spinglines.
    • Local vernacular includes cob and thatch buildings.
    • Generally open character with views across valley floor to gentle valley sides with more intimate, enclosed tributary valleys.


  • Special qualities and features:

    • Nationally valued landscape of high scenic quality, much of the area being AONB (northern section part of the Blackdown Hills AONB and southern section part of East Devon AONB).
    • High degree of tranquillity and remoteness in the tributary valleys.
    • River Axe is SSSI and SAC along its entire length; two further large SSSI sites on the valley floor (wet grassland).
    • Estuary habitats valued for their saltmarshes and mudflats (Seaton Marshes CWS) and waders.
    • Ancient woodlands, many of which are CWSs, on the valley sides particularly north of Axminster.
    • RIG site on former sand and gravel workings at Kilmington (terrace gravels containing exotic pebbles).
    • 17th and 18th country houses including Stedcombe House; and Woodend Park which contains notable veteran trees of national importance for their wood decay invertebrates and lichens.
    • Vernacular buildings of cob and thatch and village church towers that add to the picturesque qualities of the area.
    • Cultural associations with WG Hoskins who described Colyton as “singularly beautiful, with rolling green hills and deep combes”.
    • Second World War pillboxes within flood plain form a distinctive landscape feature.
    • Important area for recreation including walking and horse riding – area includes the East Devon Way long distance footpath which runs through the valley.

Forces for Change and their landscape implications:

  • Past and current

    • Past drainage of the watermeadows through the creation of ditches and planting of hedges resulting in a change to the open watery character of the floodplain.
    • Lack of management and removal of hedgerows due to agricultural intensification.
    • Growth of settlements (particularly Axminster where an industrial estate has altered the town’s nucleated form) affecting views up and down as well as across the valley.
    • Intrusion from the A358 north of Axminster, where it runs along the valley sides and affects the quiet remoteness of area; and from the A35 Axminster by-pass which separates the town from the valley.
    • Some areas of sand and gravel extraction on the valley floor and sewage works adjacent to settlements.
    • Railway line travelling along the valley floor between Whitford northwards through Axminster and into Somerset.
    • Depletion of mature tree and woodland stock due to historic loss of elm to Dutch Elm Disease.
    • Decline in the number of orchards.
    • Flailing of hedgerows to a ‘box’ shape has altered the lush, pastoral appearance of the landscape.
    • Development of large farm buildings resulting in visual impact; and conversion of old farm buildings to dwellings altering character.

  • Future

    • Trend towards changing crops including climate adaptation (e.g. growing of vines) and biomass.
    • Further pressure for development resulting in the expansion of Axminster.
    • Continuing decline in traditional woodland management threatening the age and species diversity of semi-natural woodlands.
    • Further intensification of agriculture along the valley slopes to support rising food demands, leading to an increased risk of diffuse pollution in watercourses and soil erosion.
    • Increased autumn and winter precipitation leading to higher water levels and consequent increases in poaching of river banks and flood risk in lower catchments.
    • More intense summer drought conditions as a result of climate change, leading to a drying out of wetland habitats including riparian woodlands and meadows.
    • Global warming and notably sea level rise resulting in the backing up of river flows, increased flooding upstream and incursion by brackish tidal waters.
    • Uncertainty over future agri-environment scheme funding, putting conservation of wildlife habitats at risk.


  • Overall Strategy:

    To protect the landscape’s watery and open character, historic settlements and pastoral valley sides and its important picturesque qualities. Opportunities to manage and extend areas of water meadow and distinctive features such as traditional orchards are sought.  Views to church towers are retained along with the historic character and form of the villages; with any new development or infrastructure carefully sited and sensitively integrated.


  • Protect

    • Protect the openness of the lower valley landscape by discouraging any further enclosure of floodplain meadows and resisting development pressures including further infrastructure.
    • Protect the historic settlement pattern of villages at river crossing points or on land just above the flood plain.  Prevent the linear spread of development along river valleys wherever possible, to maintain their unspoilt character.
    • Protect the traditional building styles and materials, including use of cob and thatch.  Any new development should utilise the same materials and building styles wherever possible and respect traditional scale (whilst seeking to incorporate sustainable and low carbon construction and design).
    • Protect the views to village church towers which stand out as key landmarks across this landscape.

  • Manage

    • Manage the floodplain and network of ditches to allow the river course to naturally meander and to allow natural processes to take place.
    • Manage existing water meadows and wet pastures through appropriate water management and grazing regimes both to enhance their wildlife value and function as flood prevention.
    • Manage existing pattern of small broadleaved woodlands on the valley sides and carr woodlands along river courses through traditional techniques including coppicing; explore opportunities for community utilisation of coppice residues as a low carbon fuel source.
    • Manage hedgerows and discourage close flailing to allow a more traditional and loose form to hedgerows.
    • Manage and extend areas of wet grazing marsh and meadows in the estuaries through appropriate grazing and traditional land management regimes, both to enhance their wildlife value and function as flood prevention.

  • Plan

    • Maintain and enhance water meadows where they have been lost through drainage or improvements to enhance water storage capacity (to reduce incidence of downstream flooding).
    • Restore and manage orchards on mid slopes close to farmsteads and explore opportunities for the creation of new ones, including community orchards to promote local food and drink production.
    • Plan for rising sea levels and flood risk through the creation of new wetland habitats upstream to compensate for those which may be lost due to increased brackish water conditions.
    • Maintain water levels and river valley floor habitats with sensitive water abstraction including monitoring and management of surface water run-off quality.